My First Article Just Went Viral and All it Took was a Headline Change

The article started on Medium but it went viral elsewhere

Zachary Walston
Jan 25 · 5 min read
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Photo: Getty Images

I have finally written a viral article. I would love to tell you the reason is due to extensive content and keyword research, writing 14 different drafts, and enlisting the help of social media influencers. Those take substantial effort.

Nope. It was one singular change in a story I had already written.

I added a clickbait headline.

A Tale of Two Headlines

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Which are you more likely to select?

MRIs Cause More Harm than Benefit or You Are Not Defined by Your MRI?

By now you have likely heard of the platform News Break.(*this is a referral link) Every week, I select three articles from Medium to publish on NewsBreak as part of the creator program. (*this is a referral link) I make minor modifications to each article as I learn more each week and the content is a couple of weeks to a couple of months old. The most consistent change I make is the headline.

Here are my last 30 on New Break compared to Medium. Note the News Break graph used to look like the Medium graph.

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Here are my two best performing articles on each platform.

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The Medium article was in a Medium publication and is my only article to ever surpass 1K views. It took about 24 hours to reach that threshold and 72 hours to hit 3K. Let’s compare that to my NewsBreak story. In 24 hours it reached 50K. In 72 hours it reached 100K. No marketing on my part. Just copy and paste a previously posted Medium article…with a new headline.

Newsbreak does not discourage clickbait articles; they encourage them. This is a key difference between Medium and NewsBreak. Writers need to not only design their articles to fit the desires of the audience, but they also need to fit the articles to the platform.

Medium and NewsBreak are Very Different

Medium is a community of writers and readers seeking to learn from one another and engage. For the most part, the platform is encouraging and supportive. It won’t sugar coat your ability to write and copyedit — if you struggle in these areas your articles won’t gain traction (I still have much to learn). News Break, meanwhile, feeds off of clickbait.

Perhaps I would have received a trending article and substantial views on Medium had I used a better headline than You Are Not Defined by Your MRI. Perhaps not. One thing I am certain of is the comments would have looked very different.

Scrolling through the comments on my News Break story sparks a plethora of emotions ranging from dismay to outrage to sadness. My writing is intended to help people, not harm them. I am to tackle health misinformation. My article has 30 references to high-quality research. The hyperlinks are for the Pubmed links. Yet, a high volume of the comments states the article I wrote is an opinion piece that lacks research to support it.

At the beginning of the article, I convey my admiration for the MRI as a potentially life-saving invention. The intent of the article is to warn of the potential harms MRIs can cause when attempting to use them to explain musculoskeletal pain. This was glossed over by many readers.

As I scroll through the comments, I am left wondering how many simply read the headline then darted for the comments. How many fulfilled confirmation biases and used filters when reading?

I have chosen to refrain from responding to the comments. It is evident most of the users have no interest in a dialogue or a challenge to their current beliefs. However, I am not going to sulk and strictly blame the readers.

You Won’t Please Everyone

In reviewing my article and the feedback, I recognize some areas I could improve but in the end, I am happy with the piece. While it frustrated many readers, it has a high volume of likes. If my article helped even a single person avoid the pain of unnecessary medical interventions, then the article was worth it.

Health misinformation is pervasive and harmful. Roughly 36% of US adults have basic or below basic health literacy levels and up to 96% of individuals use at least 1 unaccredited source when searching health questions online. Source credibility is often considered to be made up of expertise and trustworthiness. Expertise is the extent to which the source is able to give accurate information while trustworthiness reflects the extent that one is willing to provide accurate information.

Worldwide, the media is one of the least trusted institutions, besting only the government. While trust in the institution of medicine seems to have slowly declined since the 1970s, health professionals as individuals seem to be at the top of nearly all scales for public trustworthiness. This is where my writing comes into play.

I am going to continue to tackle health misinformation. I do this through writing, podcasting, and treating patients. A handful of comments, no matter how frustrating, won’t change that.

I like that clickbait articles are not part of the Medium culture and I hope it stays that way. That does not mean I won’t take advantage of them on News Break going forward. My mission is to minimize the spread of health misinformation. To do that, I need good health information to spread, even if it is uncomfortable for some readers.

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Think. Draft. Publish.

Thanks to Brittany Jezouit

Zachary Walston

Written by

A physical therapist tackling health misinformation | Elemental, Better Humans, The Startup, The Ascent, Mind Cafe | https://www.zacharywalston.com/subscribe

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Zachary Walston

Written by

A physical therapist tackling health misinformation | Elemental, Better Humans, The Startup, The Ascent, Mind Cafe | https://www.zacharywalston.com/subscribe

Blank Page

Blank Page is home to stories that help creatives get smarter at writing.

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