Dark Secret of Blogging #3: Headlines are Hooks

Aug 24, 2012

Just admit you read the title of this post and thought, “Duh.” Of course headlines are hooks. That’s News 101.

OK, fine, but headline-writing for the Web is enough of a distinct art that it must be re-emphasized: Great bloggers write great headlines. And that should be qualified: great bloggers write great Web headlines.

What distinguishes a good Web headline? Here’s an insight from Gawker mogul Nick Denton: “Imagine you’re writing a headline for a magazine (one with tight deadlines) rather than a newspaper.”

What does that mean? I think that the most successful Web headlines emphasize implications rather than events. Not what happened, but what it means. Take this headline from Wired.com: “Group posts e-mail hacked from Palin account.” Compare it to the headline from Gawker: “Sarah Palin’s personal e-mails.” The former headline focuses on the event – Sarah Palin’s e-mails got hacked. Gawker underscores the consequence – you get to read Sarah Palin’s e-mail!

Another example. Here’s a NYTimes headline: “Population study finds change in the suburbs.” Did your eyes just glaze over? Sweet, mine too. Someone studied the suburbs and found they’d changed, news at 11. The AP headline’s better: “White flight? Suburbs lose young whites to cities.” I expect the tinge of racial conflict in that title might draw a few clicks, although I wouldn’t recommend setting up a discussion that way. But once again, Gawker demonstrates mastery – “Suburbs: the new slums.” The rough trajectory of these headlines goes: What happened (NYTimes), what’s happening (AP), what it could mean (Gawker). That last version is what grabs our attention best online.

I once saw a marketing guru highlight what he thought were the top 12 most profit-producing words in marketing. I think you could do a similar exercise for great headline words. Here’s a quick take on it:

  1. Top
  2. Why
  3. How
  4. Will
  5. Guide
  6. Best
  7. Secret
  8. Ultimate
  9. Your
  10. Worst
  11. New
  12. Future

If you can frame your post with one (or more) of these words, you might just have a winner. Of course, you can write a terrific, viral headline with none of these words. Read Denton’s memo for some more thoughts on the matter.