Upworthy’s success demonstrates importance of clickable headlines

Viral sharing site Upworthy is like “chocolate sauce on brussel sprouts,” David Carr wrote, and the site’s more than 9 million monthly viewers are licking their lips. The mission of the site, founded last March by former leaders of Facebook, Reddit and BuzzFeed: Give information-packed links a makeover with eye-catching, clickable headlines, and watch as they go viral; watch as headlines inspire people to learn about issues such as gay rights, women’s empowerment and climate change.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | March 7, 2013

“When we look at the media landscape, we see there being more of a demand problem than a supply problem – how do you get people to care about important stuff amidst the avalanche of content we all face each day?” co-founder Peter Koechley said to paidContent.

The answer to Koechley’s question: It’s all about headlines, which 80 percent of viewers read while only 20 percent will read the rest of an article, according to CopyBlogger. So while Upworthy asserts that it’s “not a newspaper,” news outlets could take a page from the site, which requires staffers to write at least 25 headlines for each post. The site then runs tests to determine the most clickable headlines to generate share-worthy posts, and the results are positive. PaidContent said that the website is the “fastest-growing media company on the internet.” Moreover, the site makes enough revenue from collecting emails for non-profit organizations to remain ad-free.

 Koechley told Wired that tests show an item’s traffic can differ by as much as 500 percent simply because of the headline. “The headline is our one chance to reach people who have a million other things that they’re thinking about, and who didn’t wake up in the morning wanting to care about feminism or climate change, or the policy details of the election,” he said.

 With 140-character Twitter streams perhaps shrinking readers’ attention spans, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen said headlines have become increasingly important, according to Wired. It’s important to create what Upworthy founder Eli Pariser called “a curiosity gap”: the urge to find out more information about a subject that generates clicks, Carr reported.

 The same goes for the subject line of emails, which Democratic digital consultant Joe Rospars famously wrote for Obama’s recent presidential campaign (“Do this for Michelle”; “Some scary numbers”). He told Wired he wouldn’t even send an email on behalf of clients without testing several subject lines. Such “ruthless” testing is essential for success on the web, he said.

The danger, however, is that these super catchy headlines can be misleading, The Awl noted. Instead of providing information, such headlines convey interaction, with operative words such as “you” and “everyone,” requests to “watch” and “read,” and affirmations that a link provides “the real reason” behind a certain phenomenon. Jonah Peretti of BuzzFeed, which also relies on headlines to generate sharing strength, acknowledged the problem therein.

“Headlines optimization is a dangerous game,” the CEO told Wired. “Realtime click data causes many publishers to over-optimize and manipulate readers into clicking stories they don’t actually want to read. … In most cases it would be better for readers if the information was included in the headline so you only click if you actually are interested in reading the whole story.”

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