Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

03.06.13

You And All Your Friends Must Read This Story Right Now, Or You Will Probably Die

No, seriously, depending on age and health, you'll die in an average of 30 years, ± 30 years

I am possibly the world's worst headline writer.  It was something of a sore point when I worked for The Economist, which has a well-deserved reputation for dryly witty captions and headlines.  I breathed a sigh of relief when it turned out that the internet does not like dryly witty captions and headlines; it likes incredibly literal, boring headlines with names in them.  

But my relief only lasted so long, because it turns out that there is an art to writing those sorts of headlines, too, and I am no better at that sort of alchemy than I was at coming up with punchy headlines of the "Headless Body Found in Topless Bar" variety.  Jeff Bercovici outlines the new rules of headlines, replete with tidbits like: "Specifically, forget the rules that say headlines must be informative, objective or even grammatically correct".

One possible reaction is to emit a deep and weary sigh at the notion that journalism has come to this.  But I'm a libertarian.  Who am I to tell the public they shouldn't flock to "Here's the Beauty Secret That Allowed Taylor Swift to Write Vengeful Breakup Songs About 17 Different Hot Guys"?

But where does that leave me?  I'm not sure that the public is ready to click on headlines that read "There Are Five Different Ways to Think About the Minimum Wage, But This is the Only One You'll Need".  So I've decided just to use the same headline for all my pieces.  Of course, being a business and economics writer, I don't just want to slap on a headline randomly.  That's the sort of thing that English majors might do.  Instead, I'm going to do some focus grouping and A/B testing to scientifically determine which headlines work the best.  For example, at the top of this post, you should be seeing either: "You and All Your Friends Must Read This Story Right Now, Or You Will Probably Die" or "I Have Broken Into Your House, Killed Your Labrador Retriever, And Am Now Holding Your Spouse Hostage.  Click Or Your Better Half Gets It!"

Once I have scientifically determined the ideal headline for attracting traffic, I am going to give all my posts the same headline, which will not only help attract new readers, but also help build a sense of mystery--what Bercovici calls the "curiosity gap" for my existing ones.  Is that a post on kitchen gadgets, or the sequester?  The only way to find out is by clicking!

Critics will argue that there are flaws with this strategy.  Readers may be repelled by these cheap grabs for attention.   Or I may find myself reported to the police and detained for falsely reporting felony violations of  D.C. Criminal Code §22-801.  Luckily, this seems most unlikely.  After all, some new media sites I could name have been getting away for murder for years.