One Simple Trick Worked to Improve Headlines, and You Won't Believe What Happened Next

Upworthy is barely over two years old, and it’s among the top 50 most visited sites in the United States. But its perception among the self-involved media discussion class is entirely defined by its headlines.
Those headlines typically reference a provocative issue, tease an unexpected revelation about the topic, and are oriented toward encouraging people to click through to the Upworthy site more than to understand the story without having clicked. And those headlines work
Interestingly, though, the media industry’s reaction to a site having found a formula that actually breaks through the clutter online and makes aggregated content seem distinct hasn’t been enthusiasm, but open disdain.
Horrible CNN Tweet
This trend reached its apotheosis recently when a misguided social media manager at CNN used (what they thought was) the Upworthy formula in a completely inappropriate way. There was almost as much opprobrium for Upworthy in the wake of the incident as for CNN itself. Having been the source of the format, Upworthy got some of the blame when it got misused.
It seems the folks over at Upworthy are aware of the perception issue here; They’ve shared statistics about how infrequently they’ve actually used the most-parodied tropes, and how their use of these tactics has changed in recent months.

SCIENCE FACT: @Upworthy has used "What Happens Next" in 4 headlines out of 5223 posts or .07% of the time. Last time: 10/15/13.

— Adam Mordecai (@advodude) January 26, 2014

Obviously, if you broaden the terms a bit, you get a few more headlines which evoke this trope, though they still comprise a fairly small percentage of all their stories:

@anildash @advodude Over 50 stories use "what happens" in the headline, 14 "you won't believe," but only one "will shock you."

— Andy Baio (@waxpancake) January 27, 2014

The reaction has built to the point where people are responding in interesting and creative ways. Alison Gianotto (of noise) created Downworthy as a programmatic way of modifying “hyperbolic viral headlines” and it’s been greeted with delight by people frustrated with the pervasiveness of this style of writing.
I’m not so sure this argument is as clear as the anti-hyped-headlines narrative would presume, though. Writing evocative headlines is a good thing if it gets people to see content of substance. Sure, it can be manipulative if misused, and frustrating if key information is omitted for no good reason. But part of what makes this style of headline so remarkable is that it is a distinctive voice. There are media outlets that are a century old which don’t have a personality that’s distinctive enough to be parodied without context to a large audience; Upworthy (and the lesser sites aping its style) have gotten there in two years.
Ultimately, many of the objections to this style of content are from people who feel like good stories should be able to find an audience without such “tricks”. And of course, they’re right — stories should be able to find an audience. But they don’t. So good narratives have to be marketed, and innovations that discover new ways to be effective in attracting audiences are a useful, and necessary, part of making media succeed online. It was only a few decades ago that USA Today adding color to its newspaper was seen as somehow “undignified”, or beneath the level of seriousness appropriate for a journalistic endeavor. Certainly we don’t have to be quite so puritanical about the ways content aggregators market their content. Great headlines are a wonderful art; I maintained a link blog for years primarily because of how much fun it was to write “better” (to my mind) headlines for existing articles or stories. The fundamental identity of many tabloids is about the way they construct their headlines. There’s no reason that can’t be true online as well.
And while I’m always loath to extend the biological metaphors over “virality” in content, there is obviously a precedent in the realm of biology of viruses which are overly aggressive and have extreme short-term success at the expense of their long-term success. In those cases, we see evolutions that lead to much more sustainable behaviors. I have no doubt we’ll see that happen in the media ecosystem.

@eaton @anildash we often don't sound like 2012 Upworthy anymore. Because those tricks are starting to dilute click rates.

— Adam Mordecai (@advodude) January 27, 2014

[Disclosurebrag: Upworthy is a customer of ThinkUp. I felt Upworthy’s headlines were interesting and useful as a strategy before that was true.]