Simpler Headlines Boost Engagement and Trust in Online News

Simple, clear headlines enhance online news engagement.

The competition for online attention in today’s news environment is intense.

High-quality news from credible sources must vie for attention alongside misinformation and an increasing amount of partisan content.

How can a news organization distinguish itself as reputable and trustworthy while driving readers to its site?

Readers engage more with simple headlines

The answer is straightforward: simplicity.

A new study published on June 5 published in the journal Science Advances indicates that news readers engage more with simple writing.

This suggests that journalists should write clearly and without ambiguity to attract online attention.

Newsrooms seek engagement, and citizens want to be informed.

Simple writing serves both purposes, helping news outlets compete in the crowded online attention economy and making news more approachable for online readers.

The researchers — from Michigan State University, Ohio State University, and Harvard University — evaluated over 30,000 headlines.

These experiments assessed how headlines from the Washington Post and Upworthy impacted click rates.

They developed a simplicity index to evaluate headlines based on criteria such as the number of common words, readability (the number of words per sentence and syllables per word), the formality and complexity of the text, and character count (the number of characters per headline).

The data showed that people engage more with simple headlines than complex ones.

The paper notes that simplicity is often preferred because it feels better than complexity to most people.

It influences what people read, click on, and how they perceive companies and institutions competing for their attention.

Realizing that simpler is better is key to increasing demand for credible journalism.

The researchers also found that complex headlines had less stickiness than simple ones; readers were less likely to recognize or remember them later.

Small efforts to increase the simplicity or fluency of language can capture the attention of casual readers and make them more informed about the news of the day.

Getting the simplicity right can significantly impact readership.

For example, during the study, the Washington Post had about 70 million unique visitors.

If just 0.10% more readers click on a story with a simpler headline, resulting in them reading three articles, this could mean an additional 200,000 readers.

This accessibility not only broadens the audience but also attracts more ad buyers, benefiting the news organization’s bottom line.

Writing for readers

While general news consumers preferred simple headlines, journalists did not have a preference and remembered both complex and simple headlines.

This suggests a potential disconnect between what journalists think audiences want and what they actually read.

To address this, the authors recommend journalism training, whether in newsrooms, educational institutions, or workshops, to emphasize writing for the average reader.

They stress the importance of intentional and thoughtful writing to get news into the hands of those who need it most, advocating for a ‘keep it simple’ mentality.

Journalists often see themselves as storytellers, and one way to simplify a headline is to think of it as a story.

The paper explains that people are more likely to remember stories and experiences.

Approaching news in a narrative, chronological manner with common and familiar words makes it more memorable and engaging.

Crafting simple headlines is a small change that can make a significant impact.

Ultimately, using clear and concise words in news reporting can lead to a more informed public.

Study details: