By Prafull Sharma

Eight out of 10 people will read a headline, but only 2 out of 10 will keep reading.”

This is an alternate take on what pioneering advertiser David Ogilvy mentioned in his famous book, Confessions of an Advertising Man, published in 1963. It’s been over five decades since then, and although he probably never conceived of an all-pervasive media such as the Internet, his observation still holds true today, even online.

Thankfully for us, since Mr. Ogilvy shared his observation with the world, there’s been a lot of research that explains why he was right. Indeed, today we have much to learn from modern psychology that has reverse-engineered the way our brains work, giving us deep insights into how we can make engaging headlines to keep our audience reading.

We can learn a lot from popular “clickbait” articles that circulate on social media, which  have short, sweet, to the point, (emotionally) engaging titles, though not necessarily the most well-written content. To be truly successful online, you have to learn how to employ the same tactics, but back them with valuable content to beat clickbaiters at their own game. Here are some tips to do just that:

1. The Power of You

We all want what’s best for ourselves and are naturally on the lookout for what we think will make our lives better. Your audience is no different, and this awareness leads into one of the most important practices in crafting highly-clickable titles: include your target audience in them.

People like being acknowledged. By directly referring to your target market (e.g. “business owners” or “dog lovers”), or including a simple “you” or “your” in your headline, you make it crystal clear that your content was tailor-made. This, in turn, increases the chances they’ll keep reading, especially once they see that the subject matter does indeed match their interests. Remember, personalization matters and you should be writing for your audience, not you.

2. Make it Rare and Urgent

Going back untold eons, even before the birth of our species, proto-humans and their hominid ancestors have had to fight hard to survive, taking every opportunity they can to accumulate resources. That’s partly why we still respond to limited opportunities we think may be beneficial to us: our inherent biological and cultural “scarcity mindset.” It’s hard-coded into us; a part of our DNA passed down from our ancestors whose struggles for survival culminated in them passing on these self-interested genes.

It’s the reason we feel an urge to click on anything that tells us, “we have only X time remaining until Y is no longer available.” It’s a matter of survival!

Such titles also imply a promise of specialness. If customers respond quickly enough to the headline’s call, “before time runs out”, they’ll (feel like they) have something over those who missed this golden opportunity.

3. Surprise!

When we surprise someone, we grab their full attention. We now know why this happens, thanks to a study from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London.

The short version: our brains are wired to expect specific patterns. When those patterns are different from what they expect, our minds snap to attention to double-check reality.

One way to surprise your audience, for example, is to think of famous sayings that have been ingrained in them due to repetition. Then, “break the pattern” by swapping a word for a similar, unexpected one. Likewise, find a way to present your content in an outrageous-sounding way.

Do take care, though, not to misrepresent your content, or you’ll have crossed the fine line between creating engaging titles and being pure clickbait.

4. Once More, with Emotion

As many science fiction stories remind us, emotions are what make us human. At least, they’re an integral part of us.

Whenever something makes us happy, angers us, or generally causes some strong emotion, dopamine levels increase. We feel excited. In other words, we’re engaged.

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It would be best to keep in mind that different emotions can lead to different outcomes. That, in the long term, can be instrumental in forming a specific image for your brand. It’s one thing trying to make your audience feel happy or excited, to laugh, or wonder in disbelief. It’s another thing to anger, disappoint or sadden them. Even though you may get their attention, the association this makes with your brand will not be good for it.

5. Add Gaps to Your Information

This probably sounds strange until you learn about Russel Golman and George Lowenstein’s Information Gap theory. Their theory states that, when our brains perceive a gap between what we already know and what we want to know, there’s a strong emotional response.

To use this principle in your headlines, selectively withhold some information from your message. The simplest way is to replace specifics with something like a vague “this” or “what”, with the missing piece of the puzzle only a single click away.

6. Offer Value, Lists, and a Sense of Control

Our world feels chaotic. We always value information that can help us make sense of it, but even more so, we like being given clear instructions on how to solve our problems.

List articles are one way that promise to put some order to the chaos that surrounds us—especially numbered ones. In their case, make sure to mention the number of their points in your title. Numbers differ from their surrounding letters that make up the words in our vocabulary, and thus “pop out” to readers.

How-tos are similar, but instead of promising to place things in an easy to understand order, they offer solutions to specific problems. However, they should follow a particular formula, starting your title with “How to…” and then becoming more specific about what the reader will learn if they invest the time to read on.

Content for Humans, Not Robots

Buzzfeed might be considered the king of clickbait, but as its founder, Jonah Peretti, commented in an interview with Wired, it’s content created for humans. Not robots. They know what people want and create content for them. They’re not trying to artificially rank higher in search engines and are not underdelivering on promises.

Their content might exploit everything we talked about and more. However, as Peretti explains, from his point of view, “clickbait” is something that doesn’t deliver on its original promise. Buzzfeed’s content does, even if it’s only a list with five photos of cute baby pandas.

Like it or not, their approach dominates the Internet today, and could even be the beginning of a new form of journalism. As we’ve explored, you can employ their tactics while still being helpful and informative, offering real value to your audience.

Featured photo credit: Depositphotos