I’m feeling a bit guilty over an experiment I just did on you all. Even worse is that the results proved a trend that is disappointing.
My tiny experiment involved headline writing. Recently I’ve been reading up on newspaper design as we at The Enterprise discuss how to freshen up our paper. Over and over, the experts push the need for writing provocative headlines: It’s a must if you want people to read your stories.
This is especially true on the web, where we don’t have as many ways to lead you into a story … You don’t see a pull-quote from the story that encapsulates a good point, and there are generally no design features like fact boxes or sidebars that give you ways to jump in if the headline doesn’t grab you.
It turns out that on the web especially, a headline needs to scream out, “You should read this!” Nay, “You cannot not read this!”
Two columns ago, I wrote a headline that gave a very clear glimpse of what the story would be about: “My Grad Night fantasies involve lots of smiles … and candy!” This headline dared somebody to read it who had no interest in Grad Night, or candy or an obvious light-hearted story. I got some really nice feedback from the people who told me they read it or who emailed me comments. But the number of clicks by Enterprise website readers was very low.
The next column I wrote was about my family’s switch from one morning news show to another. I gave it the more dramatic headline, “Fool me twice and I will write a column about it.” I honestly felt bad as I wrote it, imagining that readers would expect some tantalizing exposé about someone who wronged me. And the result? There was a 95 percent increase in people clicking on my morning news show column versus my Grad Night column. Almost twice as many people checked out my story because the headline promised something exciting. (Of course I don’t know if this translated to twice as many people reading the story, and there’s no way to know if this affected the print version’s read-it status. This is merely a rudimentary experiment.)
I’m left with a yucky feeling about all this. It’s not fair to put an eye-popping headline if a story doesn’t warrant it, but we at The Enterprise could definitely do a better job on headline writing. For example, a recent story headlined, “Newsbeat going strong after 25 years” was a nice history piece by Enterprise correspondent Rachel Uda. It got meaningful comments by readers on the web, although it didn’t get a lot of clicks.
Maybe Uda’s story would have been more popular with the headline, “Maraca-waving Chihuahuas and Buddhism are all for sale.” Vagueness could be our hallmark as we transition to “click-bait” headlines. Blech.
By the way, I read a really interesting story last week on www.poynter.org called “Top 8 Secrets of How to Write an Upworthy Headline.” (www.poynter.org/how-tos/digital-strategies/web-tips/255886/top-8-secrets-of-how-to-write-an-upworthy-headline). It’s worth a read if you perpetually fall for headlines like, “It’s Twice The Size Of Alaska And Might Hold The Cure For Cancer. So Why Are We Destroying It?” and “This Is The Most Inspiring Yet Depressing Yet Hilarious Yet Horrifying Yet Heartwarming Grad Speech.”
Ironically, some of our best headlines end up on Annie’s Mailbox columns. Associate editor Sebastian Onate seriously hates the inanity of Annie writers, but he is charged with writing headlines for the daily column. We regularly tease him that if he wants Annie to go away, don’t try so hard to be clever. I mean, how can a reader resist “Little Oedipus won’t budge” and “Hey, at least she’s not on drugs.” Click-bait, indeed.
— Tanya Perez is an associate editor at The Enterprise. Her column publishes every other Wednesday. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @enterprisetanya