January 22, 2019 | by Jon Fletcher

What the world’s most-read articles all have in common

The 10 most-read stories of 2018 showed us something about what the world wants to read

 
Readership patterns shift. The style, tone, and subject of content that keep readers engaged follows fashions and patterns .

Searching for these patterns, we analyzed the top 10 most engaging stories, selected by Chartbeat from over 60 million pieces of content published in 2018.

The most engaging article received 29 million minutes of engaged time, or 55 years of total reading time.

To understand what readers want from content as well as delivery, we’re looking at the data, the form, themes, and the linguistic devices that make these posts stand out.

Here’s the list in full:

 
1. “CNN’s Anthony Bourdain dead at 61” — CNN
2. “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration” — The New York Times
3. “Brexit latest: Live blog” — BBC
4. “This Is Why Uma Thurman Is Angry” — The New York Times
5. “In Conversation: Quincy Jones” — New York Magazine
6. “Maybe She Had So Much Money She Just Lost Track of It” — New York Magazine
7. “Donald Trump Didn’t Want to Be President” — New York Magazine
8. “Trump Engaged in Suspect Tax Schemes as He Reaped Riches From His Father” —The New York Times
9. “For Kraft, Brady and Belichick, is this the beginning of the end?” — ESPN
10. “The Trouble With Johnny Depp” — Rolling Stone

Analysing the data:

Average length: The articles ranged from 1000 – 10, 000 words, with an average length of 4616 words.

As we are looking at the length of engagement, longer articles are to be expected. But, the long-form nature of almost all of these posts contradicts the popular notion that online content only works to serve the short of attention span, or those in search of instant gratification.

Publishers can take risks with longer pieces and still get engagement. Data drives many decisions, there are content guidelines that an article should aim to be a seven-minute read. However, this is aiming for the middle of the pack. Content that swings for the fences will take risks in areas such as length and rely on the strength of the story to retain engagement. In these examples, it appears that the readership is receptive to it.

Takeaway: Longform content still has the power to engage readers online despite shorter attention spans often associated with online articles.

  

Average headline length: The length of the headlines ranged from 4 – 13 words, with an average of 7.9 words.

There is a clear, blunt tone prevailing through the headlines. Any good headline should be designed to intrigue, but not give everything away. Analysis reveals that people will skim a headline, clocking the first and last three words, putting headlines at 5-9 words in the sweet spot.

8/10 of the headlines feature the name of a publicly-know person. This helps to create interest whilst keeping the headlines short yet still vivid and attractive.

Scan the list of headlines, these familiar names stand out like emeralds. Names generate instant, detailed images in our heads.

The device used frequently is to set up this figure and use one term that contrasts our established idea of them. Link their name with a rich, laden noun or adjective that skews the popular associations. This creates friction and interest in the short space of the headline.

Takeaway: Headlines need to stand out and leave a reader wanting more. 2018 used celebrity power to boost their headline potential.

  

Article form

The most frequently used form is an investigative style op-ed, long-form article.

There is one notable exception to the form, one of the stories is a live blog, a regularly updated page that features news regarding a long, ongoing political story. This should be treated as something as an outlier as it is to be expected that people will return to and refresh this page, increasing the engagement.

Takeaway: We are now post-news where content is expected to review and counterpoint established perceptions of facts in long form exposés.

Linguistic analysis

Online content relies on captivating headlines. You need to make your readers take an action so there has to be a promise of value. Let’s break down an example headline in detail to see how publishers create a depth of interest in one line.

‘I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration’

The component parts of this sentence manage to create a deliberate effect that led to the shortest article in the list garnering the second-highest level of engagement,

This is a simple sentence with a first-person subject, a statement, not a direct indication of the contents of the story.

Let’s break it down:

I am

The account is first hand. It is likely to be detail rich and we know the writer is emotionally invested in the outcome. The verb, ‘am’, solely existing in a state or place, has a definitiveness and a permanence that gives the sentence weight and power.

Part

The writer is not alone. This suggests more authority and more power behind the words in the article. We are being shown the tip of the iceberg that the article promises to reveal.

Of the resistance

‘ Resistance ’ is a deliciously loaded term. The object of the sentence has connotations of war, fighting, rebellion, and a certain emotional tug.

Inside

The story is secret, covert, in danger of being exposed. It is urgent you read this article

the Trump Administration

The secondary object is a proper noun but detached from the person. By depicting the administration, not the man that grabs so many other headlines, the line leaves a cool, matter-of-fact almost emotionless tone. It has the sense of an urgent message being smuggled out, beneath the noses of kidnappers.

The result is a beautifully poised headline, perfectly applicable to both sides of a partisan divide. It can add to the private thrill of resistance, or confirm the dark theories of an uprising within your own camp. How could you not read?

To demonstrate the power a headline can hold, let’s write an alternative, worse headline that tells the same story:

The fight against Trump from within

We’re using the same name, adding power with ‘fight’, yet any depth has melted from the line. Engagement will always come from telling a story that no-one else can tell. The original line managed to show readers that the content behind it was going to be a totally unique perspective.

The headlines we analyzed from 2018 all tried to show us a unique perspective or privileged knowledge and used the language of the headlines to intimate this.

Takeaway: Headlines are not answers to questions, but the tips of icebergs that promise revelations.

Themes:

Two central themes emerge from the majority of the stories in the list: revealing an unseen side of a familiar story, and for the tone of this revelation to be overtly negative.

Revelations

News is constantly available. Facts are abundant. Only one of the most engaging stories was factual news reporting, the rest was opinion and investigations into popular culture. This suggests content that can work to uncover, unpick our existing grasp of people and ideas will engage readers.

The ubiquity of news content has weakened its value and shortened its shelf life. Publishers have to demonstrate their ability to add value, plus add a unique brand voice, that separates their content from the pack of news media that may present a more superficial narrative.

The dark pull of tragedy

The second theme of negativity or disaster shows that any language that hints at conflict is a temptation to the modern reader.

engaging articles

Mainstream media has undergone questions over political and financial impartiality and what content could be considered ‘newsworthy’ for high profile publications. The proliferation of multiple, instant sources for news has removed their advantage as the first mover. Publishers need to extend the value of their content.

Disregarding speculation on the motive, the trend for revealing darkness was prevalent throughout the most engaging stories of 2018. Publishers had to present a novel viewpoint and often relied on subverting our idea of well-known figures with a negative revelation. We are beyond news, looking for news behind the news.

Takeaway: Negativity, or the revelation of imperfection, scandal, or, fallibility was a persuasive draw throughout 2018. It is also notable that these terms frequently appear alongside the name of a notable figure.

Conclusions:

So, what does an engaging article in 2018 look like?

It should be a 4000-5000 word investigatory takedown or profile of a well-known figure in society. It should take an emotional tone of revealing an unseen, imperfect aspect to this figure’s life.

Let’s create some fake examples:

  • Inside the madness of Murdoch
  • Hilary Clinton is done with lying
  • The house that Donald Trump destroyed

These example headlines answer no questions. They take a small, powerful element of the opinion and use it to make a dense statement that also contains some small nucleus of damage or trouble.

We can conclude that online content we find engaging and sharable is not designed to answer our questions. It is designed to illuminate a dense subject or person with new information as it entertains and intrigues.

The motivation that guides the decisions to click and read articles can be broadly based on impulsivity and impatience. News is available constantly and content has become a commodity.

Readers search for a branded version of opinion and entertainment that reflects their personal choices as well as informs and entertains. The stories of 2018 depict a picture of content readers that are searching for an alternative approach to news and content.