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New research reveals that in the fierce competition for online readers’ attention, news headlines using simpler language tend to get more clicks. Simply put, easy titles mean more readers.

In the fast-paced world of digital media, news outlets are in a constant battle to capture eyeballs and engagement. With an overwhelming abundance of content vying for readers’ attention, what makes some headlines stand out from the crowd? A series of studies published in Science Advances suggests that the answer may lie in simplicity.

Researchers from Ohio State University, Michigan State University, and Harvard University partnered with The Washington Post and Upworthy to analyze tens of thousands of real-world headline experiments. Their findings were striking: headlines using simpler, more readable language consistently garnered more clicks than their more complex counterparts.

This preference for simplicity held true across both traditional news sites like The Washington Post and uplifting content hubs like Upworthy. The implications are significant for newsrooms seeking to expand their reach in an increasingly crowded online landscape. By prioritizing clear, accessible language, journalists may be able to cut through the noise and connect with a broader audience.

Notably, a follow-up experiment revealed that it’s not just the clicks that favor simplicity – readers also pay more attention to and process the information in simpler headlines more deeply. In a test of recognition memory, phrases from simpler headlines were more likely to be remembered than those from complex headlines.

“The Washington Post doesn’t have to turn into clickbait, but we have to acknowledge that the average user has thousands and thousands of choices of what to read – and they prefer simpler writing,” says Hillary Shulman, lead author of the study and associate professor of communication at The Ohio State University, in a media release.

This suite of studies provides compelling evidence for what the researchers dub the “simpler-writing heuristic.” In essence, when faced with an onslaught of information, readers use linguistic complexity as a cue to decide what to engage with. Simpler writing acts as a magnet for attention.

However, there was one noteworthy exception to this pattern. When the headline experiment was repeated with a sample of professional journalists, the preference for simplicity vanished. Journalists displayed no partiality for simpler headlines and exhibited strong recognition memory regardless of linguistic complexity.

This divergence hints at a potential disconnect between how news is written and how it is consumed. While journalists may approach articles with meticulous care, the average reader appears to employ a more economical reading strategy, using surface-level cues like readability to allocate their attention. Understanding this gap could be key for news organizations striving to serve their audiences effectively.

Here’s how the researchers pulled back the curtain on our online reading habits:

Methodology

  • In studies 1 and 2, the researchers analyzed headline A/B tests from The Washington Post (nearly 8,000 experiments) and Upworthy (~23,000 experiments). These tests compared the click-through rates of simpler vs. more complex headline variants.
  • Headline complexity was assessed using metrics like word commonness, readability, analytic writing, and character count.
  • Study 3 tested recognition memory for simple vs. complex headlines in a general population sample using a signal detection task.
  • Study 4 repeated the procedure from Study 3 with a sample of professional journalists and writers.

Key Findings

  • Across Washington Post and Upworthy experiments, simpler headlines consistently received more clicks.
  • In the controlled experiment, general readers selected simpler headlines more often and exhibited better phrase recognition for simpler headlines.
  • Professional journalists showed no preference for simpler headlines and had equally strong recognition memory regardless of headline complexity.
  • Journalists performed poorly when asked to identify which headlines readers had clicked on more, suggesting a disconnect between writing and reading perspectives.

Limitations To Consider

  • The field experiments looked at clicks/engagement but couldn’t control for all potential confounding factors.
  • The controlled experiments had participants select headlines in a contrived setting which may not fully capture real-world browsing behaviors.
  • The journalist sample in Study 4, while diverse, may not be representative of all journalists.

The Bigger Picture

This research illuminates the cognitive shortcuts we use to navigate today’s overwhelming information ecosystem. The simpler-writing heuristic appears to be a potent force guiding readers’ attention. For news outlets, embracing linguistic simplicity could be a valuable strategy to compete in a crowded field and ensure important stories get read.

However, the fact that journalists appear immune to this heuristic raises thought-provoking questions. Do years of close reading build up a resistance to surface-level cues? Does this difference in approach lead writers to misjudge what will resonate with their audience? Further exploration of this reader-writer gap could yield insights for crafting content that both informs and engages.

At a broader level, this work underscores the power of language in shaping what information we consume. In an era of misinformation and polarization, understanding the subtle sway of linguistic complexity is crucial. By utilizing the simpler-writing heuristic, purveyors of reliable journalism may be able to draw more readers to high-quality content.

Of course, simplicity isn’t everything. Compelling stories, credible reporting, and novel insights will always be essential. But in the ruthless competition for attention online, a little linguistic simplicity might go a long way. News organizations that can marry substance with readability may just find the secret sauce to cut through the digital din.

As we navigate an increasingly complex media landscape, this research offers a simple yet powerful insight: sometimes, less really is more. In the battle to inform the public, news outlets would be wise to remember that how we say things can be just as important as what we’re saying.

StudyFinds Editor-in-Chief Steve Fink contributed to this report.

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StudyFinds sets out to find new research that speaks to mass audiences — without all the scientific jargon. The stories we publish are digestible, summarized versions of research that are intended to inform the reader as well as stir civil, educated debate. StudyFinds Staff articles are AI assisted, but always thoroughly reviewed and edited by a Study Finds staff member. Read our AI Policy for more information.

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