A Conductor study from July 2013 highlights an increasingly pervasive problem in the digital media industry. There is so much content being produced on a daily basis that the supply of content far outstrips what the attention economy can sustain.
Every day, there are 2 million blog posts, 294 billion emails, 864 thousand hours of video created, and that’s before you take into account social media, instant messaging and other digital interactions. As a result, 80 percent of readers only read the headline of an article and either skim or skip over the rest.
The common response to these types of studies is: focus on writing better headlines to grab readers’ attention. For example, this infographic from BlueGlass published on Mashable suggests 50% of your emphasis when writing should be on the headline based on Copyblogger’s 50/50 rule of headlines.
The Conductor study reaches similar conclusions, citing the importance of headlines on click-through rates, but also acknowledges that they focused solely on A/B testing different combinations of headlines, but did not look deeper into why certain headlines resonated better with readers, or any other facts that could have contributed to higher click-through rates independent of the headline.
What Influences Engagement?
Not all users behave the same way — a user’s intent when scrolling through a list of content impacts how s/he behaves toward the options. For example, if you’re performing queries on Google looking for a specific answer, you’re going to interact with the results differently than if you’re aimlessly browsing a site like Buzzfeed.
Furthermore, how you receive the content and how it is presented to you (beyond headlines) also impacts engagement levels.
• New Visitor Vs. Return Visitor: Anyone who has visited your website previously already has an opinion about your site, content and even individual authors. The user’s perception of the quality of content can increase or decrease the odds of clicking on a link. A good example of this is readers who subscribe to your content through feeds or newsletters — you don’t need to sell headlines to these readers because they’ve already bought-in.
• Social Proof: Content received through your network on social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn has already been filtered for quality and relevancy. Oftentimes, people sharing this content don’t even use headlines and opt for commentary instead.
• Search Markup: Implementing markup such as rich snippets and Google Authorship along with breadcrumbs and curating your sitelinks (removing/demoting) can help content stand out in results and lend it an air of credibility.
The Attention Economy
A common theme in every copywriting piece I’ve read about headline writing is to grab the reader’s attention. Copywriters rely on using formulas designed to trick the reader into clicking an article, usually by making the reader believe in artificial scarcity, promising unbelievable results, generating controversy, overselling urgency or importance among other things.
The implication you get from much of this advice is that the relationship between an author or publisher and a reader is a onetime event that you need to capitalize on. The fact of the matter is it takes time and effort to demonstrate a consistent level of quality in your content and build the kind of relationship and readership that encourages people to read beyond the headline (or irrespective of the headline).
Grabbing someone’s attention is not the same thing as getting someone to care — and you cannot force someone to care by manipulating them through a catchy headline.
Getting People To Care
In an interview quoted on PaidContent.com, Upworthy co-founder Peter Koechley asked the question, “How do you get people to care about important stuff amidst the avalanche of content we all face each day?” You can start by asking yourself a series of questions.
1. Why do I care about what I’ve written, and why should other people care? Is it personally or professionally relevant to others as it is to me?
2. What does what I have written accomplish for me, and what will it accomplish for others? Does it personally or professionally help others achieve their goals?
People are surprisingly adept at determining what will create value for them and therefore is important enough to care about. When you go back to the statistic we’re trying to address — 80% of readers only read article headlines and do not click through to the content — with a little thought, we can infer possible reasons behind this that may go beyond headlines.
A majority of the content published today is not original content or otherwise valuable content, and readers know this and are able to filter this kind of information quickly and efficiently. When you try to be everything to everyone, you lose yourself in the process. When you focus on volume over quality, you dilute the value readers associate with your brand.
Content that is unique, exclusive, comprehensive, utilitarian and relevant to the reader will not be skimmed over. Chris Brogan has some good thoughts on this, but I disagree with his last point — opt for comprehensiveness over brevity and utility over entertainment.
Using Trust & Authority Obviate Filtering
When you’re competing in a market where supply far outstrips demand, you need to obviate the need for filtering, and the best way to do this is to offer a consistent and differentiated value proposition. This core tenet of content marketing takes time, effort and careful nurturing of the authority loop.
How do you create trust and establish yourself as an authority? Assess your readers’ needs and wants, gratify those needs selflessly and comprehensively, and build a level of trust between the reader and your content that sets you up as an authority.
Over time, the reader will know that you are an authority who always provides value because you have demonstrated this in the past and developed trust. Do not dilute the value you provide through the temptation of viral marketing (forgoing quality and relevancy for mass market appeal).
An example of this is how a reader may perceive and relate to well-known tech journalist Om Malik as a writer. An article he shared over Twitter – Some of my favorite posts (by me) of 2013 — could be interpreted is self-promotion and self-congratulatory; but, is it? Absolutely not.
The reason goes back to the level of trust and authority Om has built up over time by demonstrating the value he creates for those who choose to read his columns. This roundup is more a chance for us laggards to catch up on what we missed in the last year rather than Om patting himself on the back.
Quality Content Doesn’t Need Engineered Headlines
Looking back, I cannot help but feel like every piece of advice outlined in the Conductor study is something that would alienate the discerning reader from your content.
1. A majority of the respondents actually preferred traditional sentence case instead of all capital letters. This makes sense because all capital letters have a poor readability score and project an image of low editorial standards. Also, while you may be able to rationalize yelling at a college-aged audience when writing about the zombie apocalypse, you would not want to do the same when writing about marketing macro-trends to the VP of Marketing at a major corporation. Did you know that Google AdWords has specific editorial guidelines that prohibit the use of excessive capitalization?
2. A little over a third of the respondents preferred headlines with numbers in them (i.e., the list format). While there is a usability advantage to using lists (you can read a few items, stop and then continue when you want), lists are also reductive by nature and leave readers with nothing more than a fleeting sense of being informed — you get a morsel of information about x number of items but are not well-informed about any of the points. A better approach is write a comprehensive piece of content and use unordered and ordered lists within it as relevant; but, do not use the listicle format as a guiding principle.
3. If you’re making a subjective assertion, do not present it as fact; a superlative should only be used when you can back it up with data. Superlatives are generally indicative of a lazy marketing effort and an attention grab — they make an obvious statement that you are trying to sell rather than let the content speak for itself.
The approach you take to headline writing sends out some very strong signals to the seasoned reader about who you are, what your motivations/intentions/goals are, and how much value can be derived from what you have to say. One thing I’ve learned from thought leaders that I respect, trust, and read regularly is their headlines accomplish a very simple task — they inform the reader about what to expect from the paragraphs that follow in the simplest most straightforward terms.
On the other hand, articles that I discover through un-vetted sources use headlines to sell. They use headlines for grabbing attention, to make up for lack of demonstrated authority or trust, and to make up for providing inconsistent or diluted value.
The most important distinction to make is between grabbing someone’s attention and getting someone to care. The former is a short-term and sometimes manipulative strategy that relies on formulaic headlines while the latter is a long-term objective achieved through hard work, developing trust and authority and letting excellent content speak for itself.
In simple terms, ask yourself — can I distinguish between a headline from The New York Times and The Daily Mail without explicit context? An informed reader and writer can, and that’s the point I’m trying to make.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.