Everyone knows headlines rule.
The ceaseless bombardment of information has turned the headline into eye candy.
Write a good one, and readers stop to give the body copy a chance. If not, the readers’ attention never breaks stride and they’re on to other things in a nanosecond.
Perhaps no media property has perfected the art of the headline like Business Insider. In a recent MediaShift story, Executive Editor Joe Weisenthal and Deputy Editor Nicholas Carlson said shaping quality headlines starts by “dropping the journalese.”
Weisenthal went on to say:
“A phenomenon that we see a lot is someone will be like ‘Check out this crazy slam dunk of some guy doing a 360’ or ‘Check out this crazy chart of the price of gold skyrocketing.’ And that’s a great thing. You tell your friend that, and then they’ll put it on the site and [the headline] will be like ‘Gold rises 25 percent in two weeks,’ which is not nearly as exciting. It’s like, ‘Why didn’t you sell it like you just told me on IM?’ How you tell your friend something you’re excited about, that’s how you should tell your readers you’re excited about it.”
I get it.
What’s trickier is how far do you take the sensationalism?
Let’s look at how a headline might morph in the quest for readership when dropping the journalese.
- Dog Bites Man
No one cares (unless you happen to be the “Man”).
- Dog Bites Man over Fire Hydrant
Shedding light on the motive helps a smidgen.
- Pope Prays that the Dog Will Stop Biting Man
If the Pope is paying attention, maybe we should?
- CalTech Geniuses Figure Out Why Dog Bites Man
The only way we learn what the “CalTech Geniuses” know is by reading the story. But does the core narrative create enough intrigue for us to care? Probably not.
- Secret Video Captures Dog Biting Man over Fire Hydrant
The three magic words: “please,” “thanks” and “video.” And it’s a “secret video,” implying we might get access to salacious details.
Still, if the core narrative doesn’t excite you, it’s not going to excite others. So let’s flip around the headline even if it means four wheeling away from the actual story.
- Gross— Man Literally Bites Dog
Gross sells, particularly with that sought-after demographic of males between 18 and 25 who believe four of anything for a dollar is a steal.
- Man Bites Kim Kardashian’s Dog
Clever wrinkle plus plays homage to the SEO gods (over 11 million searches on Ms. Kardashian each month).
- The Five Funniest Videos of Man Biting Dog
There’s a reason YouTube is the second most popular search engine. The promise of laughter bolsters the likelihood of a click.
- Five Funniest Videos of Man Biting Cat
Cats are funnier than dogs, so it stands to reason this headline would be a bigger draw.
- Board Holds Tim Cook Accountable for Biting Dog in Korea
A lot going on here. Suffice to say, it would be a show stopper.
Back to the original question of how far you should you take a headline.
I’d say as far as possible without losing sight of the actual story.
I might need to write about aliens more often.