Adaptive headlines: the right genre for the right context

In a world of too much information, headlines signal if content is worth considering.  Headlines determine if content is viewed, shared, and discussed.  Writers and marketing experts offer much advice on crafting headlines.  However, one shouldn’t apply one approach to all headlines.  As the content landscape changes and evolves, different channels, and different audience experiences, require different kinds of headlines.  To realize greatest impact, headlines must anticipate the intent of their audiences.

Headlines can be optimized for six kinds of goals:

  • to aid the scanning of content
  • to facilitate discovery of enjoyable content
  • to get the audience to want something
  • to provide a summary of content
  • to indicate the nature of advice available
  • to aid in the finding and retrieval of content

The importance of context

Whether we call them headlines, page titles or message headers, their purposes are the same:

  • to attract audience attention
  • to describe the content, and set expectations
  • to motivate the audience to view

The context and goals of the audience shape their attention, expectations, and motivation.  The audience may pursue a “lean forward” experience, using a desktop to research intensively a topic, or a “lean back” experience on a tablet, casually browsing content.  Different genres of headlines have arisen to suit different content genres and channels.  As content is delivered through a wider array of channels (mobile, social media, personalized magazine aggregation apps), the rules of what headlines will work best become more complex.

Different audience behaviors imply specific aspects of headlines to prioritize.  While it is possible to combine several of these aspects together, it is difficult to address all of them with one style of headline.  To know which characteristics to prioritize, brands must be able to anticipate the context and goals of their audience.

Screenshot of headlines from Mail Online
genre bending headlines from the Mail Online (screenshot)

Audience goal: scanning content for relevance

Audiences scan content when they aren’t sure what is relevant or interesting to them.  Scanning is different from leisurely browsing, in that it is more goal oriented.  Audiences often check content sources they’ve found useful in the past, and scan lists of article titles or message titles.  As more content is delivered through feeds, this behavior is becoming more important.  Many tweets are article titles with links to the full article, for example.  Audiences need to both comprehend these, and keep up with the volume of titles they receive.  Eye tracking indicates that people only look at the first two or three words (10 or 12 characters) before moving on to the next item, unless these words seem to match their interests.  They make a snap judgment.

Headlines for scanning prioritizes the significance of the first couple of words.  In some social media contexts, audiences look for a relevant hashtags, especially if the viewing app highlights this in a different color.

Audience goal: enjoyment and discovery

In their personal lives, audiences seek and use content largely for enjoyment rather than necessity.  They often aren’t seeking anything particular: they hope to discover content that promises to be interesting and worth their effort to read.  Headlines play an important role in promoting discovery of recreational content.

Of the many kinds of recreational content, two types are noteworthy.  The first is the traditional feature, often a heartfelt story.  The headline needs to draw readers in. It will often preview something exciting contained in the story.  Headlines may use strong verbs, or use a label that captures a key moment of the story.

Conversational content is the second significant type of recreational content.  Content is optimized to promote sharing and discussion, so headlines play an important role.  Such content is typically distributed through social media.  The best known example of this kind of content is Upworthy, which has spawned many imitators.  Upworthy uses Facebook to distribute its content.  It frames the content with headlines employing a technique they call a “curiosity gap.”  Headlines are a teaser for the content: they violate the journalistic convention that headlines should never tempt without informing.  Upworthy decides the headline should not “give it away,” but should set an expectation that you don’t realize what you’ve been missing: what you think you currently know is incomplete or even wrong, or something extraordinary happened to someone seemingly ordinary.  Upworthy rigorously tests alternative headlines to determine which one generates the most interest as demonstrated by clicks and shares.

Headlines for recreational content prioritize attention over informational completeness.  Sometimes they are even vague, when such an approach enhances the perceived desirability of the content.

Brand goal: get the audience to want something

Persuasive content needs to work harder than any other content type to get attention.  It uses a call-to-action headline to get you to notice and learn more.  In the pre-digital era, it was a slogan used in print ads and direct marketing.  Today, email subject lines, or message notifications in mobile apps, urge you to do something.  Audiences think to themselves: I didn’t ask for this, so why should I look at it?

The discipline of copywriting developed to figure out how to get our attention.   Copywriting can be divided into creative-based, and practice-based.   Practice-based copywriting may rely on common wisdom developed from tried and true experience. Or it may use real-time feedback from A/B testing and analytics to iterate headline copy.  When using the common wisdom approach, copywriters commonly recommend “proven” stock formulas for headlines, such as “You can [benefit of product] Even if [objection]”, and suggest using certain trigger words in headlines, such as “free” or “now.”

Ultimately, the effectiveness of a call-to-action headline depends on how successful it is at getting attention, and encouraging action.  One person’s genius simplicity is another’s cliché.  It can be dangerous to presume what will work.  It’s more prudent to experiment, and test your success.

Audience goal: get a summary of content

The classic headline summarizes the content.  That’s different from summarizing the theme of the content.  A good headline summary gives the audience enough information to know the most important information, without having to read the content.

Summary headlines, though used less frequently these days, still have a role.  Bloomberg news is renowned for their headlines.  Around 300,000 people across the globe use Bloomberg terminals to access financial news.  They read headlines on these terminals, and on many occasions don’t have time to read a full article.  They need to act on news instantly.   Bloomberg prioritizes certain details in their headlines: the names of people in the story (if big, market moving names), what’s the key surprise, and any key facts and figures in the article.

Audience goal: help and advice

Brands provide product support information.  Various specialized publishers offer “how to” content addressing health and household concerns. The field of technical communications is dedicated to this area.  Help and advice content is an important category of user generated content.  People post questions on forums, and post video tutorials and reviews on YouTube.

Headlines for task-focused content are utilitarian, even boring.   Typically they read: “how to [action] [subject].”  Because people are motivated to find useful content, the goal of the headline is to show them where the most appropriate content is.  The most effective headlines contain a precise description of the product or topic.  Headlines generally contain a key action verb, such as install, replace, or fix.  The headline is more challenging to write when the user doesn’t know what they need to do.  In such cases, a symptom may be used in the headline, such as “what to do if your [product] [symptom].”  Frequently, users cite the symptom when posting a question on a forum.   Other times headlines aim to be instructional, conveying “what you need to know about your [product]”.

Audience goal: find and retrieve content

Search remains the most common way people discover content, even though its dominance is being challenged by social media and subscription services that rely on feeds.  Headlines matter vitally to search.  Headlines need to match the expectations of the searcher, and also reflect the “about-ness” of an article.

Writers have criticized the practice of SEO-optimized headlines as writing for Google, where creativity is quashed to serve the humorless needs of the search engine.  According to a quip: “Google doesn’t laugh.”  A BBC editor explains how headlines simultaneously must serve the needs of Google, and the needs of humans: “The text still needs to compel a search engine user enough to click on the story, but if it never appears in a search result then it is wasted effort.”

SEO is largely about using the same exact terms as the audience uses, so-called keywords.  Keywords in SEO are the specific search terms used by the searcher.  The audience uses search terms to describe what they seek.  The search terms are often a product name or category, and may include an attribute, such as durable, big, or easy.

How search engineers think about keywords is different from how linguists do.  Linguists, who invented the concept of keywords, look for words and combinations of words that are used more frequently than would be expected.  The keyword may be comparatively rare, but its use in a specific context is prominent compared with its use in general contexts.  SEO keywords in contrast tend to look at the most common words used for search in a general context, not a specific one.   Google uses many other signals besides keywords, so it checks if the keywords of the search match the keywords of the title and article, together with a couple hundred other factors such as page rank, to determine the ordering of search results.

Named entities are often good words to search in headlines because they yield precise retrieval of results.  The BBC recommends using proper nouns in headlines, because people tend to search on items they know well (even though that limits the audience size who know the item by that specific name).

Keyword literalism is supposedly going away.  Much has been made of Google’s shift to semantic search, and its knowledge graph.  Google now discourages doing research to find popular keywords, and promises to be able to locate content based on the intent of the searcher, not just what they literally specify.  In many respects this is a positive development: it would free the headline writer from using only the most popular keywords in headlines.  The search could contain a proper noun such as a location, but the title shown in the search results doesn’t have to contain that term.  The topic matching works fine when the searcher is looking for named entities, and the content is primarily about named entities.  However, when the search or the content is about something more general or difficult to describe, the situation is more complicated.  The knowledge graph only maps a handful of (admittedly) common entities such as products, events, and people, but doesn’t cover harder-to-model attributes such as “what is the most romantic activity to do while on your honeymoon?”

I predict keywords will remain an important aspect of headlines for the foreseeable future.  Google and other search engines  (including internal site search) will need to rely on them to infer of the intent of content, and users will rely on headlines because they will remain the most succinct description of what the content is about.

Moving forward: adaptive headlines

Headlines can have many different roles, and must work effectively in different channels.  There is more to headlines than making them SEO-optimized.  In fact, in some contexts, an SEO-optimized headline may attract less audience attention.  Generally, SEO-optimized headlines are neither curiosity invoking, persuasive, nor have informational value on their own.

Screen size is also an important consideration.  Common SEO advice suggests restricting headlines to 65 characters, because Google truncates longer headlines.  That’s a line of text in most browsers, but on mobile screens, a line is far shorter, and headlines need to be as well.  When looking at headlines for wearable devices, headlines may need to summarize content, not just indicate what an article is about, because there is no space for details.

These differences suggest that headlines for content need to adapt to the different channels and platforms in which they will appear.  The concept of adaptive content, championed by content strategist Karen McGrane, considers how content needs to adapt to different devices and channels.  Content creators will need to create variations for the headline to address the different contexts in which it will be seen.  Content management tools will need to support headline variations in their feature set.

A single headline shouldn’t try to do everything. Channel-specific headlines optimized for different audience goals will make headline compromises a thing of the past.

— Michael Andrews