In a famous New Yorker cartoon, a woman publisher sits behind a desk addressing Charles Dickens and his manuscript, and cheerfully advises: “But think of the SEO if the title actually named the two cities.”
Ah, titles and headlines. In a recent virtual editorial session we held, Mike Andronico, editor in chief of Tom’s Guide, a technology publication/website for Future Plc, posited on the attention they feel must be paid to headlines.
“For a news story the most important thing to me is that it has a great headline that people are going to want to click on and read. So we do a lot of headline workshopping. We use our Slack to brainstorm ideas.
“Honestly that’s one thing I pay close attention to—trying to craft really good headlines with the help of the staff,” Andronico continued. “I really enjoy that brainstorming process. It doesn’t always take super-long. Sometimes we’ll just share three ideas, the staff will pick their favorite and we’ll go from there. But I think it’s especially important for those feature stories and those personal stories.”
He said that they recently ran a story from a freelancer who wrote how the Galaxy Watch Active almost saved her life. “We crafted a headline around that. It’s about coming up with the most engaging headline you can while still being honest and not doing what people call click bait. We want to make sure we’re not falsely advertising the story but there are definitely needs for urgency, excitement and a reason to read the story.”
Here are more tips for crafting that perfect headline:
1. Be authentic not distant. Look for ways to make headlines more accessible. Maybe it means knocking out use of terms like “government,” “official,” or “according to,” things that feel distant as opposed to authentic. It’s more about getting to “what are we really trying to say?”
2. Use the curiosity gap. How do we get people to want to read this story without using “what happens next will shock you” but communicating that we actually have really interesting layers to this story.
3. Numbers don’t lie. “I Went $230,000 Into Debt to Become a Doctor in America.” $230 000 instantly forms a connection to the reader. “I can’t afford that”; “I can afford that”; “I sympathize with you”… It elicits a reaction from the number alone. If you see headlines about connecting with your audience, it puts you in a much better place to get that story shared.”
4. Walk the line. Try to straddle the line between setting up the story enough to be interesting, but not enough to give it all away. Imagine you’re sitting next to your reader and telling her a story.
5. Know your audience. As Andronico said, don’t mess with your audience by dishing out click bait solely to create traffic. As one journalist wrote, the key to writing good headlines is understanding your audience well enough to artfully create headlines they know they can trust.
6. Tempt with that missing piece. When we notice a gap between what we know and what we want to know, we go looking for that missing piece of information.
7. Humanize your voice and personalize your message. Use “you” and “your.” “Surprise, we’ve gifted you $10 today,” Goldstar just wrote. “Events Picked Just for You” from Eventbrite.
9. Don’t always obey the rules. I know, after all that… We’re told to keep headlines to around 8 words and 70 characters. But if it takes more words to convey your message and you can have a little fun, then so be it.
10. Use bold claims. Bold can be beautiful. Yahoo: Did Marilyn Monroe Inspire Spring’s Biggest Shoe Trend? Christian Science Monitor: Republican Chairman Predicts ‘Tsu
“…what really makes an outlet stand out, especially now in 2020, is being able to establish all your writers as distinct voices—people that readers will want to come back to read whatever they write. That’s kind of one of my big focuses and goals—to make sure that our writers become [that] voice, and folks will want to read their latest stuff.”
—Mike Andronico, editor in chief of Tom’s Guide for Future plc
How much personality and “voice” should writers for niche publishers put in their articles? The answers are certainly going to vary by the type of article and the writer, but in a discussion yesterday, we did flesh out a few guiding perspectives.
I asked Sherri L. Smith, editor in chief for Future’s Laptop Magazine, how she handles that.
“I’ve always written that way [inserting her personality]. I just need to put a little bit of me into it. What I’m writing, especially for Laptop Mag, I like to think that I’m writing for my mother and my grandmother. And the easier it is to read, the easier it is to understand and the less tech support that I have to do. It hasn’t worked yet. I still have to do tech support every time I go home. But that is the overarching goal of the copy.
“But putting a little bit of personality into your copy helps in the long run. Who wants to read a boring review? You can do that on Amazon—oh, here are the specs, this is what it’s supposed to do. People want to know how the lived-in experience is. Tech, in a lot of ways as in tech reviewing, is an aspirational thing. Like Laptop and Tom’s Guide [another tech website there], we definitely do a lot of testing.
“[While] a lot of people don’t understand what [some techy terms] mean, what they do understand is, ‘I did all this multi-tasking, and the machine was still chugging along and I didn’t experience any slowdown. [But] it did get hot when I put it on my lap.’ Or in a game it didn’t stutter. Those are things that people understand, rather than okay, it transcoded this in two minutes. What does that mean to anyone but people who are well-versed in the industry?”
Greg Friese, editorial director for Lexipol, said that he often has to “remove some of the personality” of his writers because many are cops, firefighters and paramedics, and not actual writers. “Depending on the topic, a conversational tone may or may not work,” he said. “Some of their regionalisms and things that might be appropriate for the fire station might not work in an article for the world to see.
“We’re trying to show our writers that we’re giving them a pretty big platform and as such they might have to be a bit more formal than they think.”
Allowing writers to inject more personality could also help them become more of a personality for your audience—and that could lead to valuable speaking or moderating assignments at events and webinars.
The tone of an article is a difficult decision sometimes. I often inject one of my theater, film or sports references to play off of. But then sometimes I’ll go back after I finish writing a piece and cross out that “personality” lead because I’d just rather get straight to the point. Or put in what I think is a great quote as I did today. So it is definitely a balancing act.
“I actively encourage writers to, not only write in their own voice, but write about the things they’re passionate about, as long as it’s in our wheelhouse and has potential,” said Andronico. “In fact, I kind of have a reputation if I overhear someone talking about, like something that happened with tech in their personal life, I’ll say, ‘Oh sounds like a story, you should write that up. Sounds like you just volunteered yourself.’ If you actively encourage your writers to write about their personal lives, write in their own style, their own voice…
“Our editor just did a great piece about getting the Apple Watch for the first time, his first few months with it, how it kind of changed his life, his fitness routine and all that. There are so many other great examples of that where we’re writing about the products and the topics that we normally cover but from a much more personal angle which I think people connect with.
I really like when we’re able to just write like everyday people,” Andronico continued. “As Sherri said, write things that your mom can relate to, your grandmother can relate to. So I always actively encourage that type of content. I actually make sure that we have a steady flow of it in fact because I think it’s one of those things that makes us stand out.”