What Content Marketers Get Wrong about Click Worthy Titles

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I want to change the conversation about writing emotional headlines; a regular practice of the content marketing world, it is not actually effective. If another magical headline writing formula was a solution for your business, you wouldn’t need to read this article or the many others  related to this topic that are out there.

If you want your blog titles to be memorable and clickable then put these headline writing formulas into a larger context. This can be done when we develop a methodology based on psychological frameworks. Let’s move this dialogue from generic fill in the blank statements to creating authentic experiences which resonate far and wide.

The Secret of Emotional Headlines is the Ability to Invoke Self Identification

Don’t be quick to dismiss BuzzFeed. Every content marketer should be envious of the amount of love their articles get. It might seem like a gimmick, but there is a concept their best writers and editors understand. It is a concept of psychology referred to as perspective taking.

Jack Shepherd, editorial director for BuzzFeed, opened up to Forbes writer Deborah Jian Lee on the discussion of what makes content go viral.

…Write content that speaks to a specific identity… These stories are typically ‘just compelling and resonant and interesting, but also something that people will want to share with their friends’ because it allows them to discuss a part of their story.

That is the definition of perspective taking, and it is not the same as empathy. Empathy is when we “feel” the emotions of others. Perspective taking instead is a cognitive ability. It is the understanding that other humans have a mind, which you cannot access, and in that space they have their own motivations, experiences, and ideas of the world which may differ drastically from your own.

The emotional connection you feel when you read a BuzzFeed article comes from your own rumination because the content confirms your personal story. They didn’t have to know you personally, but they did get your attention by speaking to your authentic experience.  This may also be related to a heuristic called confirmation bias. We tend to seek out information which confirms our view of the world.

Takeaway: An evocative headline doesn’t catch our attention because of the emotional value of the words, but how it directly speaks to our own personal perspective. Using this approach is nuanced because if a writer does not question their own biases they might reinforce stereotypes instead of creating content which speaks to the true experiences of readers. When done successfully content can generate empathy with readers which may lead to more sharing.

Further Reading:

Be Mindwise: Perspective Taking vs. Perspective Getting

When Perspective Taking Backfires

Writing Viral Headlines like BuzzFeed not Clickhole

BuzzFeed and UpWorthy’s viral success stories created loads of imitators, but after some time the effectiveness of these headlines fell flat. Did they become less evocative? No, this style gained the label clickbait. People began to feel taken advantage of when the articles they clicked through do not live up to their hype. This phenomena is excellently satirized by the writers from the Onion on the website ClickHole.

The sage advice of not over promising is scientific fact. One of my favorite studies of last year concerns a team of cognitive neuroscientists who discovered a mathematical formula which could accurately predict a person’s momentary happiness. The researchers discovered that “there is a surprisingly consistent relationship between rewards, expectations, and happiness.”

When we seek out information in an online search there is a risk involved with our click. A headline is a tease and if it is effective we build up a positive expectation of what lies on that landing page in anticipation. If the content doesn’t live up to that expectation, we will momentarily be more disappointed than we might have been with a less ambitious headline.

Takeaway: The experience of happiness is relative to our expectations of an event. What matters most is that your headline creates a realistic expectation of your content. If you can over deliver on your headline’s promise, then readers will experience a greater momentary cognitive reward which could boost sharing.

Further Reading:

Expectancy Violation Theory in Contemporary Scholarship

Expectancy violations theory

But…What About That Article with the 10,000 Data Points which Identifies all the Best Words Used in Top Performing Headlines. Huh, What about that?

There are many, many, many great articles citing data driven research on headlines that work. I am linking to them here because I think they are excellent observations and useful, but they lack context.

As Joe Cardillo wrote:

Simply put, the data doesn’t lie but the people using it do, or at the very least our belief systems influence what we think it means—something that’s dangerously at odds with the common mantra ‘the data will tell you what’s important. – What data can do, and what you will need to do yourself

One of the dangers we face by relying on large amounts of data for decision making is hidden biases. Social data has issues of reliability and validity at this aggregate level. The results do not generalize well.

I would like to read about how content marketers have taken these insights and applied them to a measurable intervention along with their before and after metrics.

Emotional Headlines are More than a Content Marketing Tactic

What content marketers get wrong is their belief in a formula or gimmick that will generate viral sharing. Nothing replaces the need to understand your target audience. Strategy developed organically from the perspective of the customer’s authentic experiences replaces the need for reliance on such tactics.

What headlines have worked for you? Can you identify how they fit into the personal narrative of your customers?

Photo credit: e-strategyblog.com via photopin cc.

15 thoughts on “What Content Marketers Get Wrong about Click Worthy Titles

  1. JoeCardillo says:

    Wow, this is on point Susan. I think we’re seeing even news orgs messing this up, not just content marketers. The idea that there is a formula / easy way to get the data to tell you what your headline should be, it’s troubling because it doesn’t take into account the context that you talk about. Contextual questions like, what is your audience’s existing perception of your brand? What do they get from you that they can’t get elsewhere? What could they get from you that they currently get elsewhere, and why?

  2. hessiejones says:

    JoeCardillo Susan_Silver Great Stuff Susan!  I think with the fragmentation of media, we are NOW more competitive in vying for the reader’s attention more than ever.  It’s why people like me have looked to apps like http://www.aminstitute.com/headline/ as a way to help drive more eyeballs.

    The reality is, like you said, knowing who your target audience is is the first step in developing content and the headline that speaks to their challenges.  There has to be as much integrity in the headline as there is in the content itself… otherwise what’s the point?

  3. JosephGier says:

    This might be a bit of a non sequiter …We all show stop taking shortcuts and read the print.. So much ill could be undone or remedied if we just sought to understood the content. my point is we really need to understand what is being said and that goes beyond headline and make the attempt to absorb the context being presented 
    Yes, the headlines are important but I believe there is a lot of derivative context in the headline alone and its not nearly as important as making sure the emotional charge of the headline is being communicated in the content.

  4. susansilver says:

    hessiejones JoeCardillo Susan_Silver Thanks. It seems like from your comments that the message came across. I am fine with formulas when they are applied with forethought and planning. But often I see only the insights and it would be great to see more applications in the wild which were successful to tell us if they work and how and when they work.  

    I am realizing the importance of the discrete data set. I now want to do a comparison from our side as a follow up. How does ArCompany use headlines effectively. How do they score on these measures and what sort of traffic are we getting from search and social because of them. It would be an interesting study. I don’t know of someone who has discussed what it is like trying to work with these formulas.

    But when I look at a company like Buffer, they might use these insights but they apply them with a very particular and consistent voice. So I also want to look at brands with strong followings and see how well they conform or don’t. I guess that is a case study in the making. I’ve already sampled a few out of curiosity.

  5. hessiejones says:

    Mark_Harai thanks Mark! Happy New Year BTW:)

  6. susansilver says:

    JosephGier Agree with you on the last part. I think that much of the work that I do behind the scenes here is always trying to grab the context of what is happening on the topics i write about. I think this is why we might be moving forward and seeing more longform content performing well. It isn’t always true that longer means more relevant, but it might draw in more context which makes them a good launching points into discussions.  More likely that there will be a good match between the tile and the content within.

  7. Susan_Silver says:

    joecardillo Thanks Joe, just grateful people seem to get the gist of the argument. I think we can do better for our audiences.

  8. Mark_Harai says:

    hessiejones Happy New Year, Hessie! And best to you and yours in 2015 : )

  9. hessiejones says:

    Mark_Harai aww! Thanks Mark! You too:) when are we meeting IRL?

  10. Mark_Harai says:

    hessiejones After winter… haha!

  11. hessiejones says:

    Mark_Harai I think I’d come to you especially at this time of year!

  12. Mark_Harai says:

    hessiejones Indeed it is! Maybe we’ll meet in person in 2015… Will be in Philippines and U.S. several times this year : )

  13. hessiejones says:

    Mark_Harai very cool!

  14. elzahra66 says:


  15. nickbeaumont says:

    janlgordon AmyMccTobin Really excellent post, thanks for sharing.

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