by Jonathan Kaufman
“BIG SCANDAL! FIFTY PEOPLE SWINDLED! Paper, mister? Thank you! BIG SCANDAL! FIFTY-ONE PEOPLE SWINDLED!”
I’d like to think we haven’t started any domestic spats. I’d like to think there’s never been an occasion when two partners were sitting across from each other, looking at their laptops, with one saying, “Hey, did you see this Times headline about Trump getting $2 billion worth of free publicity?” and the other replying, “You’re crazy. It doesn’t say anything at all about $2 billion.”
I’d like to think that, but I could well be wrong — because they could both be right.
In one effort to increase readership, The Times is using a tool that allows us to simultaneously present two different headlines for the same article on its home page. Half of readers on the page see one headline; half see the other. The test measures the difference in readers clicking on the article and lets us know if the numbers are statistically significant. If so, the winning headline goes on the home page for all readers.
And so, for a short while on March 15, one reader might have seen this:
$2 Billion Worth of Free Media for Trump
While another saw this:
Measuring Trump’s Media Dominance
Any guesses on which won the test, and by how much?
The top one got nearly three times as many readers, which underlines the crucial role of headlines in the digital age.
A story might be 1,000 words long, but tweaking the tiny handful of words that promoted this one on our home page gave us 297 percent more readers.
In other cases, headline tests have increased readership by an order of magnitude.