Misdirection and Magic: Of Headlines, Content, and Kings

by Annie

in blogging, copy wrongs

Illustration of Magician's Top Hat

Be careful what you pull out of that hat; your audience will begin to expect certain things...

I love the site Social Triggers. Derek Halpern has rounded up some insightful pieces to populate the site, and I find his articles thought-provoking and useful.

I do have a smallish quibble with the latest one. Called “The ‘Content Is King’ Myth Debunked,” the piece takes aim at the presumptive number one maxim when it comes to building an audience for a website: that content is the most important factor to building a large readership.

Headlines That Promise Apples, Pieces That Deliver Apple Juice

It’s well written. It’s based on an academic study of real life health-information seekers who evaluated several health websites (warning: PDF file) for the scientists in charge of the study, based on a real-life medical issue the info-seekers were actually facing (to control for factors like user interest).

So what’s my problem with it?

It’s not so much the actual point of the piece — which is not that you can ignore the “content is king” maxim, or that content is not the most important factor contributing to  your site’s success (more on that in a bit).

It’s the fact that the headline announces his intent to “destroy the myth” and his first sentence avers he’s going to “bust this thing wiiiiiide open,” but that’s not actually what the piece does.

It’s a bit of clever misdirection, the way a magician will draw your attention to his right hand, so you don’t see the left hand set up the illusion, and it’s a pretty small point, all things considered. But it kind of irks me that this is still happening in 2011. It irks me even more because there’s only one reason to do it: it works. It gets eyes on the page.

When your headline attracts a user’s attention, it makes an implied promise to that user: “I’m going to convince you of x. Just give me your attention for a few minutes, and you’ll come away thinking x too.”

But what happens when the piece actually gives the user y instead of x? Well, probably not much, if there’s not much difference between x and y. At least not at first.

But over time? If it keeps happening? Your users will draw conclusions about you based on your site. That’s a given, and it can’t be helped, really. (Especially not if you take T-E-A seriously, and aim for transparency.)

The Real Takeaway From the PACT Lab Study

So what is the point of the study Halpern uses as his source, and thus the point of his piece?

That there are two aspects to any user’s end decision about a website (which the study calls selection and rejection): There’s the initial decision to discard a particular website in a list of results for a particular search string. And then there’s the separate decision about which of the remaining sites to trust most.

As to the initial decision — the rejection phase — yes, design factors weigh significantly in that choice. But ultimately, the study’s authors point out, it’s — yep, you guessed it — the content that makes ’em stay.

And that is, in point of fact, what Halpern’s piece ultimately acknowledges. So why the misleading headline and lede? Because it gets people’s attention.

It’s far more accurate to put it like this: Your design must not piss people off, but only your content is going to make them stick around. Only your content will convince them to buy. Only your content is going to convert them from readers into customers (or clients, or paying audience members, or…).

Yes, attention is the new currency. If you want people to pay attention to you — to give your site their hard-won, scarce-in-supply attention — you do have to grab it from the outset, and then you have to not lose it once they get to your site.

While a little exaggeration and misdirection can be useful in drawing readers, you don’t have to go that route. It’s up to you — what kind of person do you want to be in the universe in which you run and market your business? One route isn’t right and the other wrong, necessarily. But you should do a little cost-benefit analysis before you utilize linkbaiting techniques. Eventually, people form conclusions about a site and the business (or the artist) behind it based on a pattern of experience. What conclusions do you want your audience/market forming about you?

Also: Make sure your design doesn’t piss people off. If you need design info, a great resource to bookmark is Pamela Wilson’s Big Brand System. And finally: Content is Queen. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Rebecca June 1, 2011 at 4:52 pm

“Make sure your design doesn’t piss people off.” Now THERE is an honest statement and good advice LOL! Reminds me of a rule from a wonderful pumpkin carving book we got a few years back. Rule #1: Don’t be a dumbass. (We’ve adopted that one as a family rule at my house!) I think the world would be a MUCH better place if people would simply stop and remember to be conscientious of others more often.


Annie June 1, 2011 at 5:55 pm

I love Rule #1. Must save a few trips to the ER, I’d think!


Pamela Wilson June 12, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Annie, your comment at the end cracked me up! I might need to change my site’s tagline from “Grow your business with great design” to “Make sure your design doesn’t piss people off.” 🙂


Annie June 12, 2011 at 6:21 pm

I live to amuse! Annnnd… I think you’re in the clear with the whole “not pissing people off with your designs” thing. 😉


John October 16, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Hi Annie,

I couldn’t agree with you more. Design helps to grab attention, but your content (and other people’s content leading to you) is what converts.

My trust is wavering with this guy.

Good write up. Question though. Where in the original study does the author mention that ultimately it’s the content that gets them to stay?


Annie October 16, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Hey John! Thanks for stopping by. To answer the question: Table 3, p. 667 (p. 5 of the PDF).

And just to clarify – I think Derek has it together and presents some awesome ideas and advice. This particular title was a little off-putting, but the reason it was so striking is that he doesn’t need to do that kind of stuff, y’know?


John October 16, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Thanks Annie.

Let me ask you something.

Would you rather have a site with an awesome design and horrible content.

Or a site with poor design but the best possible content?

Which is king?

That’s how I see it.

Not to mention how content is embedded in your info products, other people’s sites, etc. which transcends one simple website.


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