In his fascinating new book, “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction,” Derek Thompson spends a bit of time ruminating on a perennial obsession among digital content creators: what makes a great headline?
At a time when millions of articles and blog posts are published every day, the question’s importance could hardly be overstated. Digitally native outfits like The Huffington Post have long understood the significance, having pioneered A/B testing methods to gauge the resonance of alternative headlines as a way to improve reader traffic. But the headline is still too often an afterthought for content creators.
A writer for The Atlantic, Thompson is intimately familiar with the market forces shaping editorial content. When the magazine introduced a new tool to measure the popularity of articles and how much time viewers spent reading them, he admits becoming obsessed, constantly monitoring the data, wondering what hidden secrets could be mined. What were people responding to? Could you accurately predict what would resonate?
Throughout his career, Thompson has developed a number of pet theories for the perfect headline. He’s also seen some fads come and go, like the “curiosity gap” headlines (“She Has a Horrifying Story to Tell. Except It Isn’t Actually True. Except It Actually Is True.”) made popular by Upworthy and mimicked by so many others.
But ultimately, as the genre became ubiquitous and predictable, readers grew tired of it. “When the audience knows the formula a magic trick isn’t a magic anymore; it’s just a trick,” writes Thompson.
But Thompson noticed that stories about the mind and body continued to thrive at The Atlantic. And that led him to a fresh new operating theory: “A reader’s favorite subject is the reader.”
In the era of the selfie, we probably should not be surprised that we love reading about ourselves. Anecdotal evidence abounds. Just last weekend, the most emailed story on The New York Times website was, “Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich.”
But there’s also real data to support our attraction to headlines about us. Recently, for example, the content marketing tool company CoSchedule analyzed nearly 1 million blog posts in its system to discern what makes for an enticing headline. Focusing on the 11 percent of posts that were shared more than 100 times (yes, the content business is humbling), it concluded that headlines with the words “you” or “your” were the most common.
Furthermore, among the top 10 stories on Facebook in 2004, nine had “you” or “your” in the headline. It turns out, there is something about being online that makes us look inward. A 2012 Harvard study, cited in Thompson’s book, found that we use conversations to talk about ourselves around 80 percent of the time online, more than double when we’re offline.
So, yes, headline writers would be wise to speak directly to the reader. But don’t stop there. One of the lessons of Thompson’s book is that “hits”—whether it’s movies, music or headlines—are familiar but not overly familiar.
It is the grand theory first articulated by industrial designer Raymond Loewy who believed that American consumers preferred products that were innovative but comprehensible. He called it MAYA: “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.”
To truly make a great headline, therefore, use “you” or “your.” But make it your own.
Andrew Longstreth is the Head Writer at Infinite Global, based in New York. He creates custom content for law firms and advises on PR strategies. Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.