March 24, 2016

People Only Read Headlines These Days, But Smart Brands Can Still Make That Work For Them

Depending on what studies you read, somewhere between 60% (according to a Washington Post study) to 80% (as estimated by copyblogger) of internet users get most, if not all, of their news from headlines. Sharethrough's recent Millennial Study revealed that 1-in-5 Millennials only ever read headlines and never intend to click on anything.

The culture of skimming

In this headline skimming culture, the question for brands now becomes about how to embrace this new culture while still effectively telling their stories?

If the stats I mentioned seem shocking, consider how often someone asks if you heard about a recent cultural event like Apple vs FBI, Bruce Springsteen’s tardy note for a young fan, or the latest crazy Trump quote and your first response is, “well, yes, but I only read the headline.”

Brand content isn't exempt from this headline-skimming behavior. For instance, in the last few weeks I’ve had full conversations about these four brand-related stories from ONLY reading the headlines:

Red Lobster’s sales spiked 33% after Beyonce referenced it in her new song
Burger King is now selling grilled hot dogs
The new Samsung Galaxy line is waterproof
Tesla is creating a more affordable $35K Model 3 electric car

This culture of headline skimming has been detrimental to content creators who only make money when people click through to read or watch their content. Their natural response was to test and learn which types of headlines drove the most clicks. The result is the other side of the modern internet. Clickbait. Where CTRs are higher with headlines that follow rules like:

Telegraph the emotion: “You’ll cry when you see what this mother did for her daughter”
Listicles/Time Commitment: “5 Reasons Why…” or “In 30 seconds learn how to…”
Hyperbolic promises: “Easily win $10,000 in only 1 minute!” “Click here to become a winner now!”

This culture of headline skimming has been detrimental to content creators who only make money when people click to read or watch their content.

How brands can tell better stories in this new environment

Luckily, brands don’t need clicks to survive but they do need people to know their stories. So, to understand how brands can get beyond clickbait and adapt to a world where we only read headlines, Sharethrough partnered with Nielsen Neuro Labs to conduct a Neuroscience study around how people read native ads. The study confirmed that when sponsored branded headlines match the form and function of a site, readers actually read and remember the brand message.

This means that when brands write well-crafted headlines for their videos, articles and galleries and scale them across targeted social and publisher feeds, they fit in with the current climate of news and culture and people actually remember their story.

Luckily, brands don’t need clicks to survive but they do need people to know their stories.

Savvy brands are learning how to adapt to this headline skimming culture by developing marketing strategies designed to dominate headlines in three steps:

  1. Creating or aggregating content that reveals key truths about their brand
  2. Writing and testing headlines that prioritize grabbing attention over clickbait
  3. Scaling these stories and headlines through in-feed ads on social and publisher sites

For example, let’s look at Burger King’s launch for their new hot dogs. Instead of creating banners introducing grilled hot dogs that no one will read, they broadcast their message into social and content feeds, promoting existing news stories, TV ads and Snoop Dogg-starring videos all closely targeted to their audience:

Additionally, with muted in-feed autoplay video becoming the norm across social and publisher feeds, so are behaviors and conversations like this:

Friend: “Did you see the newest James Corden carpool karaoke video?”

Me: “Yeah, with Adele? Well, I saw it but I didn’t watch it”

Examples like's popular tongue-in-cheek Facebook ad or Budweiser (see below) and Quicken Loan’s Rocket Mortgage adding large, bold text to their TV ads are essentially creating captioned videos tailored to this exact environment. Brands are working out that most of their audience will either watch on mute online or on TV in loud, crowded places. Facebook and Twitter even combined forces to release joint research on best practices for in-feed video environments. The result is something with much greater magnitude, that fits to how their audience is actually reading, in a format that they are likely to actually remember.

Most brands realize that storytelling through content is a necessity to earn attention in a world where people are harder to interrupt. Understanding the power of well-written headlines is the next step to adapting to the behaviors of the modern internet user. It is no coincidence that the headline of this article reveals that exact truth. As such, I’m looking forward to my first conversation of:

“I saw that article you wrote about how brands can write better headlines.”

“Thanks! What was your favorite part?”

“Well, I only read the headline,”