It’s no secret that if you want to use content marketing to drive targeted traffic to your web site, you’ll need to be strategic in social sharing. By the end of 2014, social sharing had surpassed organic search as a referral source for web sites, accounting for 31% of online referral traffic. With so many sites rushing to claim their share of socialized traffic, content and channel managers are left constantly seeking ways to up their game.
Enter the mildly ambiguous, overly sensationalized formulaic headline. It’s the crutch of all mundane content, and the security blanket of content marketing headliners around the world. It’s a concept born out of good marketing psychology but executed in a way that makes life more and more difficult for the content marketers of the world.
Think about the last time you scrolled through your Facebook News Feed. Chances are, you noticed a pattern in the headlines of the stories scrolling by.
The pattern goes a little something like this:
[Observational Statement] + [Transitional Phrase] + [Shock/Emotion] = Ideal Conversation Headline
At first, we tended to see these types of headlines showing up for really impressive, unique and engaging stories. Stories like WestJet’s Christmas Miracle campaign or the Tulane University students who met, became best friends, and then learned they were half-sisters. At that stage of the content game, the headlines were the natural byproduct of amazing stories. Of course, the headlines were also attention grabbers, due to a psychological theory called the “Information-gap Theory.”
Introduced in 1994 by Carnegie Mellon behavioral economist George Loewenstein, the theory is based on the idea that curiosity is created by the gap between what we want to know and what we actually know. Loewenstein explains that the spark of curiosity bursts into a roaring flame because our brain is driven to fill the gaps in our knowledge. What’s more, it actually causes us a measure of pain to NOT know an answer once we’ve realized there’s something we don’t know the answer to. It’s this knowledge gap that keeps us reading bad books or watching the ending of a terrible movie. The quality of the experience may be painfully bad, but our NEED to know how the story ends heightens our curiosity so much that we are unable to put down the book or leave the theater.
This need is also at the center of all those Facebook headlines you see in your News Feed.
Let’s consider one of the headlines from earlier.
Headline A: She Pours Baking Soda Into the Washing Machine, and What Happens Next, SO COOL!
Most people are aware that baking soda has quite a few uses beyond making chocolate chip cookies. They know it can be used to brush teeth and as a cleaning agent. The headline above expects people to know that baking soda CAN be used in non-traditional ways. It creates a “gap” in the knowledge by implying that, if you use baking soda with your washing machine, something “SO COOL!” will happen. The headline writer is relying on the gap they’ve just created to motivate you to click through to watch the four minute video.
Of course when you do, you simply find a video of a woman talking to the camera about ten different ways you can use baking soda clean your home. Not exactly something that justifies the wording in the headline, but now, you’ve already clicked and watched.
It’s a pattern we’ve all experienced countless times – clicking a link to see something interesting only to be met with absolutely mundane content at best. It’s also a pattern that is slowly killing the power of the curiosity gap.
Let’s take a look at another headline.
Headline C: It Looks Like an Ordinary Shell, But When He Pokes it, My Jaw Dropped
After our experience with the last headline, you’re likely expecting the diver to poke the shell and see a small fish swim out. Or, perhaps that it opens up, and we spot a pearl. After all, most of us see half a dozen or more of these headlines each day and have learned they rarely deliver on their promise.
In this instance, the resulting link is actually legitimate. It talks about the kleptomaniacal habits of the veined octopus, a species that searches out abandoned shells and uses them to create a fort for self-protection.
Another possibility is that you would have completely bypassed the headline because your curiosity gap has been so taken advantage of in the past that you no longer trust social media headline writers. Like the boy who cried wolf, content marketers have caused the social media villagers to come running so many times, they’re now snubbing their noses at even the genuine content. It’s almost as if I should have titled this article “They Wrote an Over the Top Formulaic Headline, What Happened Next Will Break Your Heart.”
Are We about to See the End of Curiosity Gap Driven Headlines?
The truth is, we’re probably just cresting the top of the hill when it comes to over-hyped headlines as a social media traffic driver. The trend will likely last for another year or so, especially for sites whose sole purpose is to drive traffic and page views rather than sales and conversions.
Smart content marketers who are focused on sending qualified leads into content-driven sales channels are already testing new ways to present their content. They know psychologically-based formulas only last so long and that timespan drops dramatically when those formulas are used and abused like this one has been.
Can We Still Leverage the Curiosity Gap?
The good news for marketers is that, while overuse is putting the final nails in the formulaic headlines outlined earlier, the curiosity gap is still (and will continue to be) a very real thing. The challenge for marketers will be in figuring out how to offer up enough information to spark the gap. For some, it will simply be a matter of changing the presentation and wording in headlines, while others will rely on visual cues sparked by images or videos.
A great example of curiosity gap content marketing is the “How to Make Rainbow Shots” video created by the folks at Tipsy Bartender back in 2011 that is STILL making the social media rounds today. The content introduces and reinforces the gap through words and visuals.
Headline: How to Make Rainbow Shots
Impact: Those who are interested in shots will wonder if each individual shot is a rainbow, or if a row of shots might be a rainbow. This opens up a curiosity gap of wondering what exactly is meant by a rainbow shot.
Impact: Consumers now have a visual representation letting them know the rainbow shots are a line of shots poured from a single shaker but represent a rainbow of colors. This opens up a curiosity gap of wondering how this is accomplished.
Impact: In the opening thirty seconds of the video, a bartender is shown pouring a line of ten shot glasses with what ends up being a full spectrum rainbow of colors. This creates the knowledge that such a thing is possible, yet opens the curiosity gap of wondering how it’s done.
It should come as no surprise that this video has more than four million views and is still regularly being shared to social media channels nearly four years after it was originally posted.
How Do I Properly Leverage the Curiosity Gap?
Once you’ve grasped the concept of the need for the gap, the biggest thing to keep in mind is the need to avoid sensationalism. Amazing content doesn’t need to be hyped up. It simply needs to be presented. Hyper-sensationalist headlines only try to overcome poor quality or lackluster content, and social media readers are quickly catching on. This means creating high quality content that will be of genuine interest to your target audience should always be the first priority.
Secondly, in a world where people have more choices than time, you need to give them a reason to click. Sometimes, this means actually telling them the meat of the story in the headline itself. A great example of this is the tragic story of 13-year-old Izabel Laxamana, who recently leapt to her death from a bridge after being social media shamed by her father. It’s quite telling that I bypassed the story the first few times I saw it simply because the headlines didn’t actually tell me what happened.
It wasn’t until I saw an additional headline that mentioned she had committed suicide that I was actually prompted to click to read the story, which is a perfect example of how desensitized we’ve come to ambiguous, sensational headlines.
Create the gap, but by all means, create the gap. But do it by having something of value to offer. Your readers and your bottom line will thank you for it.