One of the first lessons a journalism student learns is how to structure an article. One of the best-known structures is the inverted pyramid, which puts the most important information in leading paragraphs. But headlines, no doubt, play a fundamental role in attracting audience, especially in an era of Attention Economy. One criterion for a good headline is whether it has the ability to get more clicks. And a headline with a question mark almost always works.
In one of his most famous articles, journalist Ian Betteridge makes clear despises on question headlines, saying that any headline ending in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” Even though there might be no facts or sources to back up a story with a questioning headline, journalists still want to run it, just for convenience (ironically, Betteridge violates his own "law of headlines" in another article.) Betteridge’s judgment may be correct for some headlines, but it cannot apply to all question headlines, many of which are undoubtedly successful.
More Questions Marks, More Clicks
Online marketing has pervaded for years, and the amount of clicks a website receives has become a measuring stick for a site’s success. For example, if a website has a daily count of hundreds of thousand clicks, then they editor can be more confident when facing advertisement sponsors. Social news company Buzzfeed focuses on offering the most shareable articles, which leads its writers to try a wide variety of methods to achieve the goal.
But usually, Buzzfeed headlines can be divided into two major categories: numbered headlines (“23 People Who Should Stay Away from the Beach for Awhile”); and questions. And questions work. “Which Mythical Creature Are You?” had more than 4 million views in total and 481 comments. Contrast this with “Citigroup’s Profits Plummet Thanks To $7 Billion Justice Department Settlement,” which only had less than 1,000 total views.
Despite the fact that the different article types may affect the number of views, the huge difference still implies that headlines with questions can create more engagements. According to research conducted by Trackmaven.com, out of the 1.2 million blog posts they analyzed, 94.89% did not include a question mark in the titles, but the 5.01% that did yielded 46.30% of social shares for the data set.
What’s The Magic Of The Question Mark?
Why would people like to click on the questions? What are the factors to drive such a behavior? Questions always deserve answers.
Another super-popular headline “Which ‘Golden Girl’ Are You?” has approximately 1.7 million total views. As for other question headlines, they often show up as choices, with certain or uncertain answers, such as “Crowdfunding for Equity: Are We There Yet?” This type of headlines, though simple, has a quite clear sign, which offers both positive and negative proofs, and let the readers to make the call. The headline rightly triggers people’s curiosity, making readers wonder, and thus, click.
Curiosity is the main reason why question headlines can get more clicks. Let’s take a look at this headline, “San Diego Council Votes to Increase Minimum Wage to $11.50 by 2017”. What does it look like? A statement. This narrative sentence clearly tells you what the article will focus on. The salary in San Diego will rise. And, that’s all. You probably do not need to finish the whole article, because you already get the idea from the statement headline.
Given the fast pace of modern society, what’s the point to read an article completely if readers can receive the major information from the headline? And because the number of an article’s views decline, meaning less clicks on it, meaning the site’s popularity suffers.
Questions also lead to discussions, especially relating to a hot topic. People always have a passion for talking to others and sharing their opinions. If a headline has the quality to get its readers to think, then the article succeeds.
Let’s take a look at this headline, “Why Tech PR is an Impossible Job”. Nowadays, organizations have PR people to handle the relationships with the society, and it seems that there’s no exception. Then why does the author use the word “impossible”? At this point, readers may think why tech companies are so special that the PR people are useless. Some readers may believe in the importance of the PR work, and refute the article, while some hold an opposite position. Arguments or debates usually are effective ways to expand a thing’s influence.
How Can You Improve Your Headlines?
Okay, since we recognize how important a good question headline is, then the next task will be improving it. Here’re some tips you may keep in mind when you have problem in thinking of an impressive headline.
Never tell your readers something they already know. “Something” can be common knowledge, such as “doing exercises is good for you”. Even changing it to a question sentence, like “Why is Exercising Good for your Health?” is unlikely gets eyeballs. Though it has a question mark, the headline here, in fact, tells you nothing. Like mentioned before, the psychological factor is the curiosity. The headline ought to offer something new and valuable, and make readers feel that it’s meaningful to spend some time to read the article.
In addition to not mentioning common knowledge, using surprising descriptions is another method. It’s human nature of looking forward to being stimulated, which can be proved by the prevalence of horror films. Here’s one example: “25 Photos You Definitely Need To See Before You Die.” In some countries like China, media try not to use words like “die”, suggesting they will make negative impressions. Instead of death, using phrases like “in your whole life” is one of their options. However, most people in western countries hold an open mind towards death, and other similar topics, which has led their bursting point much higher. In fact, the article above had more than 80 thousand view in less than six hours.
The third tip is about self-reference. As the social media continues to pervade, people tend to focus on themselves in online communication. Research conducted by BI Norwegian Business School shows that self-referencing question headlines, including “you” or “your”, are significantly more effective for driving clicks and generating higher readership then rhetorical question headlines.
Like the famous motto states, fame always follows fortunes. In a world where the online economy is becoming dominant, the more clicks you get, and the easier you will succeed. To increase the clicks on your websites or the blogs, the first step, for the content itself, is coming up with an effective headline. The logic here is quite clear: how can you think people will click on your articles if your headlines fail to attract them?
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