How important are awesome headlines?

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:

Screen grab of video statistics from re-titled a YouTube video, massively increasing its distribution

It’s not a straightforward correlation — after all, 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.

The Sun headline so awesome that they ran it twice (/ht Who Was the Super Caley Sub?, Guardian)

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:

  1. Be specific. Why exactly should I read your story, not that other one?
  2. Tell the whole story in the headline
  3. Don’t try to be clever
  4. Don’t try to be funny
  5. Play to your niche. Don’t over simplify or patronise in the headline
  6. Include lists, quotes, numbers and names
  7. Don’t worry about ‘being boring’
  8. Write the headline first. Really. Always.
  9. Great story which you can’t explain in the headline = crap story


Don’t give it all away in the headline

The next presentation comes from Upworthy (who are a bit like a BuzzFeed with a social conscience). Like BuzzFeed, they are content curators, and like all successful curators, they find content, then

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.

  1. Don’t give it all away in the headline.
  2. Also, don’t give it all away in the excerpt, share image, or share text.
  3. Don’t be shrill.
  4. Don’t form an opinion for the end user. Let them do that.
  5. Don’t bum people out.
  6. Don’t sexualize your headlines in a way your mom wouldn’t approve.
  7. And don’t over-think it. Some of your headlines will suck. Accept it and keep writing.
  8. Which reminds me, my mom doesn’t like it when you put the word “sucks” in headlines.
  9. 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.


  1. Adam Mordecai says

    The difference between our slideshows is the difference in venue. On a news site, like Whitwell's he could be correct. When people go to a news site, they are looking for the actual news. Therefore, telling it like it is might actually be a smart thing.

    However, on a social media platform like Facebook, people aren't looking for news. They are socializing. So to draw them to your site, you have to keep them in suspense. Otherwise they have no reason to click. Ergo, if Whitwell were to write an alternate headline for facebook, he could have the best of both worlds. As it stands, if someone were to see a headline of his paper on Facebook, he's already told them everything they need to know. So they have no reason to click. However, suggestions like that make legitimate journalists cringe. It's too contrary to everything they've been taught about good journalism. So the battle for clicks wages on.

    • says

      I think – of course – that Whitwell is constrained by (a) having an editorial team that's focussed on the paper product and (b) The Times's style guide.

      That said, and given the challenge that he recognises (headlines have become divorced from copy and photography and must increasingly behave like advertising), I believe that yours is the better response.

      Of course, the advent of Open Graph tags on Facebook and Twitter Cards mean that the feature photograph and first paragraph may be having a bit of a renaissance (again – your presentation covers that) but — to me at least — the headline remains the lowest common denominator, and I need to get my brain around what that means. The concept of there being a role as a "Viral Curator" – while it makes complete sense – also blows my mind.

      Incidentally, I've never used the word "Awesome" in a headline before. I strongly suspect that I was unconsciously affected by your presentation. Which is excellent.


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