Do Not Read This Column

So you’re reading this column, huh? Kind of an enticing title, isn’t it? Why is that?

I have strong evidence that “negative” headlines often generate a lot more clicks than “positive” ones. Why do tabloid newspapers put scandals on the cover? Because those big, fat, nasty headlines sell newspapers. Several of my blogger friends have experimented with negative headlines with fascinating results. For example, Jonathan Kranz, a freelance copywriter who works with companies to create marketing materials has a link on his site “Important Reasons NOT to Hire Me.” Here are some of the reasons: “You like jargon,” “You want to play it safe,” and “You like vague messaging.” Kranz says the negative word “NOT” attracts attention.

Several years ago, I worked on a site where we included a link “For Executives Only,” which generated more traffic than other links. It turns out people react to negatives. Words like “Worst,” “Not,” “Don’t,” and “Only” are interesting, and people want to know what’s there. Imagine if EContent ran a sister ranking to the annual EContent 100 list: “The 100 companies that don’t matter at all in the digital content industry.” Wow. That would get attention! (Don’t worry, I’m sure Michelle Manafy, our esteemed editor, wouldn’t employ such tactics.)

Mark R. Hinkle, VP of business and community development at Zenoss, a company that provides solutions for monitoring entire IT infrastructure, is a popular technology futurist who blogs at Hinkle wrote a post titled “Top 10 Reasons Not to Use Ubuntu.” The post reads, “I played around with Ubuntu this weekend and I have been really impressed by everything, but I know many people still want to use a Windows desktop. So I thought I would give you 10 reasons why you shouldn’t use Ubuntu so when your Ubuntu-loving friends tell you about it you can be armed with some reasons why you would rather use Windows.” Two of the reasons he provides are “Installation of Software is Too Easy,” and “Too Few Viruses/Too much security.”

Hinkle says the reaction was amazing. The next morning he woke to find the post on the front page of Digg with more than 100 diggs. In the days immediately after the post, his blog got 10 times the normal traffic, and the hits keep coming. An added benefit was that he found that he enjoyed writing the post from the alternative viewpoint of the negative—it got his creative juices flowing.

I think what people are really saying when they vote with their mouse by clicking on negative headlines is that they crave authenticity. Everybody wants to know that the company they are researching or the blogger they are reading is human. Deluged with so many happy, upbeat corporate “messages” out there, many site visitors don’t find authenticity. When a marketer uses some alternative language, particularly with negative connotations, people sit up and pay attention.

The web allows us to try new things and implement new ideas quickly, get people to check it out live, and then make changes to it on-the-fly. Try a “negative” link. If that webpage doesn’t work for you, just delete it. (You can’t do that with a print ad or direct-mail campaign.) Take a look at your site and find a link that you can flip around. Measure the traffic before and after the switch and see what works better. Perhaps you have this on your site: “How to increase productivity and drive revenue.” Yawn. How many times have people read something like that? How about this: “How to destabilize productivity, deter customers, and diminish revenue.” Or consider changing “Visit our online media room” to “Our online media room—for journalists and analysts only.”

While the “negative” technique most certainly works, it should be used sparingly. Usually, only one negative link is appropriate on a site. And remember—there must be something compelling and interesting to read once people click. You need to be creative. Write something that people will find clever or funny but that will still tie back to your organization in some way. Don’t promise something interesting with a negative headline and then fail to deliver.

When people do click, the landing page should immediately signal that you’re having fun. Don’t be too subtle. Don’t let people think that you really are being negative or exclusionary. Bring them in with the negative hook, but then let them in on the joke.