02 September 2021

YouTube data has lessons for poster creators, or: Too legit to click

In the Better Posters book, I wrote about how poster makers could learn lessons from advertising. Advertisers have clear metrics of whether a headline is effective or not: cold hard cash dollars. 💰

This Veritasium video tackles the same question: what makes an effective title? And there are a lot of takeaways for poster makers.

First, the more you are in this game, the more you realize how important titles are. Host Derek Muller says:

I always thought my job was to make great videos. And then a title and thumbnail that adequately represented what the video was about. But now I've realized that making the title and thumbnail is at least half the job.

This is not quite Randy Olson’s admonition that your title is 90% of your communication effort, but it’s pushing there.

YouTubers can now measure their success in ways that old school advertisers who worked in print could only have dreamt of. YouTube creators have an incredible array of real-time metrics at their fingertips. In short, they have data.

And data shows that titles make a huge difference in the attention videos get. “Asteroids: Earth's Biggest Threat,” (Muller estimates it might have gotten 1.5 million views) “Asteroid Impact: What Are Our Chances?”, and “Asteroid Impact: What Could We Do?” all underperformed compared to “These Are the Asteroids to Worry About” (now with 14 million views).

There are a few other things worth pulling out from Muller’s video.

First, there can be a big difference between what people say they want and what they actually do.

Now, there seems to be a paradox when it comes to clickbait. People almost universally claim to hate it, but you also see it everywhere. ... - So, why is clickbait everywhere? Well, because it works.

In conference posters, this crops up with people who insist they want to see all the data as though they were going to sit down and read it like a journal article. But people also say they want to be able to spend about 5 minutes at a poster.

Another complaint some academics make about posters is that some posters or other is “mere” advertising. Muller tackles this in his discussion of what people mean when they refer to video titles as “clickbait.” There are at least two mainings to the word.

(W)e don't all agree on the definition of clickbait.

When I google it, the top definition is, on the internet, content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular webpage. We could call this type I clickbait, and there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with it. I mean, if you didn't try to attract attention and get people to click on your links, then you wouldn't really be doing your job (Emphasis added. - ZF).

But there is a second definition. One that I think more people ascribe to, which is something such as a headline designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink, especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.

Muller later calls these two styles “legitbait” and “clicktraps.” Muller goes on to say that are good reasons to strive to create legitbait titles.

First, it opens up the work to more people. Second, Muller has found that his “legitbait” titles end up being more accurate descriptions of the video.

But then we come to the challenge. With all of these real time metrics at their disposal, YouTuber can treat the matter of “What title should I use?” as an empirical problem. Muller compares it to natural selection: you throw out a bunch of variations and see which perform the best.

Poster creators don’t have that luxury. You can’t release three versions of a poster at a conference on day one, see who visits, then leave up the best performinng poster for the rest of the week. It’s another factor that makes conference posters such a challenging format.

But the moral of the story remains: Put a lot of thought into your titles. Try them out on other people. And if someone calls your title “clickbait,” you might be on the right track – if you think it’s legitbait and not a clicktrap.

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