Media empires rise and fall, but the explo­sive growth in pop­u­lar­i­ty of web­sites such as Buz­zFeed and Upwor­thy dur­ing the past sev­er­al years ush­ered in a new phe­nom­e­non in con­tent – the “curios­i­ty gap.”

Main­stream media such as news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines have long tan­ta­lized their audi­ences with sala­cious rumors and tawdry gos­sip to sell papers and ad inven­to­ry, but the emer­gence of click­bait and “snack­able con­tent” (per­haps one of the most loath­some terms in media) ignit­ed an arms race to dri­ve rev­enues and traf­fic by appeal­ing to our innate sense of curios­i­ty.

How­ev­er, some experts have begun to spec­u­late whether the curios­i­ty gap is dead; some believe today’s media con­sumers have become desen­si­tized to the con­stant bar­rage of amaze­ment offered to us in our RSS feeds and on our smart­phones, and that media out­lets offer­ing lit­tle more than rhetor­i­cal ques­tions and cheap tricks are doomed to fail unless they try hard­er to earn their audience’s atten­tion.

But are they right?

What Is the Curiosity Gap?

The curios­i­ty gap is a the­o­ry and prac­tice pop­u­lar­ized by Upwor­thy and sim­i­lar sites that lever­age the reader’s curios­i­ty to make them click through from an irre­sistible head­line to the actu­al con­tent. By cre­at­ing a curios­i­ty gap, you’re teas­ing your read­er with a hint of what’s to come, with­out giv­ing all the answers away. The curios­i­ty gap can be used to com­pel peo­ple to click on a blog post they see on Twit­ter, an ad on Face­book, or a mar­ket­ing email in their inbox.

There are three pri­ma­ry ele­ments that go into the curios­i­ty gap pub­lish­ing mod­el:

  • Head­lines
  • Pub­lish­ing fre­quen­cy
  • Viral­i­ty

Let’s take a look at each.

The Curiosity Gap in Headlines

Arguably the most impor­tant ele­ment in the curios­i­ty gap tech­nique is the head­line.

Upwor­thy is famed for its approach to head­lines. The site requires all writ­ers to devise at least 25 head­lines per arti­cle, regard­less of its length, top­ic, or angle.

This is a lot hard­er than it sounds.

Head­lines have to be almost lit­er­al­ly irre­sistible. They have to entice us in mere sec­onds (or less), and as such must bal­ance infor­ma­tion with intrigue; they have to tease just enough about the arti­cle to not only tempt us to click through, but also to give us enough infor­ma­tion to decide whether the arti­cle is like­ly to be of inter­est to us in the first place.

Put anoth­er way, head­lines have to be spe­cif­ic enough to entice the read­er, but not so spe­cif­ic that the read­er doesn’t need to click through.

As impor­tant as head­lines are to the curios­i­ty gap pub­lish­ing mod­el, they have right­ful­ly attract­ed their fair share of detrac­tors and crit­i­cism. This style of head­line has also been accused of falling prey to dimin­ish­ing returns – how long can audi­ences real­is­ti­cal­ly be “amazed by what hap­pened next”?

Whether they have become less effec­tive or not, there is no dis­put­ing that head­lines are a cru­cial ele­ment in the curios­i­ty gap for­mu­la.

Publishing Frequency

Anoth­er com­mon ele­ment in the curios­i­ty gap pub­lish­ing mod­el is fre­quen­cy.

Sites like Buz­zFeed and Upwor­thy pub­lish a lot of con­tent, with dozens (or more) of posts being pub­lished every sin­gle day. There are sev­er­al ben­e­fits of main­tain­ing this kind of edi­to­r­i­al cal­en­dar, the first of which is being able to pub­lish con­tent across a wide range of top­ics and sub­ject areas to appeal to the huge audi­ences that these sites have.

Anoth­er ben­e­fit of pub­lish­ing a lot of con­tent is being able to mit­i­gate the “loss­es” of poor­er-per­form­ing con­tent by sim­ply pub­lish­ing more; it becomes a num­bers game when every­thing is a race to viral­i­ty. The more con­tent you pub­lish, the more like­ly that one or more lis­ti­cles will go viral.

Yet anoth­er upside to pub­lish­ing a ton of con­tent is that it pro­vides the pub­lish­er with more raw data to work with in their A/B tests. Make no mis­take – Buz­zFeed and Upwor­thy didn’t become phe­nom­e­nal­ly pop­u­lar by acci­dent. This pub­lish­ing mod­el has allowed pub­lish­ers to refine their approach­es to head­lines, con­tent itself, and social pro­mo­tion by ana­lyz­ing ever-increas­ing vol­umes of data, which fur­ther dri­ves the con­tent machine.

Social Validation and Virality

The final piece of the puz­zle is viral­i­ty, or the like­li­hood that a piece of con­tent will end up gen­er­at­ing thou­sands (or even mil­lions) of shares on social media.

Think about all the dumb quizzes you see your friends shar­ing on Face­book, for exam­ple. Many of them will be from sites such as Buz­zFeed and Upwor­thy. This is because these pub­lish­ers know (from look­ing at reams of data, as we cov­ered a moment ago) that quizzes about which Har­ry Pot­ter char­ac­ter you most close­ly iden­ti­fy with polit­i­cal­ly per­form amaz­ing­ly well in terms of social shares.

Viral­i­ty is the endgame for pub­lish­ers attempt­ing to lever­age the curios­i­ty gap. The more wide­ly con­tent is shared on social, more traf­fic is direct­ed to the site, engage­ment with the con­tent is sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er, and – per­haps most impor­tant­ly – the ad rev­enues are high­er.

Is the Curiosity Gap Just Clickbait?

No – at least, that’s what pub­lish­ers want you to believe.

Many promi­nent edi­tors in pub­lish­ing – includ­ing BuzzFeed’s Edi­tor-in-Chief Ben Smith – claim their out­lets do not pub­lish click­bait. Yes, real­ly.

Their argu­ment hinges on the fact that click­bait is gen­er­al­ly defined by the yawn­ing chasm between the promise of the head­line and the actu­al sub­stance of the con­tent. That’s why many pub­lish­ers have veered away from the weary, sen­sa­tion­al­ist head­lines we were all sub­ject­ed to a cou­ple of years ago; arti­cles with the “one weird trick” to do some­thing, or promis­es that “we won’t believe what hap­pened next.”

Essen­tial­ly, there’s one major dif­fer­ence between click­bait and con­tent that attempts to lever­age the curios­i­ty gap, and that’s how the read­er feels when they click through to the con­tent.

Click­bait often leaves the read­er dis­sat­is­fied, by either fail­ing to deliv­er on the promise of the head­line at all, or by pur­pose­ful­ly deceiv­ing the read­er into click­ing with lit­tle thought for what comes next. As we estab­lished ear­li­er, suc­cess­ful­ly lever­ag­ing the curios­i­ty gap requires social val­i­da­tion to pro­mote suc­cess­ful con­tent, some­thing that isn’t pos­si­ble if your read­er is dis­gust­ed by your edi­to­r­i­al trick­ery (more on this momen­tar­i­ly).

That said, there’s a very fine line between gen­uine­ly com­pelling con­tent that pulls the right levers in our brains, and the sen­sa­tion­al­ist crap pub­lished by tabloids in a brazen attempt to get you to click through.

So, now we know a lit­tle more about what makes this pub­lish­ing mod­el unique, let’s take a look at some exter­nal fac­tors that have con­tributed to changes in the media land­scape.

Overall Trust in Media at Shocking New Lows

Recent data from Gallup indi­cates that con­sumer con­fi­dence in the media has sunk to unprece­dent­ed lows. Less than a third of respon­dents polled said they had “a great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in the media, with the largest drops in trust observed among younger and old­er demo­graph­ics.

When you view this decline through the lens of polit­i­cal par­ti­san­ship, it becomes even more dra­mat­ic. Gallup also com­piled data for decreas­ing pub­lic trust in mass media by polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tion, and last year alone, trust among Repub­li­can media con­sumers dropped from 32% in 2015 to just 14% last year:

What does this have to do with the curios­i­ty gap? With con­sumer con­fi­dence in the media at its low­est lev­el in recent mem­o­ry, pub­lish­ers have to tread very care­ful­ly when attempt­ing to lever­age the emo­tion­al trig­gers of their audi­ence (more on this short­ly).

Con­sumers are already leery of online con­tent, and so try­ing to trick them is a par­tic­u­lar­ly risky gam­bit – much more so now than it was even a cou­ple of years ago.

How to Leverage the Curiosity Gap in Your Marketing

Trendy or not, the curios­i­ty gap is a pow­er­ful tech­nique that can real­ly raise your click-through rates across chan­nels from social media to your email cam­paigns. So, how can you – the small-busi­ness own­er with a mod­est dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing oper­a­tion – lever­age the curios­i­ty gap to dri­ve traf­fic to your site? Here are six ways to use the curios­i­ty gap to improve your mar­ket­ing.

1. Leverage Emotional Triggers

Much of the fake news we saw through­out the elec­tion here in the U.S. last year was so pop­u­lar because it pan­dered to people’s emo­tions. Sure, most of this con­tent was trash, but one thing it did extreme­ly well was lever­age emo­tion­al trig­gers.

Push­ing people’s emo­tion­al but­tons is one of the most effec­tive tech­niques at your dis­pos­al when cre­at­ing engag­ing con­tent. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this process is as much art as it is sci­ence – not to men­tion extreme­ly com­pli­cat­ed. It’s also huge­ly depen­dent on the type of con­tent you typ­i­cal­ly pro­duce, your audi­ence demo­graph­ics, and numer­ous oth­er fac­tors.

It’s also impor­tant to bear in mind the kind of emo­tion­al respons­es you wish to elic­it from your read­ers. Neg­a­tive emo­tions such as anger may result in more social shares, but could also inad­ver­tent­ly harm your brand. Sim­i­lar­ly, humor can be a high­ly effec­tive tool in your con­tent mar­ket­ing, yet many B2B pub­lish­ers shy away from try­ing to make their audi­ence laugh for fear that such a tone isn’t appro­pri­ate.

Only you can deter­mine whether appeal­ing to a cer­tain emo­tion in your con­tent is suit­able for your audi­ence. That said, how­ev­er you choose to do it, be sure your audi­ence feels some­thing after read­ing your con­tent; there is no greater sin in con­tent than to be bland and for­get­table.

2. Respect Your Audience (and Its Intelligence)

You’ve prob­a­bly sneered at a par­tic­u­lar­ly egre­gious click bait head­line or two in your time, so why would you resort to the same sleazy tac­tics to tempt your own audi­ence into click­ing through?

Click­bait relies pri­mar­i­ly on decep­tion to dri­ve traf­fic. These pub­lish­ers don’t care about dwell time, or scroll depth, or oth­er engage­ment met­rics – they just want the clicks and the pageviews to dri­ve adver­tis­ing rev­enue.

One of the best ways you can main­tain your cred­i­bil­i­ty as a pub­lish­er is by treat­ing your read­ers with the respect they deserve. Sure, you can (and should) try to cre­ate intrigue in your con­tent, but don’t resort to cheap trick­ery. If you wouldn’t click through a bla­tant­ly decep­tive head­line, don’t try to make your audi­ence do it, either.

Deliv­er­ing on the promise of your head­line is cru­cial, espe­cial­ly when it comes to con­tent. How­ev­er, this prin­ci­ple also applies to oth­er instances, such as ad or email head­lines.

It doesn’t mat­ter how com­pelling your tes­ti­mo­ni­als are, or how attrac­tive your emails are – if you fail to deliv­er on your sub­ject lines, you will dis­ap­point your audi­ence. This could harm your con­ver­sion rates and even dam­age your brand, so tread care­ful­ly.

3. Focus on the Quality of Your Content

We know that read­ers crave qual­i­ty con­tent. We also know that social media plat­forms and Google’s search algo­rithm reward qual­i­ty con­tent with greater vis­i­bil­i­ty. As such, you should focus on improv­ing the qual­i­ty of your con­tent, rather than wast­ing time devis­ing head­lines that tempt read­ers to click through to mediocre arti­cles.

That’s not to say you can’t cre­ate a sense of intrigue about your con­tent, or that you shouldn’t try to lever­age your audience’s curios­i­ty at all. I am sug­gest­ing, how­ev­er, that you try to focus on pro­duc­ing the very best con­tent you pos­si­bly can. As tempt­ing as it can be to resort to cheap trick­ery to increase traf­fic or oth­er short-term ben­e­fits, focus­ing on pub­lish­ing qual­i­ty con­tent con­sis­tent­ly will yield far greater results in the long run.

As reluc­tant as I am to “name and shame” spe­cif­ic blog posts, this post pub­lished a few years ago at Kapost is a great exam­ple of con­tent that could have been so much bet­ter but took the easy way out.

First­ly, it pos­es a ques­tion in the head­line that it fails to answer, which often leads to dis­ap­point­ment (see above). Obvi­ous­ly the writer couldn’t pos­si­bly tell you with any cer­tain­ty whether your con­tent is turn­ing peo­ple off or not, which begs the ques­tion of why the writer would choose to use this tech­nique in the first place. Full dis­clo­sure — I’ve done this plen­ty of times, so no judg­ment.

Sec­ond­ly, it’s too short. I’m all for brevi­ty in con­tent where appro­pri­ate, but this post is just a lit­tle too thread­bare on actu­al con­tent. Essen­tial­ly, it’s 500 words that boils down to “don’t be over­ly self-pro­mo­tion­al.” The post offers noth­ing in the way of action­able tips on how to craft bet­ter posts, and does lit­tle more than ref­er­ence a third-par­ty white paper that prob­a­bly con­tains much more use­ful infor­ma­tion – which the writer chose not to link for what­ev­er rea­son.

There’s noth­ing “wrong” with this post per se, it just isn’t nec­es­sary. There’s no action­able tips, no unique insight, and no rea­son at all to read it.

Try hard­er – your audi­ence deserves bet­ter.

4. Spend More Time Creating Compelling Headlines

If you’re going to ape any of the ele­ments of click­bait in your ads, emails, or con­tent, make it your head­lines.

There’s an adage known as Betteridge’s law of head­lines, named after British tech jour­nal­ist Ian Bet­teridge, that states that if a head­line can be asked as a ques­tion, the answer is almost always “no.”

Put anoth­er way, ask­ing ques­tions in head­lines is lazy at best, and pur­pose­ful­ly mis­lead­ing at worst – not to men­tion they’re often per­ceived much more neg­a­tive­ly than “straight” head­lines. How­ev­er, one notable excep­tion to this prin­ci­ple is when your con­tent focus­es on data.

Fram­ing head­lines as ques­tions when ref­er­enc­ing data can be much more effec­tive than play­ing it straight. Let’s take two head­lines from real blog posts, both of which were pub­lished by Moz. Both posts cov­ered the same top­ic, and both con­tained hard data.

Regard­less of your intent, head­lines are arguably the sin­gle-most impor­tant ele­ment of any piece of con­tent. Even the most use­ful, action­able guide or com­pelling blog post will bomb unless your head­line is suf­fi­cient­ly cap­ti­vat­ing. If you want to dri­ve the kind of traf­fic that Buz­zFeed and Upwor­thy arti­cles gen­er­ate, you’ve got to put in as much work as they do when it comes to your head­lines.

5. Don’t Give Everything Away in Your Headlines

Remem­ber ear­li­er when we estab­lished that head­lines had to be just tempt­ing enough to get read­ers to click, but not so spe­cif­ic that there’s no need for them to click? Well, this high­lights the dan­gers of giv­ing away too much in your head­lines.

Ad head­lines, blog post head­lines, and email sub­ject lines are all a bal­anc­ing act. The trick is to give your audi­ence just enough to entice them to click (and hope­ful­ly read), but hold enough back so that you don’t give every­thing away at the out­set.

6. Pay Attention to Your Data – But Stop Focusing on Virality

Despite what media sales pro­fes­sion­als would have you believe, it’s vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble to “man­u­fac­ture” viral­i­ty. There are sim­ply too many vari­ables to con­sid­er, not least of which is the enor­mous gulf between con­sumer con­tent such as that pub­lished by Buz­zFeed, and the com­par­a­tive­ly drea­ry world of B2B mar­ket­ing.

The more focus you divert to “mak­ing” some­thing go viral, the less atten­tion you can pay to fac­tors you can actu­al­ly con­trol, such as the qual­i­ty of your con­tent. How­ev­er, that’s not to say you shouldn’t be pay­ing close atten­tion to the data at your dis­pos­al. Just because you can’t man­u­fac­ture viral­i­ty doesn’t mean you can’t dis­cov­er what res­onates with your audi­ence and give them more of it.

When plan­ning your edi­to­r­i­al cal­en­dar, be sure to exam­ine your ana­lyt­ics data. Which arti­cles were the most pop­u­lar? What ele­ments do they share? Did they con­tain orig­i­nal data or research, or fea­ture a strong, con­trar­i­an per­spec­tive on a con­tentious issue? Iden­ti­fy­ing these com­mon­al­i­ties should be an ongo­ing project that enables you to focus on giv­ing your audi­ence what it wants.

Mind the (Curiosity) Gap

Well, I made it almost all the way through this post with­out mak­ing a crap­py pun. Despite this glar­ing per­son­al fail­ure, hope­ful­ly this post has giv­en you some things to think about for your next con­tent meet­ing.

As with vir­tu­al­ly every­thing in dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to bridg­ing the curios­i­ty gap in your con­tent, and what works like gang­busters for one pub­lish­er may not nec­es­sar­i­ly work for anoth­er.

What insights have you learned from your own con­tent mar­ket­ing efforts? Get at me in the com­ments below with your suc­cess and hor­ror sto­ries alike.