I recently read a very interesting study (PDF) on “individual-level psychological processes shape collective outcomes such as the transmission and prominence of culture.” For normal people, this translates to “what content is compelling for people to share?” The researchers analyzed the top emailed stories from the New York Times and tried to determine what type of content people were likely to share. To save you a little time, they found that the following factors influence a person’s propensity to share:

  1. More awe-inspiring content will be more viral
  2. More practically useful content will be more viral
  3. More surprising content will be more viral
  4. Positively valenced content will be more viral than negatively valenced content
  5. More affect-laden content will be more viral

This study was very thorough and they used sound research techniques and even some fancy math. They wisely controlled for a bunch of factors including:

  • Article positioning
  • Author fame
  • Author sex
  • Writing style
  • Time of day
  • Topic of article
  • …and some other smart stuff, but you get the idea.

The study did a great job of determining reasons why someone might pass along an article after they read it, but the researchers failed to analyze what made people click on the article to begin with. Once an initial reader shares an article with their friends, the title of the article is going to be the deciding factor in determining whether their friends actually read it.

As publishers and marketers know, clever titles dramatically impact the percentage of people who will read content. For example, the difference between a 1% and 2% click-through rate means that any given article starts out with double the number of people who are likely to pass on the article. The click-through rate impact continues down the chain of people who receive the article. Sensational headlines dominate the media for a reason; they are important. Without controlling for click-through rate (or impressions), this study only tells half the story.

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