Is what you read manipulating you? The answer will surprise you

By James C | Tuesday, 10 March 2015

In the last couple of years, we've seen an explosion of clickbait headlines and links.

They started with the obvious-spam ads in the sidebars about "weird tricks" and "secrets" and "tips" for losing weight that (apparently) were almost always about acai berries. Or the tedious ads for hair loss, teeth whitening, muscle gain — always the same format, always something that you "won't believe". And you won't believe them for good reason, because they weren't true.

Then the idea seemed to go into the mainstream overnight: with the likes of Upworthy, Buzzfeed, Cracked, or a hundred other sites promising to be sharing the hottest viral content, and even current affairs TV shows getting in on the act, wheeling out clickbait headlines with every story or episode. It wasn't enough to be descriptive or interesting, everything needed a teaser and exaggeration.

But in case you were wondering how effective these kinds of headlines are, Quartz reports:

Researchers at BI Norwegian Business School found that tweeted headlines containing questions got an average of 150% more clicks than ones that were just statements. And when researchers included self-referencing words ("you", for example), the increase rose to 175%.

That's what's making a difference here: include a question and you get 150% more clicks. Include the word "you" and you're up to 175%. It doesn't even stop there:

The second study tested four products for sale on a Norwegian e-commerce site, and found that self-referential questions ("Is this your new iPhone 4?") could actually increase clicks by as much as 300%. Even when they averaged the four items the net effect was a mean boost of 257%.

So that's up to 300% more clicks than a headline with just a statement? No wonder we can't get away from clickbait.

XKCD: "20th Century Headlines Rewritten to Get More Clicks"

It raises some questions, though. These studies tell us that clicks increase, that much is obvious: but on the e-commerce site did sales also increase 300%? Was the number significant? And on sites that use clickbait headlines, while more people might click through to the story, do they stay on the site longer? Visit other pages? Watch the whole video?

This story appeared on Viralnova: "What He Found In this Abandoned Nursing Home Is Amazing. I'd Never Expect It There". The headline could be considered unimaginative for a story about finding graffiti in an abandoned building. The graffiti was both amazing and unexpected, but I feel like the headline could have been better written. Why not: "Check out the amazing art found in an abandoned nursing home" or if we want to try the Norwegian way "Is this artwork what you would expect to find in an abandoned nursing home?"

Surely there can be a middle ground here? Being engaging, interesting, and even descriptive that doesn't promise you what you won't believe, or can't imagine.