In the digital era, a news story’s success is often measured by its page views. Not only that, metrics play a large role in informing editorial decisions, partly because of the assumed link between clicks and audience interests.
While these statements may seem self-evident, a recent study in the academic journal Journalism reveals some cracks in these notions. Researchers at VU Amsterdam, a university in Netherlands, explored 56 news users motivations for clicking or not clicking stories by asking them to share their thoughts, or “think aloud”, as they browsed news online.
The researchers found several reasons for why people click on certain news items and not others. They also suggest that a lack of page views doesn’t necessarily mean users think a news story is not interesting or important.
Click-worthy news stories
Some of the motivations for clicking on news items:
- They were personally relevant to a reader’s everyday life and offered information for discussions in social settings.
- Events happened nearby, though what constituted close proximity was subjective.
- Prominently placed news items received clicks because their location gave the impression that they were important.
- Follow-up pieces were clicked, granted a user had been tracking the story and the news item had a new development.
- Headlines with familiar information, such as a name, a news user recalled but could not immediately place.
- Headlines, even if considered uninteresting, received clicks if accompanied by a visually appealing photo.
- Amusing or funny headlines attracted clicks, even if story content had little value to users
- Disheartening headlines garnered clicks, but not if they were perceived as excessively sad. “Feel good” headlines received clicks because of their light-hearted nature and positive affect on the reader, not because they fell into a particular news genre
Why people don’t click new items
- Headline appears informationally complete, so there is no need to read full story.
- There’s an associative gap between a headline and the story, so readers don’t connect the news item with their pre-existing interest in a topic.
- Users already know the story, think the news is obvious, or that the news repeats itself (“supersaturation”) too often without providing new developments.
- Headline is an opinion a news user disagrees with or is dismissed as petty.
- A news item is too in-depth and the user doesn’t have enough context to understand it.
When not clicking doesn’t mean not interested
There were pragmatic reasons behind why users did not click on stories, even though they were interested in them.
- Data-heavy stories weren’t clicked because they cost the user too much to view.
- Items with videos were sometimes avoided because load times and commercials would disrupt user experience
- Users didn’t have time to read the full story or thought they’d get more information on it later from a different source.
Other news users browsed headlines to stay informed, but were satisfied with this superficial “scanning” or “checking” that they didn’t click on stories. They went online for the news headlines alone.
In terms of page views, these findings give insights into what makes a headline weak versus strong and “clickable,” thus offering direction on how newsrooms can improve. However, behavior from news users who prefer to scan consistently for snack-sized developments suggests a more compulsive and cursory tendency in consuming news, and it’s doubtful that more effort in constructing headlines will translate into higher click through rates from this group.
If an online publication’s goal is to gain more clicks in order to bring in more advertising revenue, experimenting with site design and focusing on user experience may result in solutions that override the pragmatic reasons holding back user engagement.
The study suggests that news users are not simply interested in so-called trivial and soft news items, but that explanations for not clicking on a story are more complex and nuanced. If news organizations can focus in on what users do like, such as personally relevant stories and ones with social utility, while delivering it an user-friendly and and tailored format, it’s possible both to maintain journalistic integrity and better captivate audiences.
Read the full study here.