Bad News

“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

I think every parent known to mankind has imparted this knowledge to their children. Who exactly coined the saying is a mystery, but the idea is clear: it’s best to always be positive. Isn’t it shocking to see a new study from Outbrain that suggests NEGATIVE headlines do better than positive? Not really.

Our Attraction to the Forbidden

For whatever reason, we humans have an untamed hunger to do exactly the opposite of what we’re told. If someone tells us that we can’t date a certain someone, we do everything in our power to woo that person. If we’re told we aren’t to enter a room, we do everything possible to get a glimpse inside. We have an insatiable attraction to the forbidden. From this point of view, it makes sense that negative headlines draw us in more than positive.

Outbrain published a study in which they sampled successful headlines (or headlines that resulted in click-through rates) from 65,000 paid link titles that ran in the Outbrain network from April to July 2012. That’s a lot of titles! The results of the study are as follows:

  • Headlines containing positive superlatives (“always” or “best”) performed 29 percent WORSE than headlines with negative superlatives.
  • Headlines containing negative superlatives (“never” or “worst”) performed 30 percent BETTER than headlines with positive superlatives.
  • Outbrain’s study concludes, “The average click-through rate on headlines with negative superlatives was a staggering 63 percent higher than that of their positive counterparts.”
  • Outbrain also states, “These results were replicated in a subsequent headline study that included data from the months of August – September 2012.”

Why are people more attracted to negative headlines versus positive? No one really knows, and if there is a definitive answer, no one is talking. But here are the theories:

  1. Positive headlines are overused and have become clichéd. In other words, we’ve seen them so often that they no longer hook our interest.
  2. Positive headlines have become letdowns. We’ve read so many pieces about the “best” way to do something that we’re sick of it. We’re ready to learn the WRONG way of doing it so that we can avoid unsavory mistakes.
  3. Positive headlines make readers question the writer’s motives. When’s the last time you read an article about the best something or other and wondered, is the writer getting a kickback for their endorsement?
  4. Negative headlines shock. Wait a minute! That product I was thinking of buying is on a list of the 5 WORST to use? I better read this article… Negative headlines tend to be unexpected and catch us with instant intrigue.
  5. Negative headlines are perceived as impartial and authentic. Apparently, readers see a negative headline as impartial or unbiased. Even if the review itself paints a positive outlook, it’s the initial negativity in the headline that makes the reader think the review is authentic.

And maybe we gravitate toward negative headlines simply because they’re opposite of what we’ve been programmed to gravitate toward. Regardless of exactly WHY we click through to that negatively headlined article or blog, the point is that this is what we DO. So, if you’re a small, medium or even large business, how can you put the results of this study to use? It’s pretty simple: try using headlines with a hint of negativity and see what happens, see if your audience responds favorably.

Headlines Aren’t That Important!

Really? You think so?

If you’ve followed our blog for any length of time, then you’re no stranger to some of our standout pieces about how to craft catchy headlines. In fact, one of the favorites around these parts is this great blog entitled, Writing Persuasive Headlines with the FAB Formula.

Headlines are seemingly little yet immensely powerful pieces of content. A lot of folks underestimate the power of a headline and subheadings, thinking that they are labels readers don’t pay attention to. If you’ve ever thought this way, then consider a few quotes from a Search Engine Land article entitled, Forget Reading! Web Content Is Meant To Be Skimmed:

  • “Content? I won’t read your stinking content!” This direct quote from the above mentioned article is actually the first subheading. I’m going to share a little secret with you: when I’m researching, I pull a lot of source material. I skim over most of it; stopping to read an opening paragraph or two ONLY IF the headings or subheadings catch my attention and relate to my research topic. When I saw this subheading, my immediate thought was, Oh, snap! That’s beyond negative. The writer in me cringed because (insert soap box) you dang well better read the content I put my hard word, time and effort into—or at the very least, skim it!We call the folks who don’t read content cover-art shoppers. They’re those folks who judge a book by its cover. They look at pictures and links until they find something that interests them, and then it’s a coin toss as to whether or not these non-readers will actually read. These folks form a prime audience of infographic viewers, and you can create a catchy negative headline for them by building it into an infographic. Never made one before? Check out HubSpot’s how to on creating an infographic in an hour or less.
  • “It’s elementary, my dear reader.” This is our second direct quote from the Search Engine Land article. To me, it was a bit of a letdown after the previous subheading. I skimmed over it without pause, but for the sake of this breakdown I went back to it. You see, you have another type of faction in your audience: the avid reader. These folks are the diehards. They are likely to read every single word on the page. The power packed thing that gets them to the page is the main headline or title.
  • “Skimming is what I do, darlin’.” Now we’re talking! Here’s the last direct quote from the Search Engine Land article, and it’s also the final subheading of the article. It’s the one I was looking for. In the content marketing industry, we copywriters are constantly catering to the skimmers because they tend to make up the majority of any audience. These are the folks—like me—who scan a page with purpose. For them, the main headline or title has to grab their attention and reflect relevancy to their search. Then, the subheadings have to be equally catchy for the skimmer to stop and read more thoroughly or click through on a link.

Did you notice that regardless of whether the reader is a non-reader, diehard reader or skimmer, they all focus on main headlines, titles, subheadings, or a combination of the three first? That’s why you don’t ever, under any circumstances, underestimate the power of headlines. They will quite literally make or break your content in terms of readership. So, now that we’ve presented our argument in favor of never underestimating these little guys, how can you create the perfect headings and subheadings?

Headlines Don’t Spontaneously Materialize or Combust

The Internet is crammed with millions of compelling pages of content all vying for attention. News flash: they are all titled and most of them have at least one subheading. Headlines don’t spontaneously materialize. They were created by somebody; somebody who put some amount of forethought into them and thought they’d hook the audience. Headlines don’t spontaneously combust either, meaning if they work they don’t suddenly implode on themselves and stop working. The trick is finding a style that works and sticking with it.

Positive headings have kind of been a staple for…well…for as long as I can remember. What about you? Ever since I set foot in a conversion driven environment I’ve been told to “spin the negatives into positives” and “stay positive.” It kind of makes sense that people in general are sick of sugarcoating. They don’t want marshmallow fluff. They want truth. And we all know the truth sometimes hurts because it’s not so positive!

So, how do you create gripping headlines? We’re going to revisit some points we covered back in July of 2013 in our blog entitled, Web Content Writing: 4 Ways to Create Compelling Headlines. But we’re going to add something new:

  1. Be concise. Nobody wants to see a never ending headline. And for the love of Pete (whoever he is), nobody wants to look at a headline that takes up 5 lines on their mobile device. I’m not kidding! I’ve seen headlines that take up 3 lines on my computer monitor and 5, almost 6, on my mobile. Those things should be illegal. They burn the eyes! There’s no golden rule for headline word or character count, but you get the idea. Your headings should reflect the content of the piece, but be crisp and concise. Skimmers, avid readers and non-readers alike will thank you.
  2. Be informative. You headline has to indicate what the piece is about. For example, there’s nothing more frustrating than reading a title like, “10 Ways To Be More Productive At [Insert Your Thing],” getting all excited thinking this is what you’ve been looking for, and then reading (or skimming) an article that had absolutely no helpful advice for becoming productive at whatever it is that you’re into. Seriously? What was the writer thinking? Suddenly, you burn a name into your brain without even trying and will never look at anything by that writer and/or company again. Don’t jip your audience by creating a false headline and that goes for subheadings, too.
  3. Target a broad audience. Use your headings and subheadings to attract a diverse audience. Here’s where a little negativity starts to come in. I’ve read a million articles about how to beat writer’s block. If I saw an article about why writer’s block CAN’T be beat, I’d be tossing my skimming rule right out the window and reading that thing. Why? Because I’ve read all the positives about the subject and I still cope with it. You bet I want to read something negative, if only because it will feel good for a change. But I’m just a tiny .0001 percent of the audience. The broader your target, the more readership you’ll gain.
  4. Remain socially relevant. HUGE key here! It’s a foregone assumption and conclusion that your content is going to end up on a social media channel, whether you put it there or not (you had better be putting it there, by the way; social media is in, in 2014.) According to the Harvard Business Review, emotionally charged content is what goes viral. So charge up those headlines with emotion!
  5. Be negative, but not overly so. Ever hear someone say that bad news sells? The Guardian published an article that discussed this, and to quote the consensus and article headline, “The good news about bad news [is] it sells.”

Negative headlines are in. They sell. They grab attention. They are currently working better than positive headlines. But how do you taint your headlines without going overboard? It’s all about balance. Here are two of the easiest suggestions to try:

  • Incorporate one of these two words: “never” or “worst.” For example:
    • The Worst Mistake A _____ Can Make
    • _____, The Worse Product On The Market
    • _____, The Service You Never Want To Turn Down
    • 5 _____ To Never Use
    • 5 _____ To Never Break
  • Use a negative assumption or comment as a heading or subheading, and then use the following text to have an unbiased discussion resulting in either a pro or con conclusion.

It’s All about Audience Appeal

At the end of the day, the way we choose to craft our headings will be determined by our audience. Outbrain’s study indicates a strong likelihood that your audience will click through more often if you season your content with a negative heading or two. Remember, balance is the key. Don’t grow overly negative, as this could backfire. But throw in a little negativity here and there. It will give your audience an unexpected surprise that they’ll likely investigate.