5 Ways Viral Writers Catch Your Clicks

This morning, I was listening to The Allusionist podcast while working out at the gym. This is a great new podcast from the UK that covers all kinds of quirks in the English language. I listened to Episode 3 this morning (“Going Viral”), and I learned a new word!

li·to·tes noun \ˈlī-tə-ˌtēz, ˈli-, lī-ˈtō-ˌtēz\

: understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary (as in not a bad singer or not unhappy)

(definition from Merriam-Webster)

Litotes is pronounced LY-toh-teez (although, in American English, it sounds more like LY-duh-teez). It’s not pronounced LY-totes (darn Greek). The word reminds me of its opposite, hyperbole, another Greek word. My husband used to tease me by pronouncing it “hyper-bowl,” but it’s pronounced like litotes: hy-PER-boh-lee.

I’ve long been a fan of the word hyperbole, both for its sound and its meaning. Hyperbole is exaggeration to make a statement, prove a point, or provide humor. An example might be, “My legs feel like they weigh a million pounds!” After a long hike, your legs might be exhausted, but they don’t literally weigh “a million pounds.”

I also love Grammar Girl’s podcast, and she covered hyperbole a few weeks ago. In her podcast, Mignon Fogarty (A.K.A. Grammar Girl) talked with a psychologist named Ellen Hendriksen, who said this:

…whether we use a round or sharp number depends on our goals. If precision is our biggest communication goal, we’re more likely to use a sharp number. But if our goal is to convey emotion and emphasis, we’re more likely to use round numbers.

So, when we’re using hyperbole, we usually use phrases like “a million dollars,” or “a thousand points ahead,” or “a bajillion chores to do” (which isn’t even a number, but nevertheless effective as hyperbole). If someone said, “I still have 38 dishes to wash,” you wouldn’t understand the statement as hyperbole. You would be inclined to take it literally. However, the sentence, “I still have a hundred dishes to wash,” conveys hyperbole just fine.

I point this out because spotting hyperbole is easy if you’re looking for it. When it comes to viral marketing trends on the internet, you should be looking for it.

You’ve seen the articles floating around:

17 Reasons Why the Beatles Were the Best Band in the History of the Universe
(subtitle: RIP John and George)

This Girl was Walking Back to Her Dorm, and You Won’t Believe What Happened
(subtitle: Don’t let this happen to you!)

One Reason Why We Hate All Should Spinach
(subtitle: It’s not what you think!)

11 Hidden Gems You Never Noticed in Friday Night Lights
(subtitle: Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t lose!)

These are examples of viral marketing articles. I found all of the screenshots posted below within an hour of each other on Buzzfeed and on my Facebook news feed. If you’re new to the internet (welcome!), these are also known as “click-bait.” These titles are crafted with the sole purpose of getting you to click on the link, which will get the linked website traffic and advertising revenue.

The attached articles can be of varying degrees of quality. It’s really hit or miss. Some can make you laugh, while others are just pictures pasted together with poorly-written captions. Ultimately, the content of the articles isn’t really that important. The link could lead to a page with an error message, but it wouldn’t matter much if there was an ad slapped underneath it.

Sometimes, they’ll even hide it in a “slideshow” of pictures with captions. That way, you have to click through a whole slideshow before you get to the information that interests you. Clever, right? Now, instead of one click from you, that site just got 25.

Here are a few tricks commonly used by writers of viral content:

1. Hyperbole

We discussed this above, but hyperbole is used by viral writers all the time. (See what I did there?) It’s a great way to get a reader excited about something. It’s also used to attract skeptical readers. Look at the examples below.

One type of reader will be excited by words like “brilliant” and phrases like “change everything” and “one of the most brilliant auditions ever”. Another type will think, “Oh, yeah? I bet these Harry Potter thoughts from Tumblr won’t actually change anything.” Both readers are likely to click.

2. Understatement and Litotes

Understatement, including litotes, is becoming more and more common as readers shy away from hyperbolic titles. These titles aim to attract readers by making them indignant.

One example I’ve seen recently concerns the vaccination debate. An article is floating around titled “Why My Child Isn’t Vaccinated” with the subtitle, “It’s not what you think!” In the article, the opening paragraph explains that this person’s child isn’t vaccinated because he is too young, but that once he gets old enough, he will definitely be vaccinated. This article attracts two clickers: “Vaxers” who are indignant that a child is not vaccinated and “Anti-Vaxers” who want their opinions reassured. This article could also be an example of click-bait (see number 5 below).

Look at these examples:

The Texas article is also an example of click bait, but I put it under this category because it’s so understated. The whole article lists amazing things about Texas, but uses them as reasons not to move there. In this case, sarcasm is used as understatement. This article, like the vaccination article, attracts two readers: people who love Texas and are mad that it’s being insulted and people who don’t like Texas and want affirmation. Same thing with the Korean article. Americans want to know why they don’t like our snacks. Why would they hate pudding snack packs? Click to find out.

Words like “probably” and “not impressed” are clues that the author is going for understatement or litotes. The phrase “not okay” is common litotes in titles, like, “Justin Bieber is Spitting on His Fans, and That’s Not Okay.” Understatement is funny (of course it’s not okay that Justin Bieber is spitting on his fans), and that makes readers click.

3. Extravagant Language

Boring titles don’t get clicks. Look at this example:

What if this title was simply, “29 Things Children Have Said to Their Parents”? Not very interesting. The author added the word “creepy” and the phrase “make your skin crawl” to make the link more appealing. The title also features an odd number (see number 4). Just by looking at the picture, I can tell that the article doesn’t have much to it. The author simply read an AskReddit thread and took screenshots instead of producing any real content. Doesn’t matter. Got clicks.

4. Numbers

I use this tactic, too, so I’m not innocent of this. You just need to be aware that content writers use numbered lists to attract you. Look at these two examples:

The first one uses hyperbole, but both use numbers. Would you be as likely to read articles titled, “Faces Every Person Who Works with the Public Will Recognize,” or, “No-Bake Desserts that Want to Be Your Valentine”? Probably not. The numbers make the article more exciting.

“Wow, they came up with 31 reasons why ice cream is my spirit animal? I can only think of 12!”

The Allusionist podcast also mentioned that most writers prefer odd numbers over even numbers because they get more clicks. Why? No idea. People just visually prefer odd numbers (like 27 or 23, above).

5. Bait

This tactic counts on your curiosity. You won’t believe what happens next!

This one is hilarious. The link leads to an ad-ridden webpage with a slideshow that takes you through one slide after another, zooming in closer and closer on the mattress.

“Can you see it?”

“You don’t see it yet?”

Finally, it shows you where they photoshopped a man’s face under the bedframe, insinuating that the woman (who looks more like a college student in a dorm room) was cheating on her husband before he got home. “What the… REALLY?”

“Something Awesome Happened.” Click to find out!

Look at this one. This little tidbit of information will apparently “rock your world.” The author wouldn’t put the “one thing you never noticed” in the title or subtitle. That wouldn’t get as many clicks. They’re going to hide it to make you curious.

Be an aware reader. Know the tricks. It’s okay to click if you want to (personally, I have trouble resisting links with “Harry Potter” or “puppies” in the title), but make your click a conscious one. Don’t be a click zombie.

You can download The Allusionist podcast HERE and the Grammar Girl podcast HERE.

Announcement: Coupons and Packages Now Available!

Hello, everyone! I know I have been absent from the blog for a while. I have been hard at work building up my business and finding better ways to serve my customers. The past few months have been fun and challenging for me, and I have learned so much in the process.

Today is June 1, my “Relaunch Day”! I am pleased to announce that I now have coupons and packages available to better suit your needs. In the future, I will be adding more specials, including wedding proofreading packages, college student discounts, and special deals for my Facebook fans. Please stay tuned and spread the word!

Here are the specials I am introducing today:

I love meeting new people! I am offering 500 words of free editing work to any new customers. I’m confident once you try me out, you’ll be back for more. These 500 words can be applied to anything– letters, blog posts, articles, you name it! You can also apply the 500 words to a longer document, but you will be responsible for paying the difference. Let’s work together!

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Keep checking my new pages for Special Coupons and Package Deals. I will update those pages frequently with new opportunities!

Thank you for your support. I look forward to meeting and working with new people in the months to come.

In the News: American Dialects

Ten days ago, Josh Katz and Wilson Andrews published a dialect quiz on The New York Times website called “How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk.” Since its publication, the quiz has circulated through social media and many of my Facebook friends have shared it. Part of its success is, no doubt, the commendable way The New York Times has adapted to current technology trends: at the end of the quiz, readers are encouraged to “share” their map with friends and family through social media.

However, the main reason why the quiz has been so popular is because it reveals a novelty trait about the good ol’ US of A: we are all so incredibly different, it’s amazing we all manage to coexist (I use that word liberally, of course). We span 3,794,101 square miles and six time zones. Until fairly recently, we were not audibly interconnected. The introduction of “talkies” (talking movies, as opposed to silent films) in the late 1920s—as well as the advancement of radio and, later, broadcast television—began to reveal to the masses just how differently we spoke from each other. Before mass audio communication, Americans communicated through written word: telegrams, newspapers, pamphlets, and letters. Different pockets of the population (New York factory workers, southern plantation owners, western settlers) developed their own speech patterns.

As I’ve mentioned before, Americans sound alike on paper (aside from informal grammar and local slang), but in person we sound like different nationalities. In fact, only 80% of Americans speak English at all.

Taking the Times quiz is a pretty fun experience. You will be asked things like, “How do you pronounce ‘aunt’?” and “How would you address a group of two or more people?” It’s interesting to see all of the answer choices. Your choice should stand out immediately, and this thought will probably cross your mind at least once: “All of those other choices are weird and stupid.”

“Yinz”? Seriously, y’all?

Another reason why the quiz has been shared so much is that it’s eerily accurate. By taking a short survey about your speech patterns, the quiz can pinpoint either where you live or where you were raised. Mine is a great example:

I was born in Amarillo and lived in the area until I was five. My family then lived in Abilene and Midland, both of which are within two hours from Lubbock. I currently live about 20 miles from Irving. How did the quiz know where I’ve lived? It’s not coincidence, not magic. Mr. Katz and Mr. Andrews have undoubtedly dedicated years of their lives to linguistic research so your Aunt Dee-Dee could post, “LOOOOK Evrybdy this quiz is cray cray! Try it NOWWW!!!”

Almost a year ago, a trend started popping up on YouTube called “The Accent Tag.” The challenge encouraged YouTube users to read a list of words in their own unique accent and answer questions similar to what you would find in the Times quiz. The users could then tag their video as “The Accent Tag” so other users could find it and compare it to their own accents.

Here is “The Accent Tag” Challenge:

The Words to Read Out Loud:
Aunt, Roof, Route, Wash, Oil, Theater, Iron, Salmon, Caramel, Fire, Water, Sure, Data, Ruin, Crayon, New Orleans, Pecan, Both, Again, Probably, Spitting image, Alabama, Lawyer, Coupon, Mayonnaise, Syrup, Pajamas, Caught, Naturally, Aluminium, Envelope

The Questions to Answer:

  1. What is it called when you throw toilet paper on a house?
  2. What is the bug that when you touch it, it curls into a ball?
  3. What is the bubbly carbonated drink called?
  4. What do you call gym shoes?
  5. What do you say to address a group of people?
  6. What do you call the kind of spider (or spider-like creature) that has an oval-shaped body and extremely long legs?
  7. What do you call your grandparents?
  8. What do you call the wheeled contraption in which you carry groceries at the supermarket?
  9. What do you call it when rain falls while the sun is shining?
  10. What is the thing you change the TV channel with?

The point of the challenge was to draw attention to different accents and speech patterns. One of my favorite examples is the word “fire.” Most Americans pronounce this word with two syllables: fy-rr. Some parts of New England might pronounce it fy-uh. In Texas, some of us tend to cut this down to one syllable: farr, or fyrr. As a concrete example, I present to you an entrepreneur selling firewood down the road from my university:

I’ve also noticed that other syllables get lost in some parts of the US. “Probably” becomes “prob-ly,” “naturally” becomes “natch-ur-ly,” “mayonnaise” becomes “man-aiz.”

I’ve found several examples of different American accents, but I wanted start with British actor Hugh Laurie, who played American Dr. Gregory House on the television show House M.D. Here is a brief clip from the show. Pay attention to his American accent.

Pretty convincing, huh? He talks about using an American accent in this interview with David Letterman. (You can stop watching around the 2:40 mark, when they change subjects.)

Here’s an example of a Texan accent I hear very often around here. (Don’t watch the whole video. Just watch the first ten seconds or so and move on with your life.)

This is a girl participating in the Accent Tag challenge, this time from Southern California. Again, ignore the content and pay attention to her speech patterns:

Here’s a clip from the 1996 movie Fargo that does a good job of portraying the American midwestern accent:

Here’s a good example of a Boston accent:

Finally, here is a Cajun man from Louisiana explaining how cook his favorite meal. Don’t worry, I can’t understand a word, either.

Not only do these two experiments (the TImes quiz and The Accent Tag challenge) show how different words are pronounced differently, but they also show how different colloquialisms refer to the same things. The most famous example in America is the sweet, carbonated beverage we all enjoy:

The choices given are: soda, pop, coke, and soft drink. Where I live, we call everything “coke,” even if it’s Sprite, Dr. Pepper, or Coca-Cola. I know, it doesn’t make any sense, but we’re firmly rooted in our ways. However, I will admit that “soda” is more practical. “Soft drink” is a little to stiff for me, and “pop” sounds a little silly. What this map shows, though, is my previous point: different pockets of culture in the US have developed their own language patterns. In the above map, you can clearly see the line between the American South, the Midwest, and the Coasts. In Texas, the pocket of red that matches the Coasts is centered around Austin, which famously has its own culture apart from the rest of the South. You can also see pockets of red around big cities like Chicago and St. Louis.

To learn more about different language patterns in the United States, I strongly encourage you to check out a documentary series on PBS called “Do You Speak American?” On their website, you can find the type of highly pedantic language dissection that I love, including a list of commonly mispronounced words you should stop mispronouncing, or else; several articles addressing language prejudice; and a hot debate about which American dialect is “correct.”

You can watch the second installment below, which explores southern American English: