Here are some recent headlines from some of our social content meccas:
It seems that it’s no longer enough to write a piece about videos of stars, but each video has to be “insane” or “powerful” and it has to “blow you away” or “change the course of humanity.” If the sarcasm mark existed, I would be using it after every sentence.
Admittedly, the majority of these headlines are from Buzzfeed (as the largest producer of such content and thus the likeliest to get picked on), but no one is a stranger to these types of headlines at this point. If you’re on any social networking platform – no, the Internet – you’ve seen them. And for a good reason too. These headlines are engineered to generate clicks.
Popular content websites like Buzzfeed have mastered the trick that makes posts go viral. Writer Mark Pollard has an amusing take on this trick. He says: “After much analysis, I’ve unlocked the hidden secret of online success. All you have to do is write headlines using this structure:
Number + Adverb + Adjective + Topic + Focus + Benefit/Effect.“
It’s been a long time since I last diagrammed a sentence. (Source: Joe Mortis.)
Using this formula, you get stupendously hyperbolic titles such as “5 Incredibly Mind-Boggling Outfits That Immediately Make You the Center of Attention,” or “25 Unbelievably Miraculous Last-Minute Turnarounds That Define Sports History.” Don’t those sound like they could be hot off the press any moment now? I’m willing to be that some variation of these already exist.
If we break down Pollard’s formula, we can distinguish some traits of click-bait headlines that help to make them so enticing to readers.
Number: People like lists. There’s something about knowing exactly how many items you’ll be reading through to understand the writer’s full point – it brings an overarching perspective. An additional plus is that lists force conciseness, so arguments come out more clearly. Linton Weeks at NPR also argues that lists “relieve stress and focus the mind” because lists help lay out the course of the day, letting us focus on doing the tasks rather than remembering which tasks to do.
Adverb and Adjective: One surefire click-getter is emotion. Many studies have been conducted on how to “go viral,” with one common conclusion: “More arousing content should be more likely to spread quickly on the Internet and should be more likely to capture public attention.” Articles that evoke strong emotions, such as anger, awe, or surprise, were more viral than dry ones about, say, bingo hour in your local community center.
We will skip the topic and focus, as the headline has to get to the subject matter of the post somewhere in there.
Benefit/Effect: These are last words that the writer has to gain a click, and they’re well-used in appealing to the reader’s sense of practicality. These last words should say to the reader: “I carry important information that you need to hear right now! Click me!” People want to read content that’s most relevant to them, so what better way than to tell them exactly what they’ll gain out of clicking on your article?
These kinds of headlines have it all: the emotional appeal (pathos), the logical appeal (logos), and an organized structure. (For you nerds who are wondering where ethos went, it’s with the author’s and the website’s reputation.) So is it any wonder that most content websites gravitate toward these headlines? It’s a formula scientifically proven to hit all the triggers, including the hit counter on your webpage analytics.
One last thing. Despite the success of these headlines, they tend to get a lot of flak for being too extreme to the point of hilarity and ineffectiveness. So while this article may not have changed your life like the hyperbolic headline promised, I’ll leave you with something that might: Downworthy, an app released earlier this year, replaces excessive hyperbole in your headlines with more realistic ones. Does anyone want to read “This Guy Was Exploring His Grandpa’s Attic. What He Found Is Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working”?