October 15, 2009

Robots Ate Your Brain: Marketing and Headlines

This Fast Company article proves that the humans have given up and are going to allow the robots programmed by marketing experts to eat our brains. It's about The Huffngton Post using an algorithm to decide what headlines stories will run with.

The idea is simple; for the first five minutes that a story is posted, two separate headlines are randomly displayed to readers. the one that gets the most clickthroughs is considered the better headline, and so that one is shown to all the readers after that.

It's true, a headline is important for bringing readers in. A headline is also important to framing an article and informing people who are just browsing the headlines.

Is optimizing clickthroughs the same as optimizing the value to the reader? Reader value is in how quickly and accurately the headline informs the reader. This algorithm only cares about clicks.

We can guess that what gets people to click: sensationalism. Subtly sacrificing value for attention is one of the ways your world becomes dumbed down, replacing expertise with algorithms. I am not opposed to algorithms that attempt to capture, recreate or enhance expertise, but this one cares nothing about value or meaning.

Posted by James at October 15, 2009 3:11 PM
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Recently there was a headline in the NB Standard-Times that claimed that students on the Brown campus were protesting changing the name of Columbus Day. However, according to the actual article, fewer than 100 students showed up for the protest, which had been organized by a radio talk show host.

In contrast, several hundred students had originally protested the holiday and campaigned for the name change.

Headline should have been "Attention-seeking radio host pulls feeble stunt, gets desired attention anyway."

Posted by: Julie at October 16, 2009 7:20 AM

Yes. You see; you summed up the story quite nicely in the space of a headline there.

Posted by: James at October 16, 2009 7:29 AM

I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts about HuffPo and the headline business. Many of their headlines are misleading; this can be seen when you click through to their sources and discover that what the original story stated was not accurately reflected in the aggregator's headline writing.

Posted by: Givesgoodemail at October 16, 2009 3:37 PM

Headline = (usually) search engine cue.

The highest click through rate wins. I like it. If a human writes two headlines, an editor doesn't decide the winner. The wisdom of crowds (sigh) decides.

I was arguing this point on Twitter. I live in a word of constant A/B testing that is grossly inefficient for the client. That results in higher prices in the short run that become lower over time since the worst performing headline (or copy or image or whatever) is being displayed.

It's the same argument as a 5 pitcher rotation versus a 4 pitcher rotation. The notion is that a baseball team takes 8 starts from its best pitcher, 8 starts from its second best pitcher and so on and gives 32 starts to Tim Wakefield. (sorry, Sox Nation, couldn't resist). The argument one might make is to skip pitcher #5 as often as possible due to days off and scheduling vagaries. If this happens 10 times a year, and the delta between pitchers 1 and 5 is sufficient, the team dramatically improves its odds of winning.

Likewise, if I use the word "Free" in my ad's headline *and* the notion of what I'm giving awa free makes sense (free kittens to good home is reasonable, free Jaguar in your garage isn't), I can easily spot the trend. But does free go first or does the item go first? And I think it's very cool that they've deployed software that not only tests real-time results but adjusts copy as a result.

Posted by: George Bounacos at October 21, 2009 1:31 AM

I agree about the effect, and understand its usefulness as a tool. I think in the right hands you might even learn something about language with it.

But what is "more clicks" actually a metric for? What does it optimize?

Posted by: James at October 21, 2009 8:40 AM

More clicks = longer time on site, more page views. An online marketer can monetize those.

Posted by: George Bounacos at October 22, 2009 10:03 PM

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