Has the rise of mobile and social media saved the clever headline?

Four years ago, I blogged about claims that the internet had killed the art of headline writing. The claim had come from the NUJ, which was still in its ‘new media might go away’ phase. Thankfully, it appears to have moved on since then.

Anyway, back in 2009, a columnist in its Journalist magazine, Maxwell Cooter, bemoaned:

“What counts now is a headline that merits top ranking in its online searches. The trust dictionary has been replaced by Google Analytics or perhaps Google Zeitgeist.”

He concluded: “This scientific approach and calculating approach leaves little room for the sound of language or the richness of English phrase-making, let alone wit or humour. It’s composition by the rules – rather like making love by following a sex manual.”

How truly awful, I argued, that we are writing headlines to reach the widest possible audience … which was the whole point of headline writing in the first place.

I used the Birmingham Mail story on the right to illustrate my point. The top headline, on the web, worked wonders attracting people to the Mail website a) because it was a great exclusive from Colin Tattum and b) because it had a great, SEO-friendly headline which also worked well in the likes of NewsNow because it told the user what they were getting.

The reaction in the comments was quite fierce, but thinking back to 2009, there was still a lot of fear about what ‘the internet’ was doing to journalism. Hopefully, a lot of that has moved on now.

sexFast forward almost five years and while compiling FOI Friday I stumbled across this headline from the Belfast Telegraph:

It’s a relatively standard FOI story about the crimes police officers have been convicted of while in office but it’s a brilliant example of how a headline can both tell the story – so important for search – but also be clever as well.

In 2009, headlines had to be written for SEO. I’d argue that as we go ever deeper into a mobile world, social is as important as a website traffic driver as SEO once was.

On social, this headline works because it raises a smile, but at the same time tells you what it’s all about. I believe very soon, audiences will get bored of the ’24 awesome XXXXX you must read now’ headlines just as they got bored of the ‘David Beckham set to sign for Rotherham’ stories – the ones which were either based on rumour, or were about something entirely different, eg Beckham agreeing to sign a football at a school auction.

Thanks to social media, we have more space to convince someone about a story. On Twitter, we have maybe 100 characters to sell a story. One packed to the rafters with popular SEO phrases won’t be good enough, one which raises a smile or shares a sentiment might be.

For everyone using a Tablet device in the evening, social is crucial for referrals and recommendations. What are you more likely to link to or share – something which is a little creative or something which is clearly an SEO headline?

The audience as a whole may not describe a headline as an SEO headline, but I’m convinced there is a fatigue towards headlines which are clearly written for search. Search remains incredibly important, but getting the pitch right on social is also critical.

This should be great news for publishers steeped in writing great headlines. Just as having a website isn’t quite like having multiple editions throughout the day, the need to force a smile or an emotion in a headline doesn’t mean the days of punderful headlines can return, but there are similarities we can draw on.

For every headline we place on social, we should ask ourselves: “Will readers react?” If the answer is yes – be it a smile, a gasp, a momentary pause to digest the headline, then the answer to the second question: “Will they respond?” will also be yes.

And that’s good news for us. Long live the art of the great headline – a skill which has become even more important, if also a little more complicated.

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