Headline Writing In The Digital Age

    April 17, 2009
    WebProNews Staff

There are many schools of thought regarding the Art of the Title, and generally this art varies according to purpose, medium, and culture. For better or worse, depending on your viewpoint, the Internet has changed what we expect from headlines, and how we shape them, but it is hardly a static art, especially with the advent of microblogging platforms like Twitter.

In the three-media-dimensional old world, headlines on the radio were generally useless; headlines are a visual art, though the late Paul Harvey certainly had a concise, rhythmic poetic aesthetic to his broadcasts very nearly bordering on the visual—as visual as the spoken word gets. It’s mainly textual, though television, specializing in teaser-and-let-down headlining, often adds sound and graphics to widen the fall between oh-that-sounds-interesting and oh-that-wasn’t-very-interesting-at-all-actually-I’ve-been-tricked.

Magazines follow a similar format but without the benefit of motion and sound they use tantalizing photographs and lots of exclamation points to grab the readers attention before sorely disappointing them.

Newspaper headlines, then, are the nearest old-world example to what one wants in a Web headline or title. Newspaper headlines are at once sensational, compact, and informative. They’re built to accommodate the scanner, who has the option of getting details below, but can move forward quickly with the general gist. A newspaper doesn’t care if you read the article or use it for anything other than puppy training; a newspaper only cares if you buy the newspaper, which is what the headlines are designed to convince you to do.  

While similar, the Internet is more complicated. Sure, RSS feeds and aggregators have required headlines to be more traditionally newsy-sounding, often with a twinge of sensationalism, but most importantly they must push on that nerve in a reader compelling them to click (the same nerve that says “buy the paper”). But a key difference is that Web headlines do not have to have static, eternal forms like published ink on paper headlines do. They can be changed to suit audiences, media, and changing needs; Web headlines operate on a time release.

And that’s good because unless you’re very, very good at writing a headline great for all digital media—for the reader, for the search engines, for Twitter, for Digg, etc.—you may need to write one for each target. So without further ado, here are some digital headline tips:


  1. Can you scan it and understand what should follow? (Information scent)
  2. People ignore what they don’t understand.
  3. Is it concise? Will it fit easily in an email subject line, a Twitter post?
  4. Would you click it? Is it catchy? Spreadable? If you saw the headline at random in Google Reader/Digg/Reddit, etc., would it get your attention and compel you to click?
  5. If possible, load the important keywords at the front. This is good for search engines and human reader/scanners.
  6. Is it honest? People don’t like being tricked and won’t trust you again if what follows doesn’t match what was promised.
  7. If too difficult to incorporate all elements at once, define immediate and long term goals. Tailor the title for viral, buzzworthiness first so you can grab the social media/click happy crowd. Rework the title later, after everything as settled, so that it’s search engine friendly for future reference and findability.