Headline Writing Research Suggests: Lose the Clickbait
Creativity Marketing Transformation

Headline Writing Research Suggests: Lose the Clickbait


Content marketing writers, beware: Your shockingly catchy headline writing may backfire.

Research shows that clickbait email subject lines actually decrease opens. Data solutions provider Return Path found that clickbait subject lines such as “You won’t believe this shocking secret…” tended to be highly successful at capturing web traffic but were among the least effective when it comes to email subject lines. The findings suggest that users are savvier than marketers think when it comes to clickbait digital marketing tactics.

Emails that used the phrase “secret of” in the subject line saw a near 9 percent decrease in read rates compared to messages with similar content and different subject lines. The word “shocking” in a subject line led to a 1.22 percent decrease in read rates.

Why We Can’t Help But Click

Despite user awareness about clickbait digital marketing techniques, attention-grabbing “You won’t believe…” headlines still proliferate the content scene.

Part of the reason: Clickbait headlines tap into human curiosity. Headlines with phrases like “You’ll never guess what happens next” create a curiosity gap—a cognitive form of deprivation that readers will try really hard to alleviate. So when users are hit with a post like this…

Celeb Style

…they can’t help wanting to know more.

That fundamental human curiosity has driven headline writing for over a hundred years. The term “yellow journalism” originated in the 1800s when newspapers used a comic strip to entice people to buy newspapers for the cartoons, not the news. Since then, media companies have used various shades of “yellow journalism” to inflate circulation numbers and get people to read more content.

Unfortunately, the “shocking,” “surprising,” or “unbelievable” clickbait headlines often accompany total dud content. The trick is delivering on the promise the headline makes. If the content isn’t as revolutionary as the headline promises, then readers will be disappointed.

The Clickbait Conundrum

As a digital marketing tactic, clickbait can easily go awry. Content that doesn’t align with a snappy, clickbait-friendly headline frustrates readers and ultimately fosters negativity toward the brand.

Social networks like Facebook are also wising up to the clickbait problem. Facebook is punishing clickbait content by demoting such content in users’ News Feeds. If people click on an article and don’t spend much time on it before returning to Facebook, the social site considers it poor quality—something users won’t want crowding their News Feeds.

Users’ poor response to clickbait email subject lines suggests that many people are ignoring clickbait altogether.

Before falling into the clickbait trap, digital marketing professionals should consider whether that clickbait headline represents the content accurately. If the headline is relevant, keep it—but if it’s just a gimmick to get eyeballs, reconsider. High caliber content doesn’t need to rely on a gimmicky headline to make it reader-worthy.

With that said, research shows that wording in headline writing does matter. Emotionally charged headlines tend to earn more clicks, the Content Standard noted. In email subject lines, superlatives like “fastest” and urgent words like “limited time” tended to score better open rates, Return Path found.

For more thoughts on creating compelling content (without a clickbait headline), check out Skyword’s 14 creativity tips for breathing new life into your content creation process.

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