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Simple headlines attract more online news readers

Online news consumers tend to click on simpler headlines that use more common words and more legible writing, according to a new study.

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

Additionally, a follow-up experiment showed that average readers paid more attention to simpler headlines and processed them more deeply, unlike journalists, who paid the same attention to complex headlines.

The results show that although stories may be complex, simplicity is the key to attracting the attention of busy online readers, he said. .

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

The Post would write two or more different versions of a headline for a story and show them to different readers on the website over a short period of time and see which one was clicked on the most. Any starter who “won” became the starter in the future.

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

The findings showed that headlines with more clicks almost always scored higher on a simplicity index developed by the researchers. The study identified three characteristics of simplicity in the winning headlines: they used common words; they avoided analytical 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’s website, which scored relatively high on complexity and had fewer clicks from readers: “Are Meghan and Harry spilling royal tea on 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 you 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,” Markowitz said.

He 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 through A/B testing for the online news site. worthywho publishes viral and uplifting content.

The researchers examined data from 22,664 experiments and 105,551 unique headlines from January 2013 to April 2015. As in the Washington Post In the results, the simplicity index was positively associated with the frequency with which readers clicked on the headlines.

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

In another experiment, online participants read 10 headlines and indicated which headline they would likely 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 the headlines used as controls.

The results showed that when target headlines were rewritten more simply, they were selected more frequently (69.4%) than control headlines (30.6%). But when target headlines were rewritten using more complex language, they were selected less frequently (44.5%) than 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 asked whether that phrase appeared in the headlines they saw.

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

“This suggests that people pay more attention to simple texts than complex ones,” Shulman said.

But not everyone does that: specifically not journalists who make their living writing stories and headlines.

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

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

In fact, journalists didn’t even think like the average reader. The researchers asked the participating journalists to choose what Washington Post headlines they believed gained among the general public in A/B testing. Journalists did nothing more than take the risk of correctly identifying what the public liked.

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

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

So if just 0.10% more readers click on a story because it has a simpler title (2.1% vs. 2.0%), that would equate to a difference of more than 200,000 readers.

The findings of this study complement previous research de Shulman and his colleagues found that using jargon when writing about politics and science causes readers to tune out.

Together, they advocate to journalists that simplicity in writing is key.

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

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

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