Headlines: Back On Top?
Steve Earl, MD Zeno Europe

I love a good headline. Love, love, love.

My favourite ever has to be Super Calley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious, about Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s shock victory over Celtic.

Naming Private Ryan, when that superinjunction backfired and Ryan Giggs was revealed as the man in question, has to be a close second. Football and puns are a heady cocktail for headline joy.

But when online news became particularly aggressive in its fight for readers’ eyeballs around a decade ago, I bemoaned the approach publishers took with their online headlines versus those for the same story in print. The art of headline writing as a way to draw the reader into the story and encapsulate it in a few clever words is for me a fundamental part of storytelling, whereas the science of online headlines that take a largely factual, clickbait-driven approach serves a far more functional purpose.

Look at how the Daily Mail covers news in print versus how the Mail Online – a wholly separate publication, it would say – covers the same story online, typically with headlines running to three or four lines.

For years then, it has looked like the art of headline writing was being lost. The continued fragmentation and diversification of media is starting to buck that trend though, and long-read journalism in particular seems to be demanding a new type of headline that blends art with science. Enough intrigue to persuade readers to click but a smarter, more human approach than three lines of rambling text.

See what The Economist does with its 1843 magazine and The Guardian does with its Long Reads, for example. Many headlines with questionmarks perhaps, but clever.

Why does this matter to communicators? Well, it’s not just about having classic ammunition for successful media pitching – headlines add to storytelling in ways that can fuel social media sharing and brand or story retention. Zeno has a methodology called Performance Communications that can test what media outlets and content will best reach and resonate with audiences for specific stories. Add headlines into that mix and we can know, rather than hope to know, which words and phrases will create the desired impact.

All very data-driven of course, but that science can be a firm platform for more artful and more engaging headlines. At a time when readers are confronted with more content than ever, that has to be a good thing.


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