By Dan Shewan
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 leverages 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:
- Publishing frequency
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.
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