Peppering headlines with unusual punctuation makes people engage more with news stories posted on Facebook – but asking questions doesn’t make people want to answer, according to a study of thousands of articles.
Anna-Katharina Jung at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany and her colleagues analysed the level of engagement, including the number of likes, shares, comments and reactions – where users can respond with preset emoji – on more than 4400 news stories. The stories were published and shared on Facebook on seven consecutive days in November and December 2017 by 10 large publications in the US and UK.
The researchers measured engagement with, and sharing of, news stories on Facebook itself, rather than how many people clicked through to the story, which doesn’t necessarily tell you what they thought of the article, they say.
“When people click on an article with a fancy, clickbait headline, their attention is caught,” says Jung. “But at the end, they don’t interact with the article. They don’t send it to their friends, write a comment or leave a reaction.”
The researchers used mathematical log transformations to enable comparisons of the numbers involved. They found that putting unusual punctuation, such as “!!!” or “…”, in a headline could increase reactions, shares and comments by 2.5 times the norm. However, including it in the text of accompanying posts on Facebook decreased shareability.
Longer headlines reduced the number of comments, but didn’t affect reactions or shares. Doubling the number of words in a headline led to 24 per cent fewer comments. The length of words used also affected responses: in headlines, long words reduced interaction, but in the text in the accompanying post, they increased it.
Stereotypical clickbait phrases like “this will blow your mind” reduced all interactions by a quarter compared with stories that didn’t use them. And there was no association between headlines that asked questions and the number of post interactions.
“This is a welcome study,” says Axel Bruns at the Queensland University of Technology, Australia. “It produces some valuable and interesting insights into the features of clickbait headlines and posts that seem to drive user engagement with news stories on Facebook.”
However, Bruns points out that the research focuses solely on text, because the information comes from five years ago, so the reality of what works might have changed. “The past few years have seen a substantial shift towards greater use of visuals, especially photos, in news posts on social media,” he says.
It is good to know what can increase engagement with journalism, says Steven Buckley at the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK. “However, just because using unusual punctuation drives more clicks does not mean newsrooms should start plastering every post with ‘!!!’,” he says. “The quantity of user engagement is not necessarily more important that the quality of user engagement.”