In early February 2011, a YouTube user posted a video with the title, “Zach Walls Speaks About Family”. Almost ten months later, the video was reposted on progressive campaigning site, MoveOn with a new title, “Two Lesbians Raised A Baby And This Is What They Got”. Here’s what happened to the views:
It’s not a straightforward correlation — after all, MoveOn.org commonly receives ~1.5m monthly UVs, so the additional exposure must have helped a bit. But the video had been posted on Reddit back in February 2011 with the uninspiring-if-informative title “Zach Wahls, a 19-year-old University of Iowa student spoke about the strength of his family during a public forum on House Joint Resolution 6 in Iowa”, so I think it’s fair to assume that the title played a big part.
Headlines have become separated from stories
A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to see Tom Whitwell, Editorial Director at Times Digital give his “How To Write Awesome Headlines” presentation. Tracing the development of headline writing, he claims that the patterns of web consumption and sharing means that headline writing has left behind the terrible (by which I mean “fantastic”) puns beloved of sub-editors.
In a world of Twitter, Reddit, news aggregators and curators, Whitwell says, the headline has become separated from the story; putting more pressure on sub-editors to make the headline sell harder.
He notes that:
The difference between a good headline and a weak headline isn’t 5% or 10%, it’s 10x, 20x or more.
…then lists his rules for click-able headlines:
- Be specific. Why exactly should I read your story, not that other one?
- Tell the whole story in the headline
- Don’t try to be clever
- Don’t try to be funny
- Play to your niche. Don’t over simplify or patronise in the headline
- Include lists, quotes, numbers and names
- Don’t worry about ‘being boring’
- Write the headline first. Really. Always.
- Great story which you can’t explain in the headline = crap story
Don’t give it all away in the headline
Improve the framing and put it on our site so more people will see it.
What constitutes “improving the framing”? There are some excellent points, but a good third of the presentation is given over to the importance of a good headline. By the very nature of what they’re doing (curating and re-framing stories, rather than creating them) they can’t, as Whitwell demands, write the headline first. Instead their practice is to “write 25 headlines for each story” before selecting the best. It’s a compelling presentation, and it stands out for me because their first and last rules directly contradict Whitwell’s rule.
- Don’t give it all away in the headline.
- Also, don’t give it all away in the excerpt, share image, or share text.
- Don’t be shrill.
- Don’t form an opinion for the end user. Let them do that.
- Don’t bum people out.
- Don’t sexualize your headlines in a way your mom wouldn’t approve.
- And don’t over-think it. Some of your headlines will suck. Accept it and keep writing.
- Which reminds me, my mom doesn’t like it when you put the word “sucks” in headlines.
- Lastly, be clever. But not TOO clever.
I’ve never been good at headline writing, but as I begin to understand the relationship between content, social and SEO better, I am beginning to understand better what skills we need to hire and develop in our organisations.