There’s a real art to crafting a headline that stands out. Every word is vital and a lackluster headline is like a death sentence than can ruin an otherwise commendable piece of writing.
As somewhat of a thought experiment and to scratch the itch, I took a look at a handful of popular articles over the past month in terms of virality (Facebook likes, Tweets, shares via Instapaper), and separated the memorable headlines from the mundane.
Some questions used in the analysis:
What makes this headline incredible?
What was the writer thinking?
What’s the appeal for the reader?
Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? – Stephen Marche, The Atlantic
Why it works: This was one of the most popular articles of the past month and for good reason, apart from hitting a lot of hot buttons and the extent of how well it was researched, the title alone just yells controversy. It doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree that Facebook makes us lonely, the headline is put in the form of a question, leaving the reader left to develop their own conclusion based on the evidence presented.
How Geniuses Think – Michael Michalko, The Creativity Post
Why it works: This is a great example, because it’s brief and cuts to the point. Very few of us are geniuses, but it’s still something many of us would like to be, and thus the reason why the headline is so relevant. Everyone can relate.
I’m Leaving the Internet for a Year – Paul Miller, The Verge
Why it works: Paul at The Verge has made the brave choice to abandon the internet for year, a decision that would seem rather insane for a tech journalist. Why would someone want to leave the internet? How will he do it? Does this include email? This headline works in many different ways and being in the form of a declarative statement only adds to its appeal.
Simplicity Isn’t Simple – Francisco Inchauste, getfinch.com
Why it works: Short headlines, 3 words in this case, usually don’t work as well as longer ones, but here’s an exception. I like how the author uses a play on words and leaves room for speculation. Is this article about design? Is it about education? Is it about politics? It could be a number of things, but I won’t find out without actually taking time to read the article.
The Crisis in American Walking – Tom Vanderbilt, Slate
Why it works: Wait… there’s a crisis in walking, and I don’t even know about it? I must stop what I’m doing and read this immediately.
Behind Instagrams Success, Networking the Old Way – Somini Sengupta, NY Times
Why it works: When Facebook acquired Instagram there was a barrage of opinion based articles that followed shortly after. Some were great and some were not so great, but the ones that stood out were the ones in which the writer dissected what made Instagram so successful and why the acquisition was warranted. An amateur would have likely stopped at Behind Instagrams Success, but the extra bit, Networking the Old Way, makes the headline enticing to a larger audience.
This $20 Trillion Rock Could Turn a Startup Into Earth’s Richest Company – Chris Taylor, Mashable
Why it works: You don’t have to enjoy science, startups, or business to appreciate this headline. The writer does an excellent job of mixing two over the top claims ($20 Trillion and Earth’s Richest Company) in hopes of encouraging the reader to click through. A similar article that was published a day earlier, and likely derived from the same source material, was stated as: Here’s How a Startup Plans to Extract Gold from Asteroids. Sure It’s an OK headline, but it pales in comparison to what Mashable did. It’s the same information, just stated differently, and a prime example of why the extra effort is usually worth it when it comes to getting the headline perfect.