The missing key to great headlines

As I was walking through the station yesterday, my eye was caught by the headlines on The Evening Standard, the paid-for newspaper that competes with the various freesheets in London (thelondonpaper and whatever the other one is called). It often annoys me that their headlines give you just too little information. I know that they’re not running a public service, but I could do with a newsstand that just told me a few headlines on my way to the train so that I wasn’t completely out of touch. I’m not really looking to read a newspaper at the end of a day at work - if I don’t have to read something work-related and Duncan and I aren’t having an impromptu meeting on the train home - I tend to read a novel to relax.

They obviously do it deliberately to try to encourage people to buy the paper, and I’m sure they have tested different approaches and have concluded that it is better to leave crucial information out than trying to entice people in to reading the rest of the story by giving away a bit more of what it’s about.

Using age-old tricks online

In the online world, a lot of the headline writing we do (especially while blogging) is aimed at getting a click rather than a sale, so the barrier is even lower than digging a couple of 20ps out of your pocket as you walk past the Standard newsstand. This should mean that this approach works even better online. Next time you are doing some headline split-testing, why not try failing to tell the whole story?

Will Critchlow

Will Critchlow

Will founded Distilled with Duncan in 2005. Since then, he has consulted with some of the world’s largest organisations and most famous websites, spoken at most major industry events and regularly appeared in local and national press. Will is part...   read more

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7 Comments

  1. Thought you might like to read this from the New York Times last year. Basically saying that Google is killing the creative headline:

    http://tinyurl.com/ldcxe

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  2. Thanks for the link Stephen - think I did see that at the time actually. It could have read "this boring page is written for Google"... One of the good things about the search engines getting more sophisticated is that hopefully we will see less of that kind of thing succeeding, but I guess the algorithm is always going to want to see keywords in there which does defeat many of the more 'clever' headlines.

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  3. I'm not that concerned to be honest and think from a PR point of view, working across multiple platforms (in this case the press and the internet) then the person writing the releases should tailor each accordingly.

    If anything it's better as, on the one hand, you're writing a release using the creative juices and then on the other, you're writing a second release which has more to do with systems/processes.

    Left and right brain writing if you will.

    Nice blog btw and interesting to see what you guys are up to.

    Cheers :-)

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  4. It's a sad but true statement about every web page worldwide. If you are going to optimize for search, you have be willing to sacrifice artistic style for functionality. There is still a balance that can be found, but print and radio are definitely more geared towards catchy and creative titles.

    You have a few options available to you, site-wise. You can spend extra money on branding through television, radio, and banner ads, and hope to drive traffic that way. If you go this route, you can focus more on artistic expression on each page.

    Honestly, I don't see a big problem with informational news headlines. I'll still want to know the details if the headline is interesting. You'll lose me more often when the title doesn't really tell me what the story is about. Then it's not worth the effort to discover.

    Just my two cents.

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  5. A great example of this is my feed reader. I just scroll over the headlines of each blog, and decide whether to click. All I get in my Firefox view is MAYBE 8 or 9 words. With that small real estate, I determine whether or not the story appears to be worth reading. It amazes me the most how many people still write two or three word titles that tell me absolutely nothing (Seth Godin and half of my PR/Reputation Management feeds are guilty of this regularly).

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  6. I have exactly the same experience with my feed reader Daniel, it amazes me how often the title is overlooked. People assume that once you have someone subscribing that they'll automatically read your posts but it's simply not true.

    If you have an audience, constantly work to keep them reading.

    (and I agree Seth is terrible at it, but then I know his posts will be short so I tend to read anyway!)

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  7. At the risk of just saying 'me too', me too. Part of the reason I'm writing about headlines is that I need to write better headlines, so I figure if I talk about it, maybe I'll start writing better ones!

    Seth's headlines don't need to be good - I read everything he writes anyway.

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