My first job out of college was working for the Boston Globe’s website, which afforded me the opportunity to write a lot of headlines. Perhaps the best (or worst) headline I ever wrote, after a Boston Celtics victory, was “Pierce nets 40 as Celtics pierce Nets.” Clever, eh?
“Clever” could be an apt description for many headlines you read. The goal of the headline is to tell you what a story is about, establish its tone, and entice you to read it in full. Especially in the case of softer news, headline writers often rely on puns or plays on words, linguistic tropes, or otherwise try to encapsulate the emotional thrust of the story in a few choice words.
The very concept of headlines is getting a lot of attention lately thanks to viral content sharing sites like Upworthy, which have made a pageview mint on the backs of headlines like “If This Video Makes You Uncomfortable, Then You Make Me Uncomfortable” and “9 Out Of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact.” (This very blog post’s title is an homage to these types of headlines.)
More about the Upworthy approach to headlines in a little bit, but I do believe that the debate it is prompting is valuable because it reminds us how important headlines are. We agonize over email newsletter subject lines and 140 characters of tweet text, but do we give due attention to the headlines we use in news stories, feature packages, press releases, and the like?
Headlines do a lot of work for us, so are we putting in the work to ensure they are appropriate and effective?
The Anatomy of a Headline
The job of a headline is more than an exercise in poetic license—it has a lot of responsibilities. So when we dash off a cute or poignant headline for a story, are we considering all the places that headline is going to go? We are used to seeing headlines in the context of a story, with imagery, a secondary headline (subhead), and story text all there to support what the headline is saying. But that is just one possible context. For instance, it could end up:
- On a story page, with subhead, photo, and story text
- In a list of sidebar story links
- In a teaser with just the subhead
- In a homepage carousel with just an image
How might this play out? Let’s look at this headline from a news story at Oberlin, “A Familiar Program.” On the article page, I need to read the full (though short) article for the headline to make sense. When featured on the homepage, the same headline has an accompanying subhead to help clarify the its meaning. The URL, interestingly, appends the name of the story subject.
And here’s one from Tufts: “Crossing Borders.” This title could mean anything, and the accompanying photo doesn’t clarify much. But with the subhead, the meaning becomes clearer. However, in the related stories sidebar of the “Crossing Borders” story, I noticed this story, “The Most Important Disease You’ve Never Heard Of.” In this case, I don’t need photos or subheads; based on the headline alone, I want (need?) to read that story.
At Vanderbilt, the headlines avoid coyness and cut straight to the chase, as in the case of “New head football coach Derek Mason sets path to greatness”. University of Virginia takes a similar approach, as evidenced by “Inspired by the World, Chris Li Turns Nature Into Nanotechnology.” In both instances, the headline is the same on both the news homepage and the article page, as well as the title text.
As usual, I like what’s happening on Johns Hopkins’ Hub. This story, with the on-page headline (as well as title text) “’Each of us is a leader,’ Hrabowski says at JHU ceremony honoring legacy of MLK Jr.,” has a short homepage headline with just the key quote, “‘Each of us is a leader.’” The URL, however, adopts an SEO-friendly “slug” style as typically seen in the Associated Press: hrabowski-mlk-commemoration. (Vanderbilt does the same.)
When crafting a headline, your concerns must extend beyond the enlarged text at the top of the page. Headline text is not decorative; it is functional. That means taking search engine optimization into account. How is your headline adapted for your title text? Or your URL structure?
I’ve always liked the way ESPN handles headlines. Whereas the on-page headline for this story is “Record 98 underclassmen declare,” with the page header of “NFL Draft 2014” giving me some sense of what we’re talking about, the title text (important for SEO) reads “Record 98 underclassmen in NFL draft pool,” and this text is reflected in the article URL (also important for SEO), as well.
(Speaking of SEO, where can you find inspiration for better headlines? Marketer Christopher Penn offers three suggestions: Google Trends, Google Webmaster Tools, and question-and-answer sites like Quora.)
Think about best practices for on-page heading tags (H1, H2, etc.). You want to reinforce keywords and meaning in a way that makes sense to both people and search engines. The same concept applies to headlines.
A headline is not the same as a webpage title, a page name in a URL, an email subject line, or a tweet (more on tweets later). But on today’s web, you can’t craft a headline (or, as Johns Hopkins shows us, a couple of contextual headline options) without taking these other formats into account.
The Upworthy Uprising
Upworthy-style headlines have become a pop culture mainstay, achieving meme status and prompting the creation of an Upworthy headline generator, parodies via Twitter and College Humor, a game to pick which headline is fake or from Upworthy, and an XKCD comic.
But to the editors of Upworthy, headlines are no laughing matter. In fact, Upworthy writers famously draft 25 headlines for each story. Not a bad idea! And we can actually learn a lot from the way they approach headline writing.
Upworthy’s guidelines for writing effective headlines: (see slide 214):
- Don’t give it all away in the headline
- Don’t give it all away in the excerpt, share image, or share text
- Don’t form an opinion for the end user
- Don’t bum people out
- Don’t hypersexualize your headlines
- When drafting headlines, don’t over think it
- Be clever, but not too clever
“Headlines are an important means to an even more important end: drawing massive amounts of attention to topics that really matter,” Upworthy editors wrote in a December 2013 blog post. Upworthy headlines rely on what they call the “curiosity gap.” (see slide 21), landing somewhere between “too vague and I don’t want to click” and “too specific and I don’t need to click.”
But, they cautioned in the blog post, “Upworthy posts don’t go viral because people click — Upworthy posts go viral because people share.” In addressing concerns about using “clickbait” headlines, which oversell content with over-the-top headlines, the editors say headlines alone don’t drive those pageviews. “By far the most important factor in getting people to share a post is the actual quality of the content in the eyes of the community.”
As I mentioned above, headlines bear a lot of responsibility on behalf of a story. But they cannot sell a false bill of goods. Last January, when Liz Gross tweeted that one of her biggest pet peeves was a great headline that led to crappy content, I responded, “A headline is a promise.” Because it is.
The Social Headline
Much of what we apply when crafting good headlines is also applied in the service of a good tweet. We want to be pithy, informative, and alluring. The folks who man the @nytimes Twitter account shared some of their insights in a recent Nieman Lab blog post. One example they mentioned illustrated how a slight variation of a headline can yield a highly successful tweet.
He got kicked out of both Nirvana and Soundgarden. Then he became a war hero http://t.co/LD8oaVsLAm
— The New York Times (@nytimes) July 7, 2013
This is an important point. For years, many in higher ed have decried the broadcast approach to Twitter and Facebook, which is often constituted of hitching an RSS feed of articles to an account and letting the feed fill with context-free headlines. What does a tweet with the phrase “Crossing Borders” and a link even mean?
If you write your headlines as many newspapers do, in a shorthand style without important verbs or pronouns, they will look like gobbledygook to your followers. Remember the fundamental premise of social media: it’s a conversation. You don’t want your end of the dialogue to sound like “me Tarzan you Jane,” do you?
Upworthy headlines have also been criticized at times for giving away the bulk of the story arc. Interestingly, the Times social media staffers wrote, “readers don’t click on or retweet us when we’re being clever nearly as much as they respond to clearly stated tweets describing the meat of the stories they point to.” They continue:
“We also engage in the practice of being coy and trying to make readers curious enough to read a story. But even then we find that the best results were more direct and straight-forward about what the reader could expect after they clicked”
Stop What You’re Doing and Read the Conclusion to This Blog Post
How can we toe the line between cleverness and clarity? How can we stoke curiosity without obfuscating meaning? How can we craft one line capable of doing ten lines’ worth of work? This is the task before us when writing the not-so-humble headline.
What works? Use A/B testing and analytics to see which headlines are more effective in different contexts, or devise a usability testing approach to gauge user interest and comprehension of story headlines and teases. Either way, don’t take a headline for granted.
What’s your approach to writing effective headlines?