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.
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.
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?
Susan Silver is a community focused strategist who uses social data insights as the foundation of her work with ARCOMPANY. Her philosophy “Humanity in Data” is informed by a background in cognitive-behavioral psychology. She is making positive change in people’s lives, and the world, with thoughtful communication on behalf of her clients.