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Why New Organizations Are Trying on Upworthy Headlines: The Answer May Surprise You

Not cool, CNN.
Not cool, CNN.

In the world of social media marketing, there is something called "click bait." These are images or headlines that, because of their salacious or outrageous nature, make people click them to see where they ultimately lead. There may be some on this very page you're reading in the form of hot girl photos, for example.

This is not to say all click bait links are worthless, but the intimation is that the link makes them seem much more important or valid than they are. Much like the sensationalistic news headlines in the days of yellow journalism, click bait has the effect of over-hyping stories that rarely deserve it.

The most egregious organization when it comes to headline click baiting is Upworthy, the feel-good website full of videos and stories meant to make you feel good or angry or ready to act on...well, something.

There was a scene in the movie Scrooged where Bill Murray's character, Frank Cross, tries to explain to a room full of TV execs that a promo ad for their live show on Christmas Eve needed to be so compelling that people would be terrified NOT to watch it. This would appear to be a similar aim of Upworthy.

In a recent example, there was this headline: "A Little Girl Who Isn't Allowed to Play Outside, and the Startling Reason Why." The link led to video of an animated short film that describes what it might be like to live in the area of Japan affected by the nuclear disaster, and how nature might be dangerous.

This is not a real girl or even a real-life situation. This is an animated short, yet the headline leads us to believe we'll find out something much more terrifying and possibly angering.

These headlines have drawn plenty of attention from the Internet. There's even an Upworthy headline generator.

The problem is that, despite the ridiculous nature of these headlines, they actually work and they work extremely well. In fact, Upworthy is the fastest-growing online media company of the past year and that continues. It's not just the headlines, it's the fact that they tug at the emotions of people so much, those visitors share them on social media with friends who often share the same empathy. The end result is a massive surge of traffic, and the rest of the media world is taking notice.

 

Until recently, most other news outlets -- and I use that term extremely loosely when discussing Upworthy -- have stuck with tried-and-true methods of headline writing with a hint of search-engine friendliness. Write an attention-grabber, but make sure things like names and places are in there as well for Google.

Unlike print, online news can't simply run a one-word headline and expect it to be successful, because it rarely comes with an image attached. The New York Post, for example, would fall flat if it chose to go with its traditional tabloid front-page shockers online. So most outlets have stuck with what they know, but the Upworthy-fication of news media may be under way.

CNN recently tweeted a link to a story with the following text: "14-year-old girl stabbed her little sister 40 times, police say. The reason why will shock you."

On an Upworthy scale of headline writing, this is probably an 8 out of 10. Unfortunately, it's also a disgusting way to sensationalize an awful story. The reactions in the Twitterverse were swift and there were a number of stories written about how terrible CNN's decision was. But maybe that was the point.

As the saying goes, any publicity is good publicity. CNN got plenty of that. Even if they didn't intend for this to be click bait beyond getting people to view the story, they got much more in the form of stories...like this one (oh, crap!).

The point is that these headlines, for better or worse, are effective and it would not be a shock to see them used more and more for traditional news. While that might be good for generating hits, it probably isn't great for the news. After all, only the most salacious of stories will get Upworthy-like headlines because only they can be converted. No one is going to convert a story about Middle East peace talks or Somalian civil war into Upworthy-worthy headlines because such stories are often too complicated to distill into cheesy headlines.

But as long as we continue to take the click bait, organizations will keep casting it in front of us.


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