Some kinks need to be worked out, but we’re entering a golden age of headlines. Forget the days of “Dewey beats Truman,” or straightforward newspaper headlines or keyword-rich headlines that were built to score high in Google searches. Publishers are getting creative and crafting headlines to attract readers like never before.
This November the journalism world had its mind blown by Upworthy, a fledgling Web site that produces little content, but draws a massive audience thanks to the innovative headlines its employees obsess over. Per piece of content published, Upworthy receives radically more likes on Facebook than competitors. For example, the headline ‘Two lesbians raised a baby and this is what they got” led to 17 million views for a video. When originally published the video drew a fraction of the audience with a bland headline.
Upworthy tests potential headlines to see which will do best. It drew 10,000 page views for the headline “Remember ‘Planet of the Apes? It’s closer to reality than you think,” according to a presentation by the company. The headline “2 Monkeys were paid unequally; See what happens next,” attracted 1 million page views.
Upworthy succeeds with the help of the curiosity gap, in which mystery and intrigue lead readers to want to know more, and to click. Headlines that are neither too vague nor too specific do best. Its curators write 25 headlines for each post, to inspire creative thinking and unique approaches.
“You get desperate around headline 21, and do something so out of left field that it’s not the typical headline,” Upworthy editor-at-large Adam Mordecai explained on Quora.
While Upworthy appears closer than anyone to perfecting what it takes for a story and headline to go viral, the rest of the universe is still learning the finer points of how to cook up headlines with Upworthy’s secret sauce. Witness this tweet from CNN Tuesday. It made plenty of people cringe, and drew a response from Mordecai:
FYI @CNN Remember when I said editorial judgement is required when deciding when to use curiosity gap? Not for child murder OR rape. STOP.
— Adam Mordecai (@advodude) February 4, 2014
CNN changed course later Tuesday:
This hasn’t been the first time CNN ruffled feathers with an ill-executed headline:
14-year-old girl stabbed her little sister 40 times, police say. The reason why will shock you. http://t.co/5ZFqHFrviw
— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) January 23, 2014
That also drew a word of advice from Upworthy’s Mordecai:
Dear CNN https://t.co/B0edardjf3 The curiosity gap is not for every news story. Especially about murder.
— Adam Mordecai (@advodude) January 23, 2014
For Web publishers such as CNN who rely on advertising and need large audiences, there will always be a desire to write the most engaging headlines that draw clicks. First impressions are powerful, and headlines are the first impression in the world of modern journalism. Web sites that refer large audiences to publishers, such as Twitter, Facebook and the Drudge Report rely on headlines to sell stories. Digital readers are always tempted by another headline or browser tab, so hooking the audience and being interesting is vital to success.
“We are in an era where everyone is his or her own editor and will decide what they care about. If we are boring … there is no market for that,” Politico editor-in-chief John F. Harris once said. As social media and sharing drive audiences, count on publishers devoting more resources to craft great headlines so their outlets remain widely read.
Upworthy’s success is proof that most journalists could write much better headlines. And it’s tough to blame ad-supported media for striving to attract readers. But CNN and other news sites must execute better, and more sensitively, before the golden era of creative headline writing is fully realized.