Engagement with news is now coming from social media, and the headline is often the only indicator of what the story might be about. And so, clickbait headlines are increasingly used by news organisations to draw traffic and keep readers on the site. The Engaging News Project recently tested clickbait headlines to understand how and why readers engage with news content. As PR pros create more news content, and press releases are published directly online, the results provide a blueprint for smart PRs to adjust the headlines of their press releases and owned sites to improve engagement.
The study looked at the reactions of 2,067 US residents to three headline types alongside four news brands (USA Today, BuzzFeed, Fox News and MSNBC). The headlines were centred on three topics – the economy, immigration and the US congress. The three headline types were: traditional news headlines, forward-reference headlines (similar to traditional news headlines, but add an element of uncertainty by emphasising the unknown) and question-based headlines.
Compared to traditional headlines, the study found that question-based headlines were more likely to generate a negative reaction to the headline. In addition, readers had more negative expectations of the story related to the headline and were less likely to engage with the story. Forward-reference headlines had the same impact on the reader as a traditional news headline.
The media source also had an impact, but it was not as significant as the headline type. The study compared the appeal of a nonpartisan news source, USA Today, with a digital news source (Buzzfeed) and a news source that was incongruent with a person’s partisanship (Fox News or MSNBC). Headlines from digital and partisan news sources generated more negative reactions to a headline, and had more negative expectations of a story compared to the USA Today. Unsurprisingly, readers were more likely to engage with content from the digital news source.
A recent study from the Solutions Journalism Network, provides further guidance on how to craft the perfect headline. The study looked at solution vs. non-solution headlines. A solution-oriented headline provides a solution to a pressing social problem. It found that adding mystery to a headline increases click-though, as does an action item or solution. Direct appeals to the reader (“you”) does not affect click-through rate.
What can the PR pro learn from clickbait engagement:
Add mystery, avoid fear
Forward-reference headlines can add a level of mystery and unease to a story, which does help to increase click-through. Beware forward-reference headlines can also add a level of fear to a headline, which may reflect badly on the brand.
Tailor your headline to the news source (and likely audience)
This is not new nor is it surprising: one headline does not fit all. Create a variety of versions of a press release, with different headlines that are likely to resonate with the outlet and their audience.
Suggest a solution to a problem OR add a call to action
Readers are inundated with news headlines from multiple sources. They do need some convincing to click through. Add a solution or a call to action to give the reader a reason to click the link to the story.
Don’t ask a question and avoid “you”
We used think that questions made for great headlines – after all, they add mystery and suggest a solution. Readers, it seems, are wise to the ploy and more likely to view the article in a negative light. Similarly, using “you” makes little difference to a headline, so avoid it.
Headlines have always been an important part of a news story. They are now critical, and clickbait headlines are an extreme example of how to ensure reader engagement. The Engaging News Project’s research shows how consumers are currently engaging with headlines, and what prompts them to click, learnings that can easily be applied to press releases to aid pick-up and click-through. After all, we’ve all clicked a link based on an irresistible headline.