THIS IS IT!/Image: Michael Moffa

Which way is “this way” referred to in the title of this article? Can you guess?

In this instance, it’s the “this” way—using the word “this” as an intriguing, often irresistible hook in advertising, online articles, tweeted job postings and as link bait. In online promotion and reporting, it has become a widely employed word utilized as a lure—bait to hook a reader, a customer or to boost a website’s “unique visitor” totals and ratings and click-throughs to other pages, often pages with more bait of the same kind.

As for recruiting, irrespective of the question to what degree recruiters are currently using it as an advertising ploy, the growing popularity of short, tweeted job postings makes it a mere matter of time and judgment before a stream of job offers like “If you want a high salary, great benefits package and advancement opportunities, THIS is the job for you!” becomes a deluge. What is worth asking is how effective this kind of general and recruiter enticement is—something addressed below.

“This Will Save Your Life”

Outside the arena of recruiting, it is not only a pervasive tactic, but also (at least for me) a grating annoyance. I subscribe to a, if not the leading health information website’s emailed daily newsletter and know before I open it that the lead stories will have hyperlinked titles like “This Simple Spice Can Add Years to Your Life”, “This Will Save Your Life”, and “Why Big Pharmaceutical Companies Want to Make This Crucial Vitamin Illegal”. To mask this tactic and ease the monotony, other linked articles may trade on “the” as the mystery word, e.g., “The Easy Step That Can Prevent Cancer”.  Now, whenever I see “this” in the title of a lead article, I delete the entire newsletter—unless it is being reported that the “this” will truly make me immortal. Needless to say, “this” is freeing up my time for reading other things.

“This” is perfect for online promotion and reporting to a degree that many hard-copy and non-sales-pitched publications dare not attempt to replicate. Whereas a recruiter or an herbalist can not only get away with, but also succeed with an online mystery-cloaked “This Is the Key” kind of pitch, any submission to the New England Journal of Medicine titled “This Enzyme Found to Inhibit ATP-ADP Synthesis in Irradiated Cancer Cells” would accomplish neither (offline nor online). Now, why is that? Why can’t or shouldn’t sober scientific journal articles have enticing titles like that? More importantly, and by extension, why shouldn’t your job postings? After all, if the NEJM changed most or many of its article titles to a “This…” format, it could conceivably get many more link clicks and subscriptions, if only from the kind of sheer curiosity that can and often does outweigh impatience, annoyance and suspicion.

The Canadian Exploitation of “This” as a Marketing Tool

Come to think of it, why not go whole-hog and change the name of the organization to “This New England Journal”, to create a greater tantalizing mystery, or change to “”?  Well, a change to “” is not possible, because it is taken—although by what is not entirely clear. Take a look and judge for yourself: It’s not easy to tell whether it is a blank page with some (Canadian college and university) ads on it (comprising those displayed on my computer), or a simple (college and university) search engine, or both.

Displaying an evident fascination with and sensitivity to the marketing potential of “this”—perhaps comparable to their love affair with “eh?”, Canadians have also seized, home to a magazine the site describes as “focusing on Canadian politics, pop culture and the arts…”, said magazine being aptly and predictably titled—you guessed it—“This Magazine”.  (Surprisingly, on its home page, this website had only one bait-within-bait “this”-based article: “Book Review: Hal Niedzviecki’s Look Down, This is Where It Must Have Happened”.)

This and These

Were “these” as common as “this” in promotion, the Canadian version would probably be, rather than , since Canadians seem to have a special fondness for the presumably redundant phrase “these ones”. Should you do any recruiting in Canada, you could experiment with “Jobs?—You’ll Love These Ones!” and “Jobs?—You’ll Love These!”, and see which works better. Actually, is already registered, to someone in Australia, which, nonetheless and after all, is kind of Canada.

Predictably,, like, appears to be a sales portal. As for, take a look and decide for yourself whether anything is being pitched—assuming that “Theseones” is not pronounced “Thuh-see-oh-neez” and the name of some obscure ancient Greek thinker or early religious prophet.



The Psychology and Effectiveness of “This”-Based Promotion

That “this”-based advertising is widely employed is indisputable; but, is it effective? On reflection, why would anyone imagine that it would be?

Consider the University of Alberta School of Business 2004 research abstract that appears on the right. It distinguishes three kinds of quantifier terms used in advertising copy used for charitable donations: “abstract”, “estimable” and “calculable”.

For example, “a portion of the profits will be donated” is abstract, since it provides no concrete hint as to how much will be donated. (Indeed, it doesn’t even distinguish gross from net profit, when the latter can easily be zero. Note that the next time you discuss “profit-sharing” with a candidate.); “X% of the profits will be donated” is estimable—if you have a clue as to which profits are meant and what they may amount to; “X% of the price (of a purchase) will be donated” is calculable, to the decimal.

The study showed that the choice among these three hugely impacted perceived donation level—and by implication consumer willingness to support the charity by making a purchase, which therefore can impact consumer decision to buy or not. It also found that the vaguer the descriptor, the wider the variance in consumer estimation of what it meant. In contrast, very few provided a calculable descriptor like “10% of the price will be donated”—possibly because the vaguer the quantifier, the easier it is to conceal the fact that the donations will be minuscule, when that is the intent or expected result of the company’s charity drive.

This cited research discovered that of the 3,414 unique websites surveyed, the majority—70%—used  vague and abstract descriptors such as “a portion of the proceeds shall be donated”, with only 4.6% providing a calculable descriptor like price percentage. Clearly, the majority of those on the supply side of such abstract and vague promotion seem to think they are on to a good thing—leaving open the question as to whether they imagine it works by enticement or by concealment.  What remains to be determined is whether they or those who rely on “this”-based advertising are right about its effectiveness—at least as a lure.

The Case For and Against “This”-Based Hooks

Although the psychology of “this” differs from that of “a portion” to the extent that “this” is a clear quantifier, inasmuch as it refers to one thing, it does bear enough similarities to warrant extrapolation. First, like “a portion”, “this” is vague when its referent is unspecified; second, similarly, it is, as an abstract vague term, just as likely to make the target reader wonder, if not feel confused about what it means; third, it can easily trigger suspicion about motives for the apparent evasiveness in not being more forthright in presenting the associated information.

Hence, if you are currently using “this” as abstract bait or are contemplating doing so, you have to be aware of the tradeoffs: On the one hand, there is, of course, the curiosity factor and the desire for cognitive closure through a cognitive response to and reward from pigeon-clicking on the teaser stimulus presented by “this X”, where X is of great pre-existing importance, e.g., when X= “your dream job”.

On the other hand, and in addition to “this” possibly serving as a trigger for suspicion, there is the obvious requirement that another step be taken to determine what “this” refers to—which, if required too often, becomes an annoyance and test of patience. Moreover, although I harbor no suspicions about the veracity of the articles in the emailed health newsletter I receive, I am concerned, as a job applicant would understandably be regarding a posted ad, about redundancy, since the “new” information about that “this” may in fact be old, relative to what I or the applicant already know.

Finally, as with all things fresh and new that are overdone or simply become too familiar, “this”-based advertising and recruiting can and will become stale, vapid and all too common to have the desired effect. It certainly has for me.

But, as the title of this article indicates, only as a reader, not yet as a writer.

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