Why Headlines Matter More Than Ever (But Less Than You Might Think)

By Aaron Paitich


It is a truism that the best story ever told doesn’t do anyone much good if no one sees it. And for good or for ill, headlines play that vital role between storyteller and audience. When they work well, headlines both catch your eye and deliver a down payment on the return on investment you will get from reading further. But at their worst, headlines can build false narratives and even dupe readers into devoting time to a story that doesn’t live up to your expectations.

Attracting people’s attention naturally gets more difficult when they have more platforms and channels to pay attention to. Years ago, before the dawn of instant news and distractions sitting right inside your pocket or palm of your hand or on your wrist, the need for engaging headline writing was mostly confined to a certain kind of newspaper. To stand out and—more importantly—to drive sales, these newspapers developed their own dialect—one that favored nicknames, curt phrasing, and no small amount of sensationalism.

The ‘wood’ as the headline copy at newspaper tabloids came to be called, offers a valuable lesson in how headlines can be a compelling, give-­­­you-a-taste-but-make-you-want-to-read-more engagement tool. Two of the most famous headlines of all time (see photos, above) are great examples of this. And note, these two headlines are tackling vastly different strata of the news—an arcane political fight over the New York City budget versus the gruesome circumstances of a nightclub murder—yet they’re still magnificently captivating (and leavened with a touch of dark humor).

While (a few) big-city tabloids remain, most of the news and content we consume today is online and the pathways we use to find it are different. Now, in our highly pre-curated and self-selected news era, where story engagement is measured in seconds and people rarely finish an online story, headlines are tasked with doing more than just deliver a punchy, punny, setup to a story. Increasingly, they’re expected to start telling more of the story, ask questions, reference celebrities and hint at how much time you’ll likely need to spend reading it. (Hence, the proliferation of “Is [X] Really Just Like [Y]?” hot takes and “7 Quick Tips for…” listicles polluting your web browser.)

To stand out in a crowded online content marketplace, some news and web content sites, like Upworthy, turned to a certain kind of faux-conversational, OMG-style headline to draw readers in (see inset, above). Intially, it worked wonders and the site scored huge gains in traffic in 2013, as Quantcast numbers show (see chart, above). But those massive gains didn’t last. Before long, readers caught on to the emotional manipulation at work and, when competing websites shamelessly copied this tactic, they grew tired of being inundated with these kinds of headlines at every turn. What’s more, many readers came away from these experiences with a bitter, bait-and-switch aftertaste thanks the low-quality content that they often confronted after clicking the link.  (Last summer, Upworthy notably abandoned its clickbait model, claiming, disingenuously: “We were never about the headlines.”)

Upworthy’s epiphany, whether honestly come by or not, is correct, however. The focus shouldn’t be on the headline. It should be on the story. That’s why you don’t want to write headlines whose purpose is just to garner clicks, but to drive actual engagement. This is a deeper challenge, one that requires plenty of testing to see what works best for your brand, your audience, and your platform. As this Chartbeat blog post on “Headline Testing 101” notes: 

“High clicks with low engagement might mean that the headline didn’t communicate the message of the article. Is your headline too sensational, too much of a stretch? Low clicks with high engagement can tell you that the article could use more exposure. Have you shared it on social media, are you linking to it from your home page or other article pages?”

The point here is that, while headlines matter in getting your content or story noticed, they aren’t a silver bullet toward better content engagement. In fact, as this other Chartbeat blog post notes, many of the assumptions about what makes for an effective web headline—“use terse, punchy headlines”; “ask questions”; “name drop”—simply aren’t supported by data. In the end, it’s the content and the channels you distribute it on—not the headline—that play the most important roles in getting your story told. Come to think of it, that would’ve probably been a better headline for this blog post…