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Annoying But Effective: 4 Lessons From Upworthy's "Curiosity Gap"

curiosity gap

Two weeks ago, we discussed how and why Facebook is curbing click-bait in users' News Feeds. When the announcement was made, the first sites that people looked toward were Upworthy and Buzzfeed - arguably the originators and largest proponents of click-bait and it's maligned headlines.

Despite social media basically being the lifeblood of Upworthy, the founders of the company didn't seem worried at all. The fact is, their strategy is working. And they might even be moving past their signature "curiosity gap" headlines.

Lesson #1: Curiosity Is Incredibly Powerful

When it comes to click-bait headlines, Upworthy prefers the much nicer term, "curiosity gap." Essentially, Upworthy's headlines leave out one important piece of information while adding catchy adjectives and sometimes guaranteeing an emotional response. For example, here are three headlines from Upworthy's current "best of" page:

  • If 3 Little Girls Did This To My House, I'd Do Everything I Could To Get Them Full Rides To Stanford
  • No One Applauds This Woman Because They're Too Creeped Out At Themselves To Put Their Hands Together
  • This Amazing Kid Got To Enjoy 19 Awesome Years On This Planet. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular.

So what did the girls do? Why was the audience creeped out? What did the kid leave behind? Why did he die? These questions represent the curiosity gap. Even if you find yourself annoyed with the hyperbolic and manipulative nature of these headlines, you still might end up clicking on them. In fact, according to George Loewenstien's information gap theory, curiosity can be just as motivating as primal desires such as food or sex. Your brain might recognize a title as manipulative, but its desire to fill in the information gap might just prevail.

Lesson #2: The Curiosity Gap Needs to Lead to Something

Ok, so a reader has succumbed to the title and clicked on the link. Does the content fulfill the headline's promise? Or has the reader been duped? This is (arguably) what separates Upworthy from the scores of click-bait copycats. Looking back at our previous examples:

  • 3 Little Girls: Turns out to be a commercial for Goldie Blox, a company that makes toys "for future engineers." A little manipulative, but we get treated to a very cool Rube Goldberg machine.
  • No One Applauds: We get a 7-minute video revealing some nefarious marketing tactics used in the food industry. The woman is an actress, but the audience reactions are real. Essentially, the video is about "systemized cruelty" in the farming industry.
  • Amazing Kid: This is a 22-minute video of a young man who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at age 14. Before he died, he recorded a song called "Clouds," which topped the iTunes music charts.

Your level of satisfaction with these results will vary. I felt slightly duped by the first, as it turned out to be a commercial in which the little girls likely did not actually build the device. The second video could be interesting to many, but it simply wasn't telling me anything I didn't already know. The third was inspiring, but to be honest, I didn't make it all the way through. I'm probably just being cynical, though. Each of these videos currently has well over 6 million views, so somebody must be enjoying them.

Despite my cynicism, compare those videos and headlines to this headline currently appearing my Facebook News Feed:

  • I Can’t Believe This Cat And How He Saves This Puppy! You’ll Be Amazed At 0:41! (TheAnimalRescueSite.com)

This is a clear example of the much-mocked click-bait style. The video is just over a minute long, and it's definitely cute. There's no doubt it brought some traffic to the Animal Rescue Site (definitely a good thing), but is the content itself important? Does it spark conversation or comment on important social issues like much of Upworthy's content? Not really, but it's effective. Which brings us to...

Lesson #3: The Strategy Works

The idea of the curiosity gap has got Upworthy some crazy levels of traffic. According to Quantcast, Upworthy is currently getting over five million unique visitors and seven million page views per day. It's one of the fastest rising startups in recent memory, and it has a lot to do with their carefully considered headlines. Writers, bloggers and marketers should never underestimate the power of a shareable, clickable headline.

Lesson #4: You Can Be Better Than Upworthy

According to a detailed piece appearing in The Atlantic earlier this year, Upworthy might eventually stop using "curiosity gap" headlines altogether. In fact, some of Upworthy's research has indicated that descriptive headlines in which the content is described thoroughly have been testing better overall. Now that people are used to curiosity gap headlines, the effectiveness may be wearing off. The lesson here is that writers and marketers shouldn't wait to see what Upworthy does next. Instead, try some different, creative headline strategies yourself and you might just end up pioneering the next big trend.

T.J. Anderson

Posted on 10th September, 2014 by T.J. Anderson

About T.J. Anderson

T.J. Anderson is a Chicago-based content editor and writer, as well as an SEO and marketing specialist.

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