Are you more likely to click on a question headline?

Published: February 11, 2014

“New research suggests that self-referencing questions increase the readership of tweets, blogs and other online communications.”

Marketeers are desperate to understand what makes you and I, quite literally, click. With all of us exposed to hundreds of new tweets, blog posts and pop-up banners each week, how can professional communicators cut through the noise and ensure material is read?

New research suggests that question headlines are significantly more effective than declarative headlines for driving click-through rates and readership. Self-referencing question headlines (those that include “you” and “your”) are particularly effective, generating higher readership than rhetorical question headlines. The effect is observable on Twitter, but also works on auction sites similar to eBay.

In an article in the Social Influence Journal, researchers from the BI Norwegian Business School illustrate the varying effectiveness of different headline configurations during an experiment on Twitter over four months[i][i]. The examples the authors provide of alternative headline formations are: “Power corrupts” (control condition); and: “Is your boss intoxicated by power?” (question headline with self-referencing cues). Headlines like the latter are shown to be between 50% and 350% more effective at driving click-throughs on Twitter.

The authors observed a similar effect when posting adverts for consumer products on a Norwegian auction and shopping website, FINN™. For example, the headline: “Is this your new iPhone4?” (question headline with self-referencing cue); generated significantly more clicks than: “For sale: Black iPhone4” (control condition). Interestingly the approach had a negative effect on the advert for a washing machine, an impact that the researchers found hard to explain.

So why are question headlines, especially those with self-referencing clues, so effective? Researchers, advertisers and journalists alike have long recognised the ability of a question headline to grab the readers’ attention. Question headlines with self-referencing clues go a step further by making the message appear more personally relevant, encouraging the reader to relate the message to his or her own knowledge and beliefs. Psychologists have also observed that self-referencing is effective for enhancing cognitive processing, triggering arousal and interest, further increasing the level of attention given to the message.

While not without its flaws and limitations (not least of which is relative small scale of the experiments), this research provides an interesting insight into the relative effectiveness of different headlines on Twitter and similar, computer-mediated communication. The experiments illustrate the importance of questions and self-referencing cues as a means to cut through the noise, improve click-through rates and boost readership. What will you be doing to improve your online communications?

[i][i] Linda Lai & Audun Farbot. “What makes you click? The effect of question headlines on readership in computer-mediated communication.” Social Influence 2013.

Simon Maule

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