7 Reasons Why You’ll Read This Post. You Won’t Believe #4!

by Steve McCarthy

We dissect the anatomy of the modern day blog title, and the reasons why you just had to read this post.

#1 We challenged you: Provocative language

Experience Strategy teaches us that humans like challenges, particularly if we think we’re likely to triumph. Successful blog titles bait their readers with assumptive language where presumptions have already been made about how the reader is likely to respond to what they are reading. In our title we’ve done this in two ways:

  • Sentence 1 — We’ve made the bold assumption that you will read this post.
  • Sentence 2 — We’ve made an assumption about how difficult it will be to change your current convictions, and then decided that you won’t believe some of what we will tell you.

This powerful technique has been used by salesmen for centuries as a quick mental trick to positively engage their ‘marks’ in a dialogue which encourages a response. In our example, we are forcing the reader to make a decision; the reader can choose to either be provoked or ignore the challenge of Sentence 1 without much mental effort, but Sentence 2 traps them in a reverse psychology dilemma whereby the only way the reader can successfully verify the statement is to concede defeat on Sentence 1 and proceed with reading the article.

Frustratingly, often being conscious of this technique doesn’t actually help, with the challenge being too powerful to ignore. And this is only heightened if the reader’s identity is directly challenged…

#2 We made it personal: Persuasive language

Humans develop an understanding of ‘self’ from as young as one; with self recognition and a use of personal pronouns grasped by the age of two. For many the forming of their identity will go on to last the rest of their lives, shifting and adapting as they go. It’s no surprise then, that challenging a person’s identity will invariably trigger an emotive response (usually of defense). The ‘cocktail party effect’, where a person is able to focus one’s auditory attention on a particular stimulus while filtering out a range of other stimuli e.g. hearing one’s name across a crowded room, is evidence of just how innately defensive we are about protecting our identities.

A digital version of the ‘cocktail party effect’ is what I like to call ‘feed scanning’ where readers will skim-read a social network feed such as Facebook or LinkedIn searching for references to themselves. People scan digital content for a number of reasons: speed, effort, impatience, but scanning for vanity is certainly a noteworthy factor.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been using the pronoun ‘we’ a lot to involve you in the post. What I hadn’t done was talk to ‘you’ directly — yes you — until now. Couple this second person narrative technique with necessity and you have urgency. And urgency will convert into action (or an increased ‘click-through-rate’ (CTR)).

This is particularly effective when a potential absence of knowledge is implied.

Side note: I can’t honestly remember the last time I ‘needed’ to know even one androgynous tumbler let alone thirteen. It just isn’t a requirement of my everyday life. But apparently I do need to know them.

We’ve evolved over thousands of years to understand that knowledge equals survival, and we’re constantly looking to plug potential holes. As Macknik, Martinez-Conde and Blakeslee note in their book Sleights of Mind,

“Your cognition, including your beliefs, are constructs of your learned predictions. In other words, perception is not a process of passive absorption but of active construction… Your brain is constantly comparing incoming information to what it already knows, expects or believes. Every experience is measured up against prior beliefs…”1

So any opportunity to gain more knowledge — and for free — is an opportunity to better understand the world around us, and an opportunity that is hard to ignore. Especially if it’s provided to us in a digestible format…

#3 Everyone loves a list

  • Old news perhaps, as “listicles” (a portmanteau of ‘list’ and ‘article’) have been around since the dawn of mainstream magazine journalism, but blog readers these days enjoy their information bite-size.
  • The formula is as follows: Concise, enumerated information (format) + lowbrow facts or news (content) + a social, mobile environment (context) = the perfect snack.
  • The most important ingredient in the formula is the “mobile” context. After consistent year on year growth mobile activity levels are finally competing with desktop. Limited real-estate and the requirement for faster load times means mobile content is forever being streamlined, and lists, by their very nature, satisfy this criteria. The two were made for one another.
  • Context is important, but it’s the format that makes it irresistible; our brains are bias towards enumerated information because it implies less effort to remember. When absorbing any new information the brain must decide whether to commit it to long-term memory or short-term memory (STM). The former requires more effort, while the latter is easier but unreliable. As Donald Norman notes, “Something like five to seven items is the limit of short-term memory.”2 Giving you just enough time to relay the facts to your friends (context) before they are replaced by some other irrelevant piece of information.
  • Similarly, in the same way that starting a novel that is 250 pages long feels more appealing than a novel with 1,000 pages, article titles that show numbers convey the amount of perceived effort required from the reader. As Maria Konnikova notes in an article for The New Yorker,
“The listicle spatially organizes the information; and it promises a story that’s finite, whose length has been quantified upfront.”4
  • Finally, titles with odd numbers (9, 7, 15) feel more reliable than even numbers (10, 20, 8). Any savvy business owner will know that when charging a customer a large sum of money the customer is more likely to accept a figure like £16,345 over £16,300; even though the former is higher it feels more believable because it is not precise. Randomness implies complexity. Therefore lists with odd numbers feel more trustworthy and this adds to the credibility of the article, increasing the likelihood of it being read and consequently shared.

#4 We made a specific list item stand out (usually an even number)

To further exploit our bias towards storing information in STM we drew your attention to a specific list item. So even if the full list feels like too much hard work, we’ve implied that one list item in particular is worth your time. (If you believe this point we apologise for any disservice we did to you by making the assumption within the title that you would not believe this. But we thank you for taking the time to read this article anyway and for your valued engagement aka click).

#5 We used an image with something indistinguishable circled

The ‘featured image’ — the thumbnail image that accompanies a blog’s preview content — has evolved significantly over the last decade. When the blogging phenomenon first kicked-off, bloggers would use the featured image as a way of contextualising the literary content i.e. if I was writing a blog about literacy I might choose to use a photo of a row of books on a shelf as my featured image.

Nowadays, featured images are used as a stimulus for provoking curiosity, acting as a visual teaser and capitalising on our brain’s visceral level of processing. As Don Norman notes in his book The Design of Everyday Things,

“The visceral system allows us to respond quickly and subconsciously, without conscious awareness or control.”3

Our curiosity is usually enticed further when something indistinguishable has been circled in red, as the examples below show; the user experiencing a great sense of satisfaction when the mystery is solved.

Humans are irritated by incompleteness. They say the dreams we remember are the ones that we don’t complete, and this is because we crave resolution. Ignoring an image that teases the reader is as frustrating as an unfinished

#6 We’ve used an image showing half naked bodies

No surprise here. Sex sells (yawn). And images that show partial nudity, and promise more, will always get more clicks. Similarly, studies by EyeTrackShop have unsurprisingly revealed that we enjoy staring at women’s rears, a point that Reebok were keen to prove in this unsubtle advert.

It’s therefore not surprising that we positioned the mystery object in our featured image (which for the sake of providing a resolution is nothing but a wave) right next to the woman’s backside — just to make sure you didn’t miss it.

#7 We’ve made two points from one

Finally, as a minor observation and to return to a point made earlier, further proof that specific list numbers are more effective than others can be seen in the fact that bloggers frequently draw out points into two or more list items to lengthen the overall list and hit that magic listicle number — in our case ‘7’. In the same way that crisp manufacturers pump air into crisp packets to make them look fuller, consumers/readers will inevitably be left feeling disappointed when they get less than what they were promised.


1) Blakeslee, S. Macknik, S. Martinez-Conde, S. Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Brains. Profile Books. Page 141.

2) Norman, D. The Design of Everyday Things The MIT Press. Page 92.

3) Norman, D. The Design of Everyday Things The MIT Press. Page 50.

Other sources: