User behaviour Web metrics

A/B headline switching for museum content

Regular readers will know that I’ve been fascinated by the overlap between museum curatorial practice and journalism over the past while. Similarly I’ve also been very interested in the impact of behavioural data on these professions that is emerging at scale and in real-time on digital platforms.

So I was very excited to find that out of a Baltimore Hackcamp that a ‘headline tester’ plugin for WordPress has been released.

You will have noticed how the headlines on news websites change throughout the day for the same article. This has been the subject of several online projects like The Quick Brown that tracked changes in Fox News headlines, and News Sniffer that tracks full article edits in the UK.

This sort of A/B testing is usually the kind of activity that takes a lot of work, planning, and is hard to deploy at a daily level with the kind of resources that museums have available to them. In news journalism time is of the essence – readership fluctuations directly impact commercial model in a highly competitive environment – so it makes a lot of sense to have systems in place for journalists to track and edit their stories as they go. Museums don’t face these pressures but do face the same competition for attention.

What this plugin allows us to do is – like a news website – pose two different headlines for the same blog post, then, over time, the one that generates the most clicks becomes the one that sticks for that post. Visitors and readers effectively vote through their actions for the ‘best’ title.

We’ve just started to deploy this on the Photo of the Day blog and it will progressively roll out over the others as we go.

Today’s Photo of the Day post introduces a camera from our collection. So which out of these two headlines do you think would generate the most traffic?

Are you interested in hearing about our camera collection?
The Bessa 66 folding camera

Paula Bray who wrote the post expected the first headline would be most popular. And now we can test that hypothesis!

Surprisingly, right now it is the second more direct headline – ‘The Bessa 66 folding camera‘ – that is generating the most traffic by almost 2 to 1.

Over time we will be able to better refine our headlines that are written by curators and other staff who blog. And of course this feeds back into improving the effectiveness of the writing style of museum in these digital mediums.

8 replies on “A/B headline switching for museum content”

Hi Frankie

Yes I agree that the first headline was vague and rhetorical but I think Paula thought that for *regular readers* it might prompt a response – whereas the second is more what I’d see as good SEO.

It is good for the content creators to get a better understanding of how their readers, regular or not, respond to different headline phrasing.

Seb – see how we’ve dealt with randomixed headlines on Americanium: shows the top story on the homepage as one of five stories that are linked to through the back end of the site. I personally think it’s really important for the most recent story to be top left on any homepage, but that’s my journalism training speaking…

With this site we have an easy to use back end RSS feed chooser, which allows a simple process of box ticking to place aggregated content on the pages.

The site is very similar to, but much more sophisticated in the back end and at the design level. It aggregates all kinds of social media onto the one homepage, wrapping it into a more readable news-style experience. JP

@Seb I wonder if even ‘regular readers’ are more intrigued by the specifics (even if they’ve never heard of a Bessa 66 folding camera) – I’m intrigued… :)

I actually think writing lots of rhetorical questions is quite a common marketing trap to fall into (and I’m sure I’ve done it lots myself). I’ve even seen posters for museums (which shall remain nameless) which contain nothing but questions, in the form of “have you ever wondered why X” or “Why does X do Y?”).

Reading them, I think, just leaves you with an exhausting sense of question-fatigue (and perhaps even with the contrarian desire to mentally answer ‘no’). This is especially the case in offline media when you’re presented with the question, but have to visit the museum to get the answer!

Rather than teasing people with questions, headlines/titles should contain answers! :-)

I hope you continue to experiment (and post your results to this blog) – really interested to know the results.

I’m off to read that Bessa 66 folding camera article… :)

I’d agree – and I think now we have some way of testing those hypotheses and conveying the data to authors whilst still retaining a decentralised publishing model.

I like notion of question-fatigue. Those nameless museums must think that asking questions in advertising is what ‘engaging audiences’ is all about.

Interesting that the findings support the principles of writing in plain English developed back in the pre-digital era.

The first heading is vague and wordy with a dash of exclusivity (‘our’ collection), the second is clear and precise and contains straighforward information likely to be of interest to an audience reading a photography blog. ‘In other words, it is language which exposes the message, rather than language which hides the message underneath a woolly, convoluted and obscure blanket’, to quote the Powerhouse Museum Style Guide.

The Style Guide may seem out-dated but it is still a solid introduction to the principles of good writing — many of which are equally applicable to digital media as they are to print — and worthwhile reading for all who are new to writing for an audience (beyond themselves).

Bloody clever stuff, Seb! What better way train yourselves to write what inspires people than to see what works?

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