The Internet is a such a place of paradoxes when it comes to the type of the content populating it. As users, we claim to reject negativity, but we feel drawn to click any link “promising” to depict a disaster ready to unleash. On the other hand, marketers claim to present things as they are for real, yet most of the services and products are “first-in-class,” “cutting-edge,” “top-notch,” “groundbreaking.” Let's be honest, revolutions don't happen every day, and there is a strong reason why only a handful of brand names have come to be synonyms with the industry they operate in: Google is The Search Engine, Facebook is The Social Media, iPhone and Samsung are The Smartphones.
So, a natural question arises: is bombastic, overly optimistic web content paying off? Or are people interested in a more down-to-earth approach? How to keep a balance between hooking users' attention, being relevant and authentic through content?
We fear pain more than we enjoy pleasure
What we know for sure for now is that words do change people's brain. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, authors of the book “Words can change your brain”, explain that positive and negative words have a very different impact on our brain. Positive words like “love” or “peace” stimulate motivational centers in the human brain, while negative or hostile words trigger the increase of the stress hormones level and the shutting down of the logical reasoning. That explains to a large extent why we feel the urge to read content dominated by negative words. Humans are hardwired to worry (after all, we make efforts in the direction of being positive, not negative) and we resonate with anything that pushes us towards this natural state of mind. Or, as the Negativity Bias Theory claims, we react more promptly to negative events than we do to positive ones because we fear pain more than we enjoy pleasure. Based on the negativity bias, The Prospect Theory was developed in Economics to explain how consumers choose among several options. According to The Prospect Theory, people make decisions driven by the desire to avoid losses or risks rather than the desire of gain. They also tend to overlook what is common between more options and pay more attention to the differentiators.
That explains why many products and services that position themselves as ways to avoid losses or as distinct from the others are more successful than the ones that claim to be the straightforward ways to unparalleled happy experiences.
Leaving the theories aside, let's take a look at the practical side of things. According to a study conducted by Outbrain in 2012 on a pool of 65,000 paid link titles, headlines containing negative words performed 30% better than headlines including only neutral words, while positive words headlines performed 29% worse than the neutral words headlines. Moreover, negative headlines had a click-through rate 63% higher than the positive headlines.
Following a quick analysis on the10 most read articles from New York Times in 2016, we discovered that 60% of the headlines contained at least one word very likely to trigger negative emotions such as wrong, attacks, loser, repudiation. What is even more intriguing is that the most read article has a headline predicting a fiasco in an utterly direct and self-confident approach: Why Will You Marry the Wrong Person?
When it comes to content we share, things look a bit different. We read for ourselves pieces of content that stir up our negative emotions, but when it comes to sharing with others, it seems we prefer content that paints the world in brighter colors.
We've made a similar analysis on the ten most viral articles in 2016, and the findings are quite interesting:
9 out of 10 articles headlines contain at least one positive word including inspirational, wisdom, intelligent, healthy, sexier, etc.
7 out of 10 headlines contain more than one positive word
Only one article contains negative words (messy, swear).
In 2013, Johan Berger and Katherine L. Milkman conducted a research, “What Makes Online Content Viral”, on a set of articles published over three months in New York Times and they concluded that the more positive an article is, the more likely is to become viral.
Why do we read for ourselves content that triggers our negative emotions but we choose to share with the others positive news? One possible explanation is that, during the two different processes, we target our two distinct selves defined by the psychologists Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius in 1986: the now self (when we read) and the possible self (when we share). When we read, we pick up info that is likely to feed or, on the contrary, soothe our anxieties; when we share info, we select content that builds up the image we'd like to have in our eyes and the eyes of the others. And, who would want to be seen as The Negativist rather than the one who spreads positivity?
A 3:1 ratio of positive vs. negative sentences is considered a rule of thumb for writing web content. However, as we have seen, headlines including negative words tend to record higher click-through rates than the ones where neutral or positive words prevail, while articles based on words that trigger positive emotions have greater chances of becoming viral. In the end, the purpose of content creation should dictate the tone. In any case, avoid bombastic words like revolutionary, miracle, unique or great. Although they are intended to trigger positive emotions, they may backfire because of their overuse and deter readers. Always choose authenticity over inflated content, but at the same time, avoid neutral words. Choose vibrant words that hook attention, in particular for headlines, and if ever in doubt A/B testing should give you a clue on what appeals best to your audience.