By Shikhar Mohan
You can’t escape them – online articles such as ’10 Fat Busting Secrets’ to ‘7 Ways to Save Your Marriage’ are everywhere on the web. Yes, we at OneYearMBA.co.in too are guilty of going with the trend for headlines of some of our recent articles.
So how did headlines on the internet evolve into mirror images of each other, with most of them pre-fixed with a number? What can it tell us about our buying behavior as consumers of information?
This is an attempt to decode the role numbers play in ‘selling’ us information online and why we as readers respond to such articles.
1. A number in the headline reassures readers they are going to gain something tangible
Readers want to be sure of finding the right information before clicking on an article. A headline that specifies the exact quantum of content an article offers, brings mathematical certitude to what is otherwise a hit and miss search for information on the net.
Additionally, if the number in the headline is large, say 10 or 20, a reader is being told in clear terms that there is a substantial amount of information to be had by reading the article.
2. A number in the headline suggests a finite amount of information
As opposed to finding nothing worthwhile in an article, there is also a fear among online readers of being swamped with information. Not everyone is looking for a Wikipedia length article on an issue they are facing.
A number in the headline comforts readers by saying in a subtle way, “Hey, I am not going to overload you with a thesis. I am here to tell you the key points in a crisp manner”.
3. Numbers in a headline take us back to the classroom – a place we associate with learning and accurate information
Porter’s 5 Force model, 7 reasons behind the start of world war 1, Budha’s 4 fold path, 5 principles of the Panchsheel accord, the 7 fundamental human rights – many of the lessons we learnt in school and college were in the from of numbered lists.
Any surprise then that we associate numbered lists with authoritative information?
By using the numbered list format, online articles could be subtly invoking the classroom and signalling to us subliminally that the information we will be getting is genuine and authoritative.
Unlike print media, much of the online media has neither space limitations nor good quality editors to separate the wheat from the chaff. Consequently readers face a deluge of average content – so establishing authority is critical for an online article in order to find an audience.
4. A number in the headline suggests that the article is comprehensive
With so much stuff fighting for our attention today, especially once we are online (chat, Facebook, Tweets, e-mails, Instagram, YouTube…the list goes on), there is a glut of information and a paucity of time.
Headlines such ‘7 things…, 3 reasons..’ come across as the cliff notes edition to understanding an issue quickly. They suggest that what follows will be a comprehensive summary of everything one will ever need to know about a certain topic – one that interrogates a problem from all possible angles and presents all the possible solutions. “Read this and be an instant expert”, is the unsaid promise of these headlines.
This tactic plays on the current generations FOMO (fear of missing out), its need for instant gratification and the inherent desire of most people to be experts on every topic under the sun.
5. It’s an invitation to a battle of wits
For many people who consider themselves to be experts on a certain topic, an authoritative headline could well be a challenge to a friendly and private match of ‘who knows more’. A handy list presents a quick opportunity for many of us to test our own knowledge. This is the same reason you will find many people hooked onto quiz shows – they aren’t watching the show to learn more as much as to confirm their own status as knowledgeable individuals.