Humans crave certainty.
In evolutionary terms this makes complete sense – where there is uncertainty, there is risk, and risk is the enemy of survival and reproduction.
This plays out in so many areas of life:
💰 Most people would rather have a small guaranteed pay rise than the promise of large but uncertain commission.
🍔 Most people would rather order food they’re familiar with, even if it means they don’t discover alternatives they might enjoy more.
📺 Most people would rather watch an episode of a familiar TV series than the award winning foreign film they know little about.
🏠 Most people would rather rent out their house for 5 years at a discount, than worry about finding a new tenant every 6 months.
Well it turns out that engaging with content is no different – those headlines that frame expectations (albeit with a healthy dose of curiosity) get more clicks than those that don’t. A lot more.
So here are just a few of the ways your headlines can exchange ambiguity with clarity:
🔢 Lists – they were core to how Buzzfeed turned clickbait into a science. “40 of the most powerful photographs ever taken” sets your expectations both practically (in terms of length/format) and emotionally.
⌛ State length of read – each morning when I visit my news app, I’m presented with a series of headlines accompanied by the number of minutes they will take to read. When I’m in a rush I click on the 2 or 3 minute articles. When I’m not and there’s a subject I have a deep interest in, I hunt for those of 8-10 minutes. Either way, I know what to expect the other side.
() Brackets placed at the end of the headline to state what the thing is – (Interview) (Video) (Ultimate Guide).
🔎 Detail – people often say that headlines should be short and punchy, but data tells a different story. Longer headlines almost always get more clicks than shorter headlines. The Daily Mail, which achieve one of the highest average page views on the internet, often use headlines of over 20 words(!), while sites like The Economist may begin with an intriguing play on words, but then follow up with detail – “When The Drugs Don’t Work – The Rise Of Antibiotic Resistance” Or “Down The Rabbit Hole – The Promise And Perils Of Decentralised Finance.”
🌈 Maintain a consistent narrative arc – popular TV shows are often criticised for being formulaic, but there’s a damn good reason why they are. If you want people to become regular readers/listeners/viewers, you need to develop a familiar native arc that sets expectations before the user has even seen the headline!
All this said, just keep in mind one thing – none of it is an excuse for lacking imagination. Like a smooth talking buddy enticing you on a night out, the best headlines place a reassuring arm around your shoulder whilst dangling a carrot of possibility before your eyes.
After all, people crave certainty, not boredom.