The headline is what convinces you whether or not to click on a link, whether on Twitter, Facebook, or even that old dinosaur, email (where it is referred to as a subject line).
But I can’t help but feel that we’re nearing “peak headline.” Too many companies are strip-mining the psychology of headlines for traffic; the result will be a jaded and cynical audience that will stop clicking on anything.
Once upon a time, Huffington Post was criticized for simply republishing content. Now we long for those halcyon days. Upworthy doesn’t even bother with republishing–the typical Upworthy post is simply a YouTube video with a catchy headline. #via
In his post, Chris Yeh makes some great points. I’m constantly impressed at the headlines of articles as I scan my RSS feed, the NY Times, or my local newspaper. Headlines appear to be the main way used to catch a reader’s attention.
In the past, when I’ve contributed to various websites and online magazines, the headlines were typically high on the priority list. I’d pitch ideas with the headline in mind. These were used both to catch a reader’s attention, but also to generate the highest SEO ranking possible. Typically, the titles followed this format (or something close to it):
- (Num) of Ways to (Desired outcome here)
- Example: 5 Flexibility Marks Every Man Should Hit
- (Num) Things You’re Doing Wrong (Insert place here)
- Example: 5 Smarter Ways to Do Cardio
In the above scenarios, the goal was either to entice the reader into clicking (after all, who doesn’t want to see how they stack up against every other man) or to create a knowledge gap (are you doing cardio stupidly?). Sure, the titles were related to the content. In the flexibility marks example, I did indeed cover five flexibility assessments that every “man” should be able to pass. However, as is often the case, I think I started with the title in mind and created the article to match rather than the other way around.
With all of the title hyperbole taking place in the media, readers will soon become immune to popular click-baiting tactics. There’s only so many articles you can read that describe the 10 best abdominal exercises to lose your gut. The title formats often become repetitive in nature. It also forces editors and writers to go bigger and bolder with each new title (a cycle that Chris alludes to).
The bottom line: headlines used to be a tremendous tactic to get readers to click and read (or at least skim) your article. Do they still work? Absolutely. But, eventually, there has to be a better way. I’m of the crowd that thinks that “better way” is through producing trusted content and becoming a go-to source within your industry for insights, and opinions that aren’t available elsewhere. It’s not so much of getting an “exclusive” (because those are hard to come by), but more of creating something unique rather than following in the footsteps of those that have gone before. SEO and headline hyperbole (my title for this problem) are eventually going to die off unless writers can continually come up with more descriptive adjectives. In that scenario, more time will be spent on the title than on the actual article itself. Those roles should be reversed. Keep the catchy headlines for Twitter. Save the bulk of your time to present quality information.