What’s in a headline? Everything!

The continuing evolution of subscriber-based (RSS) communications is shining a light on what I think will be the next required skill in our industry — the ability to write clever headlines. As the blogosphere grows, and more and more aggregators appear on the scene, the capacity of any organization to cut through the clutter is increasingly going to rest with the headlines of any feed.

Newspaper writers are generally not very good at headlines, although they’re the ones with all the practice. That’s because newspaper headlines tend to reflect the image of the paper, which is usually conservative in such things. The exception, of course, is the tabloids.

The Web has introduced TV folks to the concept, but few of these writers have any clue as to the real importance of their headlines. Assuming the only place people will read their headlines is ON their Website, they appear to apply the same conservative approach of their print counterparts. The problem with this thinking is that the future is subscriber feeds (RSS), and there you get only one chance to encourage readership — through the headline.

I find most bloggers are good headline writers. Firstly, bloggers understand the delivery mechanism of subscriber feeds, because they USE them every day for their own reading. Secondly, the bloggers I know tend to be on the creative side. Third, bloggers aren’t afraid of humor, and humor can make for some very good headlines.

Brittney Gilbert, the blogger WKRN-TV hired to write Nashville Is Talking, is a good example. In aggregating the thoughts of local bloggers about the Karl Rove controversy, here’s a headline she wrote:

I did not have sexual relations with that leak

I think this is brilliant. It reflects her personality. It’s hip. It uses humor. It tells the story. And it encourages further reading. Wouldn’t you want to read what follows that kind of tease? Wouldn’t you be drawn to further stories from a person who can write like this?

There’s a whole new industry waiting to be built upon the concept of teaching good headline writing, but the truth is — like so many other things — it’s a gift.


  1. Aww. That is nice. Thanks.

  2. Good observations. I’d add a somewhat counter notion. While many bloggers are good headlines writers, arguably surpassing newspaper counterparts, too many are poor headline writers, offering headlines conveying little information and little creativity to compensate.

    To pick on one guy (sorry!), consider headlines like “Focus” or “My Bad” at this rather popular blog: http://digbysblog.blogspot.com/ . If my aggregator is bursting with stuff to read, “Focus” fails miserably at grabbing my attention…

  3. Excellent analysis. I love the obtuse second-referencing involved in a great cloistered headline, but I’ve found myself keeping things simpler, in an effort to becoem even more googable. It’s more proof that a site meter addiction will do scary things to a fella.

  4. Brittney’s headline is great and will get the regular readers of her blog hooked in and following along (and, yes, it is rather brilliant). However, Brittney’s headline may get confused by search engines in the long run. Once indexed, the search engines may display her post when surfers search using keywords for sex, plumbing, or perhaps, Karl Rove. Headlines are crucial to correct search engine indexing (people searching for a plumber in Cucamonga don’t care about Rove’s leak). The balance between a good headline and something being properly indexed in the future can be tough and should be driven, in part, by the goal of your blog.

    Still a great headline, though!

  5. I’m a business blog consultant by trade, and have always stressed to clients the need for keyword-oriented titles as those lend themselves well to search engines, particularly Google.

    However, your post has given me something new to think about. I’m wondering if a title can be both keyword-oriented AND clever at the same time. We need a blog title guru to lead us along the path of enlightenment!

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