Retargeter Blog

Move Over Content; the New King is the Headline

It’s easy to criticize Upworthy and Buzzfeed for their over-the-top headlines. But you won’t believe what happens when you put those headlines on top of stories!

The stats don’t lie — people click on them. For years, we’ve heard the adage “content is king,” and in many ways, that’s still true. But the internet has shortened our attention spans. These days, you don’t have a full page of a magazine article to grab someone’s attention. You have the three to four seconds when they scan down their Facebook newsfeed for all the latest headlines. If you don’t say something truly interesting or, increasingly, truly outrageous in those 100 or so characters, you run the risk of losing clicks and shares.

These days, content no longer rules as king. The headline is the head of the court, and here’s what you need to know about that change.

How We Lost Sight of Content

The headline-as-king phenomenon is quite recent, and you can credit Upworthy and Buzzfeed for helping to perfect this new art, though they’re hardly the only ones using it. It’s basically bringing “sexy” back to the Internet: show some leg in the headline and people think you’ll show more if they look at the story. That’s not always the case, though. The idea is to say something so absolutely outrageous and provocative, so totally unexpected that people feel a powerful urge to click on your headline.

There are two keys to a great headline. One is to write as many headlines as you can until you hit on the perfect one; at Upworthy, writers are required to pen 25 of them for each story until they strike gold with something like “9 Out Of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact.” (Don’t tell me you didn’t feel the urge to click that, even if you resisted. What are we all wrong about? What is this mind blowing fact?)

The second key is to appeal to the reader’s emotions and make them want to click on the headline. That might mean making them mad, making them curious, or making them sad. The most effective headlines elicit strong emotional responses.

Using the Right Bait

A lot of people complain about these headlines. They say they’re misleading, and often times that’s true. Very few Upworthy or Buzzfeed stories actually deliver content that’s as interesting as the headlines. But it’s become increasingly clear that that doesn’t matter.

People often share headlines without even clicking on the stories themselves. That is, they see a headline that grabs their curiosity, probably with a suggestion attached to “share” it on Facebook or Twitter. They may have every intention of eventually looking at the story, but the headline is just too good not to put in their newsfeed. Subsequently dozens of people click on the item they’ve shared, which means the headline has done its job. It’s going viral with very little effort.

Headlines That Don’t Deliver

Headlines have become such a buzzy topic that NPR even pulled a great April Fool’s Day prank that played on people’s laziness when it comes to reading headlines and not stories. The public radio broadcaster posted an intentionally inflammatory headline, “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” and posted it on Facebook.

When people clicked on the story, they found out that the headline was just a joke and that NPR was wishing them a very happy April Fool’s. But a surprising number of people didn’t click. Instead they wrote NPR nasty comments on the Facebook status that mostly just proved the organization’s point. People really aren’t reading, they’re just making judgments based on headlines.

How to Craft a Click-Bait Headline, But Still Keep Your Integrity

Like any marketing trend, this is one worth looking at to see if it’s right for your organization. You can make this new online phenomenon work for your business, no matter what niche you’re in. Let’s say you run a business like SpanTran, a company that provides foreign academic credential evaluations and translation services.

You want to get more traffic to your blog. Instead of relying on the interesting content with dull headlines to get people to click, try spicing it up. For a story about how Chinese students are taking more trips to the U.S., you might try one of these headlines:

  • What Chinese Students Are Doing in Their Free Time Will Shock You
  • You Won’t Believe What These Chinese Students Are Doing
  • Chinese Students Use the U.S. For What?!?

The goal is to create an irresistible urge — to create urgency and mystery — and people will click on your headlines. Upworthy and Buzzfeed are onto something, obviously.  You can use some of their techniques for your benefit.  Give yourself that extra bit of time to create a collection of headlines.  Informally poll people at your company to see what headlines make them react strongly.  Once you get a good read on that, fine tune your headline so that it stands out sharply against the backdrop of other content and headlines that are in your industry.

Content has had a good run and continues to be an important part of attracting the right people to take the right action, but without a killer headline, that content on which you worked so hard will go unread and unshared.  It’s clearly time for headlines to ascend. Make sure you’re on top of this trend so you don’t get left behind.

Want more information on creating great headlines and content?  Check out our collection of articles on the topic now.

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