Get readers clicking with more active links

By Doug Fisher

As I write this, the front page of a major paper's website features the cherubic face of a little girl in costume enticing me to click on "Slideshow: Halloween photos from our readers."

Sure, I'll do it – cute kids and costumes, who can resist? But I wonder how many more might click through had the link been written with an active verb: "See the best Halloween photos from our readers." (Put "slideshow" in parentheses at the end, if you must.)

Remember that journalism professor or editor who kept telling you to write in active voice? So as I tool around online, I keep wondering why we have so many dead label headlines for links, often paired with our journalistic and geeky code of "slideshow," "video," "audio," etc. 

And, please, don't start me on things like "multimedia."

Our readers' digital grammar is vastly advanced from even a few years ago, so no big deal, you might say. But when I talk to people, they still use words like "see," "hear," "watch," "listen," etc., as in "Did you …?"

The advertising department learned this a long time ago, and in a world where we are now just another storefront on the digital highway, we could take a lesson from what salesmen know about human behavior. Use a verb that invites action, and you are more likely to get it.

Wasn't that what the journalism professor or editor were really saying when they demanded you write in active voice – if you want people to mentally click through to your story, you have to make it inviting for them to get into it.

And isn't that what we want people doing, clicking more around our sites so we can show them more ads in the process? Only this time it's not just mental, but physical, action we want, which is harder to get people to do. So why don't we take greater pains to invite them in?

  • "Storm video" becomes "Watch as storm's winds wreak havoc."
  • "Government report on terrorist threats" becomes "Read how the government assesses terrorist threats."
  • "Audio: Royson explains agency's decision" becomes "Hear Royson explain the agency's decision."
  • And my favorite: "Day care center map." Can you think of any less inviting a link? What do I get when I click on this? What's my reward for giving you an extra few seconds of my time?

How about: "Find day care centers in your neighborhood (map)"? This is even more important in print if you want readers to actually finish reading, put down the paper, go to your online site and click. That requires a powerful reason.

Sure, it takes more words. But if it gets more readers to stick around for longer than the paltry few minutes a month they now average at most news sites, might it be worth it?

Word Watch

Lately, I've read several stories exhorting me to "eat healthy" or explaining how the folks who run our school cafeterias intend to get their young customers to "eat healthy."

In a construction like "stays healthy" or "feels healthy," "stays" and "feels" are linking verbs tying the subject to the predicate adjective, "healthy."

But "eat" requires an adverb. I've looked in all my major dictionaries and reference books – American Heritage, Garner, Webster's New World, and even the decidedly more liberal and sometimes vilified Merriam-Webster, among them – and I can't find any case where "healthy," normally an adjective, is sanctioned as an adverb.

So for now, I should "eat healthily."
 
Perhaps idiom is changing. "Healthily" does sound a little stuck up, which might explain why "eat healthy" brings back about 1.4 million results on Google and "eat healthily" just under 200,000.

What do you think?

© Doug Fisher

Doug Fisher, a former AP news editor, teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina. You can contact him at (803) 777-3315 or fisherdj@mailbox.sc.edu.

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