Two weeks ago, Facebook opened up its Instant Articles platform to all publishers. And last week, Facebook announced that they will be updating their News Feed algorithm once again. The most recent change to their algorithm will look at predictions of whether a user in the Facebook mobile browser or on an Instant Article page will click into an article and actually read that article. Time spent viewing the article will continue to be a large factor in News Feed rankings.When Facebook makes changes, the publishing industry reacts with questions and concerns (see, for example, here, here, or here). That said, each time we here at Chartbeat have looked at Facebook referrer traffic in response to one of these changes, we haven’t seen any major effect across our network. Here’s what the median percentage of traffic from Facebook looks like across our network so far this year:Besides the typical weekday / weekend variations, traffic from Facebook is remarkably stable. We see Facebook driving between 40-50% of traffic on mobile devices during peak weekday traffic and about 12-15% of traffic on desktop devices during peak weekday traffic (note that these numbers exclude cases in which we have no data for referrer, as is the case for dark social). Even given the two big changes that happened this month, we are actually seeing a slightly higher-than-normal amount of referral traffic! This increased traffic is on the order of 3-4% for the median (smaller if you look at the average; 1%).It is important to note that these curves show the median proportion across our network. Individual sites respond in different ways, so you may have seen your traffic rise or fall in response to one of these changes. Sitting in the newsroom, it is hard to see the forest for the trees, so to speak — we have the power of statistics on our side. But from what we continue to see, the majority of publishers are incredibly adept at responding to Facebook’s changes and are keeping referral numbers high.
Beginning several days ago (the evening of Tuesday, 1/20, to be precise), you may have noticed a significant increase in the traffic on your site from LinkedIn: across our network, traffic from linkedin.com increased by over 3x. Below, we’ll detail why that change occurred, and what publishers should expect going forward.Over the past year, publishers have become increasingly interested in traffic from LinkedIn, as the LinkedIn team has been steadily working to improve their feed experience with the launch of their new mobile app and content platforms. Nevertheless, when looking at referrer traffic in analytics tools like Chartbeat, web traffic from linkedin.com has always seemed smaller than it should for such a large platform, especially given the volume of traffic we see from LinkedIn’s counterpart apps, which shows up under the referrer name lnkd.in.On January 20th, that changed when LinkedIn made a change to correctly attribute their traffic, some of which had previously been categorized as dark social. The impact of that change was immediate and significant. Let’s look at traffic coming from linkedin.com to sites across the Chartbeat network over the last six months, we see two trends: a steady increase over the year, followed by a huge increase at the end of January.
Zooming in on the right side of the graph, January, 2016, we can see the immediate change in traffic as the attribution change was pushed:If we compare numbers from just after the change to the same time during previous weeks, traffic from linkedin.com was up by over 3x.
Some sites saw more than 6x increases in their LinkedIn traffic.
While LinkedIn still isn’t a major traffic source for many types of sites, we expect that many business-, media-, and technology-focused sites will see LinkedIn as a top-10 referrer going forward.With Facebook’s change last year to help attribute all of their traffic, LinkedIn’s change here, and other work to come, we’re excited to see more traffic correctly attributed. We’ll continue to work with platforms in the coming months to bring their dark social traffic into the light.
When you work with as much data as we do—and trust me, it’s a lot—it’s humbling to show off the actual journalistic output we support. So, we’ve compiled a list of the 20 stories that held your attention longest in 2015 — for a grand total of 685,231,333 Engaged Minutes (or more than 1,300 years). These were stories that held you breathless. Enraged you. Inspired you. They were long-form reports, rich with narrative, like #1, 7, 11, and 17, which show that readers really do respond to quality (!!). They were live coverages of the attacks in Paris (#3, 4, 6) or the elections in Britain (#5). They were confessional essays and impassioned arguments, investigations and elegies. These are the stories that prove that digital storytelling isn’t just alive, it’s kicking ass.
The Atlantic | February
Wired | February
In-depth examinations of global newsmakers topped the list in 2015. Undoubtedly, this was the year of long-form narrative.
BBC | November
BBC | November
BBC | May
CNN | November
It goes without saying: Breaking news will always grab and hold attention.
The New York Times | August
Rolling Stone | December
The New York Times | February
CNN | August
The New York Times | October
Honed craft. Timeless themes. Notice that these Times pieces are even more examples of the power of narrative journalism.
ESPN | September
CNN | December
Gawker | April
Thought Catalog | April
The New York Times | January
Sometimes, the most engaging content is the most distracting. Readers will engage deeply with more than just serious news items.
ESPN | May
Deadspin | November
The Atlantic | September
The Root | September
Want to see how your stories stack up? Get in touch.
Update: a reader wrote in with the great suggestion of examining the effect of direct quotations in headlines. We found that headlines with direct quotes are 14% more likely to win headline tests than average headlines, making them the second most effective headline style we’ve tested. Please comment or get in touch with other suggestions for headline styles to examine!Writing a catchy headline that captures the attention of your audiences is, without question, an art form. As demonstrated in this headline, blindly following guidelines can lead to copy that sounds cliché at best, and actively off-putting at worst. Still, effective headline writing can make quite a difference in the success of your content — after all readers have to get to the actual articles somehow — so it can be expensive to get wrong. Chartbeat Engaged Headline Testing enables content creators and editors to become better headline writers. By testing copy in real time, newsrooms can challenge assumptions about what kinds of headline constructions work well and which don’t. Accordingly, we would like to turn that introspective lens on some of our own recommendations of how best to use our tool and then on some commonly cited “tips and tricks” for getting the most out of your headlines. As a foreword, while we have the luxury of being able to plot general trends in a rich dataset of over 100 publishers and almost 10,000 headline tests, each publisher and audience is different. We encourage you to take a look at your own data and put some of our findings to the test (literally!) to see what works best for you.
Verifying Best Practices for Engaged Headline Testing
To help our clients get started with our tool, we often give them a list of best practices. Here are a few examples:
- Test in Higher Traffic Positions
- Don’t be Afraid to Test Multiple Variants
- Test Distinct Differences
We like to encourage users to conduct headline tests that converge to a winner quickly, so that winning headlines spend the most possible time with the largest possible audience.This begs the question of what “converging to a winner quickly” means, and to answer it, I would like to appeal to our data for an overall view. The graph below shows a histogram of experiments by the number of headline trials — that is, the number of unique visitors that see one of the tested headlines: About half of conclusive experiments (those that determine a winner) need fewer than 2,500 trials to converge. More than 85% need fewer than 10,000 trials. That said, identifying an average convergence time for your site will depend on the amount of traffic you have and how “evergreen” your content is.For sake of example, let’s imagine a publisher that gets 100 trials per minute. They want to see their experiments finish within 25 minutes. The above statistics imply that only about half of this publisher’s experiments will finish before we reach 25 * 100 = 2,500 trials.
Want to maximize the ROI of your headline testing practice? Learn how.
Now, let’s take a look at how we can leverage higher traffic (click-through rate) positions to optimize for convergence time. The following graph is a density plot of number of trials needed for convergence against the CTR of the winning headline:
Number of Headline Variants
Finally, let’s graph the number of headline variants in each experiment: Right now, we see that more than two-thirds of our headline tests are basic A/B tests, meaning only 2 variants. There are clear pros and cons for testing additional headline options. On the negative side, you need to actually write more headlines, and I can sympathize with the creative burden. (Unfortunately, taking the lazy way out in tweaking a word or rearranging a sentence tends to have less impact than trying to highlight different viewpoints or angles.) Also, adding an additional (average) headline often will hurt convergence time, because you need additional trials to explore the added headline. But, as demonstrated in the table above, there is clear benefit to testing additional headlines as well. The above table shows the amount by which the winning headline exceeds an average headline, by number of headlines tested. The winning headline in a five variant experiment typically has more than a 50% higher CTR than the average headline, whereas you may only see a 23% benefit for a standard A/B test. This pattern of increasing divergence of winner to mean follows directly from the variance in the CTR of each headline. Another consideration is how often the original headline (Variant A) ends up as the winning headline. Admittedly, the following result depends fairly strongly on how organizations decide to come up with headlines; but even in the A/B headline case, publishers have been fairly significantly rewarded for using the additional variant. In some extreme cases, we have seen publishers use as many as 17 (!) different variants in a single headline test, successfully converging in fewer than 10,000 trials (!!).
Testing the Efficacy of Common Headline Themes
We wanted to take a closer look at the characteristics that make up a good headline. Some of the essence of a great headline, such as Vincent A. Musetto’s “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” can never be fully captured in categorical variables; but there are common tropes that are commonly used to capture audience attention. With the help of headline guides, other headline studies, and raw expertise, we compiled a list of 12 commonly-cited themes:
- Does the headline contain a question?
- Does the headline have a number?
- Does the headline use adjectives?
- Does the headline use question words (e.g., ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘why’)?
- Does the headline use demonstrative adjectives (e.g., ‘this’, ‘these’, ‘that’, ‘those’)?
- Does the headline use articles (e.g., ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘the’)?
- Is the headline in the 90th percentile of length (73 characters or greater)?
- Is the headline in the 10th percentile of length (32 characters or fewer)?
- Does the headline contain the name of a person?
- Does the headline contain any named entity (e.g., person, place, organization)?
- Does the headline use positive superlatives (‘best’, ‘always’)?
- Does the headline use negative superlatives (‘worst’, ‘never’)?
The results were somewhat mixed. Only long headlines and headlines with demonstrative adjectives show significantly higher scaled CTR, and only headlines with demonstrative adjectives and numbers show higher propensity of being declared winner in a given headline test. The presence of articles actually significantly detracts from scaled CTR.It’s worth discussing the one unambiguous result in a bit more detail. Demonstrative adjectives can actually be used in multiple ways in a headline. You can use them to create intrigue in clickbait-ish fashion: “These simple tricks will leave you speechless” or “You’ve never tasted anything like this.” There are also quite a few examples in our dataset of using demonstrative adjectives as a temporal specifier: “GOP Debate this evening,” for instance. In the future, as we collect more data, we can think about drilling down more granularly into specific constructions.Perhaps more interesting than the positive results is the lack of significance among other factors that have been cited to be useful in capturing the attention of an audience. “Use terse, punchy headlines”; “Ask questions”; “Name drop.” None of these properties show much predictive power in the general case.
“That’s right, writers: We’ve proven that ‘5 Ways To Write The Best Headline Ever’ isn’t actually that effective.”
So where does that leave us? If you want to be an effective headline writer, maybe there is no substitute for creativity and attention. Watch for patterns in the headlines that end up floating to the top. Take the time to discuss what worked and what didn’t. Avoid the formulas and cliches. Be liberal with your use of headline testing, so that you can harness feedback from your readers in real time.
In the meantime, here’s a great resource for headline testing optimization.