For the past several years, the Solutions Journalism Network has been working to understand the impact of solutions journalism on audience engagement. We’ve written about some of the research that has been done here and here. And as we’ve learned more about the ways in which solutions journalism engages individuals—for example, by increasing their sense of agency and possibly leading them to linger longer on the page—we started to wonder: Does a solutions-oriented headline change how people engage with the content?
A recent study, Solutions Headlines, set out to examine just that question. The Engaging News Project worked with The Huffington Post to test 50 pairs of headlines. Visitors to HuffPo’s homepage randomly saw either a solutions-oriented or a problem-oriented headline, both of which linked to the same story. After 50 tests, the solutions headline had garnered more page views 56 percent of the time, the non-solutions headline had done so 40 percent of the time, and the two had tied 4 percent of the time. The study concluded that, “On balance, solutions headlines yield more clicks than non-solutions headlines—but the difference is modest and many other factors also affect the number of clicks received by each headline.”
Researchers at the Engaging News Project also wanted to see what specific characteristics of solutions-oriented headlines are most effective, so they conducted a survey-based experiment. Participants in the experiment were shown a list containing one solutions-oriented headline and three unrelated headlines, and then asked which corresponding story they would most like to read. The researchers played around with the attributes of the solutions-oriented headline to see which ones increased or decreased interest. Here’s what they found:
- Including a “mysterious” unnamed location or group in a headline can increase the clickthrough rate (e.g. “This City Has a Solution to Poverty”)
- Adding the word “simple” can affect headline clicks, but does not do so consistently (e.g. “A Simple Way to Address Climate Change”)
- Tacking solutions-oriented information or an action item onto a headline does not significantly affect the click-through rate (e.g. “This is a Problem. Here’s How to Help”)
- Adding the word “you” does not significantly influence the click-through rate (e.g. “Here’s How You Can Help Save the Rainforests”)
Obviously, these findings don’t yield any easy conclusions or hard and fast rules (few things do). But they do challenge the long held assumption—dogma, even—that devastation and despair alone drive engagement. Audiences in this sample clicked on solutions-oriented headlines more so than they did on problem-oriented ones. If it bleeds, it turns out it doesn’t always lead after all.