59 Percent of You Will Share This Article Without Even Reading It
Congratulations on being a part of the 41 percent. We all realize, perhaps intrinsically, that the nature of modern online interactions is a bit superficial. We’ve all been guilty of sharing an article we haven’t actually read — or at least not all the way through — but few of us have attempted to quantify or consider the ramifications of this effect.
A recent study confirmed this phenomenon isn’t in our heads; in fact, 59 percent of all links shared on social networks aren’t actually clicked on at all, implying the majority of article shares aren’t based on actual reading. People are sharing articles without ever getting past the headlines. So why is this the case — isn’t the body of an article supposed to be the most important part? What does this mean for content marketers? And what does this mean for our society?
Attention Spans and Effort
First, let’s examine the motivations behind this phenomenon in the first place. Sharing an article is “supposed” to take place after a user has already clicked the link, read the article, and found it to be interesting or valuable (i.e., share-worthy). But there are two dimensions of online human behavior that make this difficult. The first is a factor of attention span; attention spans are at an all-time low, and most users make snap decisions about articles based on their first impressions, which happen to be headlines.
The second is a factor of effort. It takes considerably less time and effort to share an article than it does to actually read it. It also comes with greater rewards; sharing an article is likely to earn you attention from friends and social media followers, or demonstrate that you’ve read the article, whereas actually reading it doesn’t earn you anything extrinsic.
The Power of a Headline
In April of 2014, NPR pulled a prank on its audience. It published an article titled Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?, which wasn’t really an article at all. Instead, when you clicked this article, you were met with instructions to like the post only, and not comment on it. The implication was that anyone who commented on the article certainly didn’t actually read it — resulting in more than one layer of irony as social users (and proven non-readers) fervently commented their outrage at the idea that people were non-readers.
IFLScience.com recently conducted a similar experiment, publishing an article titled Marijuana Contains “Alien DNA” From Outside Of Our Solar System, NASA Confirms. The article, as of now, has over 141,000 shares, and it isn’t about marijuana or alien DNA at all — it’s an experiment to see how many shares it could attract with an outrageous headline alone. IFLScience states within the post that “We here at IFLS noticed long ago that many of our followers will happily like, share, and offer an opinion on an article — all without ever reading it.”
This is a perfect demonstration of the power of a headline in the modern era. Since users aren’t paying as much attention to internal content, the strength and popularity of a piece sometimes comes down to the strength of its headline. In a read article, headlines are one of the most powerful contributors to performance, and in a non-read article, it’s the only contributor to performance. As a result, headlines have become almost like articles in and of themselves.
Is This a Bad Thing?
Your first impression will likely tell you that there’s something wrong with this, that it somehow defies the norm or that things shouldn’t be this way. But is a headline-based social exchange of content really that bad? Isn’t this just a new evolution of communication?
· The Echo Chamber Effect. The circulation of headlines in this way leads to an echo chamber effect. Users are more likely to share headlines that adhere to their pre-existing conceptions, rather than challenging them, and as a result, publishers try to post more headlines along those lines. Social groups regurgitate the same types of posts and content over and over again, leading to a kind of information stagnation. This is one of the most powerful negative repercussions of the blind sharing effect.
· Reduced Information. Audiences are also less informed. For example, if you read this headline without the article, you might make a false assumption about what that 59 percent statistic really means, or you might assume I’ve taken a certain angle on the subject. In any case, audiences sharing rather than reading leads to less informed populations, which is almost universally bad.
· User Manipulation. This trend also makes it easier for journalists and content publishers to manipulate their audiences — whether they intend to or not. In a headline, one small word change can make a big difference, and even if you report all the real facts in the body of your article, the way you shape a headline can completely transform how users interpret your presentation of information. This is a dangerous and powerful tool, and it could easily be exploited.
Another important question to ask is this: if most readers share content without ever reading it, why bother writing the rest of the article? NPR generated attention with its pure headline non-article back in 2014, so why couldn’t you do the same with your content?
Remember that 41 percent of people still click through and read your material, so it’s still going to be valuable from a content marketing perspective. Plus, you need that body copy for SEO purposes. Generally, your “real” readers will be the most invested members of your audience, so in a way, the tendency to share without reading is just nature’s way of weeding out uninterested readers, leaving you the most valuable users in your pool of followers.
Shaping Tomorrow’s Headlines
Whether you’re enraged or amused at this modern social content phenomenon, it exists, and you’ll have to take action to adapt to it. The body copy of your content is still important, but these days, headlines are the true kings of content. Without a solid headline, you’ll have no chance of achieving meaningful social shares and new visibility, so take your time polishing every word to absolute perfection. Though it’s not an ideal situation, it’s the one we’re in, and you might as well take advantage of it.