Simple headlines attract more online news readers

Researchers evaluated more than 30,000 real-world field experiments from the Washington Post and the online news site Upworthy to see how readers reacted to headlines of varying complexity.
Online news readers:- Online news consumers tend to click on simpler headlines that use more common words and more readable writing, a new study finds.[Pixabay]
Online news readers:- Online news consumers tend to click on simpler headlines that use more common words and more readable writing, a new study finds.[Pixabay]

Online news readers:- Online news consumers tend to click on simpler headlines that use more common words and more readable writing, a new study finds.

Researchers evaluated more than 30,000 real-world field experiments from the Washington Post and the online news site Upworthy to see how readers reacted to headlines of varying complexity.

In addition, a follow-up experiment showed that average readers paid more attention to simpler headlines and processed them more deeply – unlike journalists, who paid just as much attention to complex headlines.

The results show that even though the stories may be complex, simplicity is the key to attracting the attention of busy online readers, said Hillary Shulman, lead author of the study and associate professor of communication at The Ohio State University.

“The Washington Post doesn’t have to turn into clickbait, but we have to acknowledge that the average user has thousands and thousands of choices of what to read – and they prefer simpler writing,” Shulman said.

“It’s in our democratic interest to figure out how to get people to pay attention to important information, and one way is to focus on how headlines are written.”

Shulman conducted the study with David Markowitz, associate professor of communication at Michigan State University, and Todd Rogers of Harvard University. It was published today (June 5) in the journal Science Advances.

In one experiment, the Washington Post gave the authors access to the results of what is called A/B testing of headlines.

The Post would write two or more different versions of a headline for a story and serve them to different readers on the website for a short period of time and see which one was clicked on more.  Whichever headline “won” became the headline going forward.

The sample included 7,371 experiments involving more than 19,000 headlines between March 2021 and December 2022.

Findings showed that the most clicked-on headlines almost always scored higher on a simplicity index developed by the researchers. The study identified three hallmarks of simplicity in the winning headlines: They used common words; they avoided analytic writing, which tends to be more formal and complex; and they had fewer words per sentence and syllables per word.

Here’s an example of a headline that appeared briefly on the Post website that scored relatively high in complexity and had fewer reader click-throughs: “Are Meghan and Harry spilling royal tea to Oprah? Don’t bet on it.”

Its winning counterpart scored higher on simplicity and received more clicks: “Meghan and Harry are talking to Oprah. Here’s why they shouldn’t say too much.”

“Small efforts aimed at increasing the simplicity or fluency of language can increase the attention of casual readers – and also make them more informed and educated about the news of the day,” said Markowitz. 

The Washington Post, of course, is a well-known legacy newspaper with an established audience. Would the same results be found in an internet-only publication? The researchers tested this by looking at A/B testing for the online news site Upworthy, which posts viral and uplifting content.

The researchers examined data of 22,664 experiments and 105,551 unique headlines from January 2013 to April 2015. Just like in the Washington Post results, the simplicity index was positively associated with how often readers clicked on headlines.

“This result lends credence to the idea that the appeal of simple headlines is a general habit for casual readers, and not just those of readers of sites like the Washington Post,” Shulman said.

In another experiment, online participants read 10 headlines and indicated which headline they would be likely to select if they were reading the news.  In this experiment, the researchers rewrote some Washington Post headlines to make them simpler or more complex and included these target headlines among headlines used as controls.

Results showed that when target headlines were re-written more simply, they were selected more frequently (69.4%) than the control headlines (30.6%).  But when the target headlines were re-written using more complex language, they were selected less often (44.5%) than the control headlines (55.5%).

And why do people choose simpler headlines?  This same study suggests a reason.  Several minutes after reading the headlines, participants were presented with a three-word phrase and were asked whether that phrase appeared in the headlines they viewed.

Participants were more likely to accurately remember phrases that appeared in the simple headlines.

“This suggests that that people allocate more attention to simple texts than they do to complex texts,” Shulman said.

But not everyone does that: specifically, not the journalists who write stories and the headlines for a living.

The researchers repeated the same study with a group of professional writers, including mostly current and former journalists.  Results showed that headline simplicity did not affect their selection, attention or memory of headlines. They selected and remembered the complex headlines just as often as they did the simple ones.

“Apparently, those who write the news read it differently from those who merely consume it,” Shulman said.

In fact, the journalists didn’t even think like the average reader. The researchers asked the journalist participants to choose which Washington Post headlines they thought won among the general public in A/B testing.  The journalists did no better than chance at correctly identifying what the public liked.

“Journalists may not be the best suited to write headlines because they seem to read differently than the general public,” she said.

Shulman said getting the headline right is vital for attracting readers to stories at a place like the Washington Post.  The Post had an average of 70 million digital unique visitors to its site per month during the time of the study.

So if only 0.10% more readers click on a story because it has a simpler headline (2.1% versus 2.0%), that would still equal a difference of more than 200,000 readers.

The findings of this study complement earlier research by Shulman and colleagues that found the use of jargon in writing about politics and science causes readers to tune out.

Together, they make a case for journalists that simplicity in writing is key. 

“Many less credible and highly polarized sources online use simpler writing,” Shulman said. 

“The best way to increase demand for good, credible journalism is to realize that simpler is better. That’s the way to compete in the attention economy.” Newswise/SP

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