Why Readers Click (or Don't) on Stories

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I tend to mull a lot over headlines and subject lines. Earlier today, for another newsletter, I began with this subject line: "Southwest Airlines Listens, Then Creates Popular Videos." But then I read a very good article from the American Press Institute titled Why We Click on News Stories by Natalie Jomini Stroud, director of the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas at Austin that made me change it.

She reported on a study that asked "56 different news users to 'think aloud,' or share exactly what passed through their minds while browsing news on a site and device of their choosing." Out of that study came this theme: "Headlines that conveyed most of the information about the story—even though the topic may have been of great interest—did not earn clicks."

So I changed my subject line to The Best Place to Get Ideas for Videos. It did well. Here are more results from this study:

Reasons for readers clicking on a story include:

  • The personal relevance or social utility of news.  
  • Stories that speak to people's lives and their need to be informed in social settings (like the proverbial water cooler).
  • News about nearby locations (not as prevalent in niche publishing) and unexpected events.
  • News about topics that seem familiar (but you just can't come up with that name).
  • Headlines conveying disheartening news attracted attention up to a point—as long as it's not too disheartening.
  • Light-hearted news also resulted in clicks among those looking for stories that would lift their spirits. These shouldn't be overlooked. See Facebook.

Reasons for not clicking include:

  • "Timeliness or recency of the article were rarely mentioned as reasons to click on a story. Further, few said that they chose articles because they agreed with the conclusions reached."
  • The news seems too obvious or you've already read it somewhere before.
  • Stories that seem to require background knowledge, or drops you into the middle of an unfolding story.
  • A long perceived load time or presence of videos. This may be because participants want to conserve their time and data plans. Our mobile audiences are climbing.

In an article for Buffer last year, Ash Read made an important point.  Different headlines work for different platforms. For Facebook, longer, descriptive headlines might work best. "One trick I like to use for writing descriptive, conversational headlines," he wrote, "is to think about how you would describe this story to a friend in a coffee shop and use the same, warm, friendly tone in your headline."

For Twitter he said you should state a benefit and generate curiosity. For search, he advised frontloading your title: Social Media Tips: 10 Ways to Grow Your Social Media Audience. Buffer uses a tool called Yoast SEO which allows them to set various headlines for different channels. This means that every post they write can have up to four separate headlines at any one time.

Stroud expresses similar thoughts about being flexible. She believes that understanding why people click can help publishers present news in different ways. "For some, a set of short headlines is sufficient—this would support creating newsletters and quick summaries. Allowing people to save articles for later can help those who don't have time to read longer stories during certain times of day. Finding ways to adopt a user-centered approach in news design could be the true answer to more clicks."

I kind of echo what one commenter to Read's story said: "...our best efforts online will be experienced when we stop trying so hard and start being more human, conversational and real."

And stop mulling so much. 

Ronn Are you subscribed to the SIPAlert Daily?
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…