First Impressions

There’s always a balance of art and science in our work. As just one example, we put a fair amount of thought and effort into the ways our stories are presented in the initial touchpoint with an audience – whether on social media, or especially in the case of our flagship, Images, GIFs, videos and headlines have an enormous impact on whether a story is read, and ultimately shared.

In the case of headlines, we use a text analyzer that uses an algorithm to give each headline a score based on its emotional marketing value. Most readers react to headlines that elicit an emotional reaction, however small. Of course, most copywriters will find the idea that a headline could – let alone should – be written by a computer to be completely unacceptable. It’s important to note that the recommendation produced by this program is just that – a recommendation. In the case of “Steps,” for example, the analyzer wasn’t much help because it needs a minimum of four words to provide a score; yet there was little doubt that was the appropriate title of the story, alluding figuratively to the incremental nature of the research and literally to its application. The analyzer, then, is more of a method of honing and fine-tuning a headline that already has its central idea settled, in most cases. (In case you’re wondering, the highest scoring headline to date is the profile on a Russian artist serving a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study, called “The Art of Truth.”)

The imagery that accompanies that headline in a feature block or on a social media post isn’t always a clear-cut decision. In two recent stories, “Digging Deep” and “Super Speed,” the research being profiled did not lend itself to the immediate recognition factor we usually try to convey online. At least not yet. We opted instead for imagery that spoke to the subject matter in a more general sense, not necessarily the specific research being conducted. Did it work? In the case of “Super Speed” – which featured a jet airplane racing across the screen – the story outpaced by 20% the average number of page views for┬áthe first day of one of our features. “Digging Deep” – which featured a video loop of ominous looking waves – did not have quite as much success in its first 24 hours (among the contributing factors was a late-day publish, which often impacts page views), but has maintained a steady viewership and is performing well overall.

We continue to research and monitor our content across all channels to optimize its performance. Some of the results we uncover are unsurprising (photos of the Golden Dome yield a ridiculously high engagement rate on Facebook, i.e.), others force us to re-evaluate and hone our craft. But all insights are useful, especially when it comes to first impressions.