What Makes Us Click (or Not) on Stories

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A colleague and I here also put together a morning newsletter of prominent media stories. Our lead yesterday—a day before International Women's Day—reported on the new edict at Bloomberg requiring any panel that a Bloomberg reporter/editor agrees to appear on must include a woman. "At the risk of stating the obvious," wrote editor in chief John Micklethwait, "the woman could be you."

Our subject line—No Women on Panel, No Bloomberg—fared well. But writing successful subject lines and headlines is not easy. We all want clicks and that doesn't always mean the best or happiest journalism. A study last year from the American Press Institute confirmed at least the latter. Headlines conveying disheartening news, like layoffs, attract attention—as long as it's not too disheartening.

I returned recently to the article that brought the study to my attention—Why We Click on News Stories by Natalie Jomini Stroud, director of the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas at Austin. The study 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."

Here are some reasons for stories that did earn clicks:

  • The personal relevance or social utility of news. What benefits are in it for the reader? Jim Sinkinson is smiling.
  • 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 and unexpected events. Although most SIPA members market nationally and even internationally in some cases, it does make sense to try to localize news when possible. I'm going to be more interested in health care or safety in Virginia (where I live) than Texas.
  • News about topics that seem familiar (but you just can't come up with that name).  
  • Light-hearted news also results in clicks. Though seeming a little silly, these shouldn't be overlooked. Run down the stories on Yahoo and you'll always see evidence of this. A quick look just turned up this one: Child Locks His Mother's iPhone for 48 YEARS After Repeatedly Entering the Wrong Passcode. I clicked.

Reasons for not clicking include: 

  • Timeliness or recency of the article was rarely mentioned as reasons to click on a story. Hence we have the success of repurposing. (A member wrote me recently to say that an article she just posted from 2013 still received 144 likes and 45 comments.)
  • Few said that they chose articles because they agreed with the conclusions reached. Sometimes, the opposite may be true—we click on something that takes an out-of-the-box viewpoint. 
  • The news seems too obvious or you've already read it somewhere before. My colleague and I try very hard to report first on some of the biggest stories.
  • Articles that seem to require background knowledge, or drop you into the middle of an unfolding story. 
  • A long perceived load time. That's still considered a huge reason why people will leave a page early, no matter how interesting the story appears.
  • A tight schedule. Longer news stories, for instance, don't make sense when people are checking the news briefly on the way to work. Know your audience and when it's best to send your news out.
"Finding ways to adopt a user-centered approach in news design could be the true answer to more clicks," concludes Stroud. My conclusion? Come to the SIPA Annual 2018 Conference in June and ask around what's working and what isn't.

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…