Stop purporting to solve a problem simply because you have a number in the headline

Numbers in Headlines Don't Solve Problems

8 Ways To Live The Life You Want!

7 Tricks To Eat Less When Eating Out!

10 Ways To Make Your Bulletin Boards POP!

11 Ways To Bring More Play Into Your Life!

17 Ways To Immediately Improve Your Website Traffic!

This is the new normal in content/editorial spaces, honestly. Everyone chases this. There is documented research that numbers — and especially unique numbers, like 17! — in headlines will get more clicks, but we may have gone a little too far with it, honestly.

Here’s the No. 1 article on Forbes — a generally-respected business site — right now: “11 Things Smart People Won’t Say.”

I have the same problem with this stuff as I tend to have with the overall idea of business journalism or editorial content: does it really solve any type of problem, or advance anything?

Here’s what I mean:

Some executive or VP at some company reads an article on Forbes or Inc or Fast Company, right? The article makes a few good points, and the executive understands that hey, some of the things mentioned are “pain points” for his/her company as well. Do you know how many steps have to take place after that realization for something to actually change at the company? The executive has to float it to some other people. They have to care. Some task force/group has to be convened. People need to meet, e-mail, and discuss it. It has to remain a priority in the context of competing priorities (like revenue). This is all nearly impossible for one kernel of truth from an article to do, even if it’s the CEO backing it up.

It’s the same way with these “number in headline” stories: you’re chasing clicks. You’re not chasing actually solving a problem for someone. 17 ways to immediately improve your website traffic (!!) probably has some good ideas in it — I mean, within 17 ideas, you’d hope 1 is good, right? — but the great irony is that the true goal is improving the website traffic of the author. The value isn’t necessarily client-focused, or end-user-focused.

This is kind of the problem with content marketing as a whole: we spend too much time focusing on how much and how often we’re throwing stuff out there without any regard to the supply-demand problem we have in that space. “14 Great Landing Page Examples” might provide some value back to the end user, but the goal is value — clicks, higher ad rates, traffic, etc. — for the producer. That’s a concern we need to address more in how we push out content these days.

Ted Bauer


  1. Yep, click bait is like processed food in a person’s diet. I’ve always attributed the prevalence of the lists you’re describing to 2 things, rightly or wrongly: 1) The author has essentially run out of content to produce, so he/she feels pressured to cobble together a list that will make the deliverable happen. 2) The push to monetize everything on the Internet has created a bunch of bloated content, similar to the old media adage, “if it bleeds, it leads.”

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