HeadlineAs perfect proof of its point, a link to an article titled A Catchy Headline The Biggest Draw For News Article Readers induced me to click and read it. The article noted that a new study by Harris Interactive showed that catchy headlines topped interesting visuals as a reason to read an article. This is from the Harris release:

A catchy headline is the top influencer on Americans’ likelihood to read an online or print article in full (54%), though the inclusion of interesting pictures (44%) and interesting data or research (43%) are also strong lures… News junkies are less likely to be lured into reading an article by the presence of an interesting picture (32% junkies, 46% moderate, 41% not interested)… Females (58%) are more likely than males (50%) to be drawn in by a catchy headline, while males (47%) are more likely than females (40%) to be attracted by interesting data or research.

This sounds like great news for headline writers. And the male vs. female divide is great, actionable information for content publishers aiming at a particular demographic, right? Well, maybe not.

If Only We Knew…

Harris is a huge research firm. They employ over 700 people, many of whom no doubt hold impressive credentials in statistics and other relevant disciplines. I have no doubt that the above data, gathered from over 2,300 survey participants, was collected and analyzed using the best practices for such research.

There’s only one problem. This lovely, detailed data is bogus, despite the large sample size and low calculated margin of error.

What’s wrong with this data? It’s simple. Asking people why they do things is terribly unreliable. Our behavior as humans is influenced by many, many factors, most of which aren’t conscious or rational.

Rationalize This

Even when do things for reasons we aren’t aware of or can’t articulate, we are quick to explain why we did them in rational, logical terms. Indeed, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga says we all have something called “the interpreter” that incorporates our actions into a logical and consistent framework. Split-brain research as shown that people have a remarkable ability to fabricate explanations for their actions that seem logical but have no basis in reality. (See How “The Interpreter” Screws Up Market Research for more on this topic.)

No Way, Not Me!

Asking someone whether a picture would induce them to read an article is a perfect example – for many of us, our logical mind will say, “Of course I wouldn’t be so shallow as to read an article based on a picture. It’s the quality of the news. And, yes, a well-written headline can draw me in.”

Get The Real Story

If you want to get the real story on the behavior of your customers, readers, etc., don’t rely on self-reported data. While such data can be fine for simple facts, like, “Did you eat breakfast today?” it will rarely answer questions like, “Why do you prefer Grey Goose vodka?”

While neuromarketing studies are one way to get at real feelings, one simple solution is to measure actual behavior. Don’t ask people if they are more likely to click on a link accompanied by a picture – test it! Today, it’s trivially simple to deliver different content versions to web visitors and measure what really does work. Instead of asking whether customers would buy the product if it was 10% cheaper, try out the lower price on a sample of real customers and measure the boost in response.

In short: worry less about what your customers SAY, and more about what they DO.

Have you encountered research data that was statistically accurate but provided misleading cues about your customers’ behavior or intentions? Share it in a comment!

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