Should you spend as much time polishing the few words of your headline as on the hundreds of words that comprise your news article or blog post? The answer may well be, “Yes!” according to a new study by OTOInsights. In an unusual combination of neuromarketing and social media research, the firm looked at how users responded to Digg entries using eye-tracking and physiological signals (heart rate, breath rate, body temperature, skin conductance) as well as traditional survey methods. What users focused on, and what they mostly ignored, make interesting reading:

The study looked at the four major components of each Digg listing: The “digg button” (showing the number of diggs), the headline, the description, and the associated image.

The digg button and the number of diggs associated with each study are the least important criteria for viewing or promoting content. Only in the rare cases where the number of diggs reaches an extreme high (4000+) did users consider it to be a valuable criteria. For the vast majority of stories, participants spent no time considering the current number of diggs. Additionally, the image component, while regularly viewed, was considered to be of minimal value by all participants when evaluating content.

Headlines and descriptions were more important to users and commanded much more
of their eye tracking time. Interesting, headlines and descriptions were almost equal in the amount of viewing time received…

The most compelling part of the eye tracking data is the fact that they are so similar considering how descriptions contain much more textual content than headlines. All participants spent dramatically more time looking at each headline word compared to each description word. Participant self-reports upon viewing their eye tracking data confirmed the claim that headlines were the single most important factor for influencing their Digg.com behavior. Additionally, participants identified the critical role of headlines
in setting expectations for the associated content. [From Social Media for Marketing: An Analysis of Digg.com Engagement and User Behavior by Jeffrey Bardzell, Shaowen Bardzell, and Tyler Pace.]

Successful headlines had some common characteristics:

Our analysis of Digg.com headlines suggest Digg.com users prefer short, direct and revealing headlines. Underestimating the importance of headlines on Digg.com almost guarantees the failure of your submission. As one participant, a very successful Digg.com user and web development blogger, stated “I spend almost as much time researching and writing my headline as I do my entire post!” [Emphasis added.]

Clearly, for social media success, good headlines are absolutely critical. Of course, this isn’t news to those who have been involved in writing compelling articles for the Web. At the last Pubcon in Austin, many attendees were lucky enough to catch Brian Clark (@copyblogger) presenting Top 10 Techniques for Writing Headlines that Rock. For even more specific advice, be sure to check out Brian’s Magnetic Headlines series of tutorials.

Even though SEO and social media pros have long known how critical good headlines are for generating clicks, the OTOInsights data provide some additional understanding of how users visually process them.

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