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Our odd fascination with odd numbers

Wed, 05/03/2014 - 00:00

Thousands, if not millions, of blog posts and online articles are published every day. Of those published, a significant portion comes to you in the form of a list. You know the type:

7 Reasons to Lose Your Belly Fat

9 Veggies that You’ll Love on the Braai

Even Oprah is doing it – 5 Ways to Mend Communication Breakdowns.

Do you notice something that all three these articles have in common? That’s right, all three headlines start with a number. But, more than that, an odd number.

Now for those who are mathematically challenged like myself, a quick explanation of what an odd number is: it’s an integer that cannot be divided exactly by 2.

So why the fascination with odd numbers? I know I’ve always favoured odd numbers myself. I give three examples whenever I’m writing (as can be seen above), breaking out in hives whenever I get stuck at only two, and I’ve always given 9 as my lucky number, for no good reason.

But I’m not the only one who favours odd numbers

The Rule of Three has been taught for ages in photography and design. Us creatives believe that pairing elements in three make them more appealing to the senses. Even script writers are encouraged to tell their stories in three acts.

And why do you think products are typically priced at, for example, R9.95 and not R10.00? It’s because people perceive the odd number as cheaper. Consumer will round off to R9, not R10, thus perceiving the item as in the R9 range, not the more expensive R10. Obviously it’s a nearly insignificant difference at the till, but that 0.05 makes an enormous difference in the mind of the buyer.

Digital marketers prefer odd numbers because odd-numbered lists have proven to have a 20% higher click-through rate than even-numbered ones. I’ve come across this figure all across the internet, but have never been able to find the specific study that revealed it. But I figure if Content Marketing Institute and the Guardian says it’s true, I can probably believe it.

The right way to use numbers

People want everything in bite-size chunks these days, so when working with numbers in your list article, aim to stick to 3, 5, 7 and 9. Personally, I think 5 is the golden middle ground. Three points on a subject, unless you really flesh them out, could make for a flimsy article. (I just realised this goes against my love for 3’s.). Nine and seven will work if you keep the information under each bullet short. Very few people will sit down to read through a list article with 9 bullets, with each bullet containing 100 words. That means, with the intro and closing, your article is roundabout a 1000 words. No-one has time for that.

You should also have noticed that the article titles are ‘7’, ‘9’ and ‘5’ – not ‘seven’, ‘nine’ and ‘five’. The rule of thumb whenever working with numbers in headlines is to always use the numerical version. A numerical value is more powerful than its worded counterpart. The number also reads easier, delighting the reader, make them more likely to click on and read your article.

Finally, always start your headline with the number. Don’t put it in the middle or towards the end; it will get lost. You don’t want this to happen; you want to draw the reader in the minute their eye fall on your headline.

So will you use odd numbers in your next headline? Keep in mind that it’s not the number alone that’ll make someone click – the words that follow the number should be read- and click-worthy too.

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