In a Mad Men episode this past season, there was a brief shot of the front of the New York Times issue following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The headline read: KENNEDY IS KILLED BY SNIPER AS HE RIDES IN CAR IN DALLAS; JOHNSON SWORN IN ON PLANE
After a search for other front page newspaper images of this terrible tragedy, there were examples of other headlines, both longer and shorter, but it highlighted for me how headline writing has changed, even in just the last few years. It also reminded me of an annoying trend in media outlets and blogs alike – clickbait.
The headline has always been the first opportunity for a news outlet to catch a reader’s eye and make him/her want to read on. This is obvious. But in a world where online news outlets, blogs (personal and corporate), videos, news releases, infographics, advertisements, marketing collateral and other content are jostling for space and attention to draw a reader in, headlines have had to evolve.
I’ve noticed more lately that so many articles now include such sensationalistic phrases and words like:
- “…and you won’t believe what happened next”
- “…before it’s too late”
- ”…worst <something> ever”
- “XYZ things you need to know about…”
- “XYZ THEY don’t want you to know!”
Until recently, you could look through your Facebook feed to find other examples (this was the case until Facebook banned such clickbait). Whether these articles are quick, guilty pleasures or in-depth pieces, the headlines are all designed to reach out and grab your attention to drive traffic (which in-turn drives revenue).
This trend reminds me of an article I read in the Wall Street Journal last year titled, “Why Everyone Will Totally Read This Column,” (password required) which looks at the approach of Gawker senior editor (and now editor-in-chief of the Whisper mobile app) Neetzan Zimmerman when writing blog articles and headlines. At the time the article was published, Zimmerman was responsible for 30 million page views a month on Gawker. Some of his posts were funny, some ridiculous, but all were interesting and eye-catching to the point that they generated a huge amount of traffic. So much traffic in fact, that the Journal contends that Zimmerman’s popularity basically subsidized the other writers on the site, which are free to explore a variety of topics without worrying as much about the page views each post will generate. Of course, Zimmerman’s headlines were brilliant and funny and far less ridiculous than the examples listed above.
This is a really interesting approach to journalism. I don’t know that the thousands of sites that use the superlatives listed above use this same strategy, but by mixing both popular, eye-catching posts with more in-depth pieces, Gawker is reaching a much wider audience than others that dedicate themselves to a single approach. More importantly, perhaps this is the formula that needs to be adopted for online media outlets to remain profitable and sustainable: write the “guilty pleasures” pieces as well as the more credible in-depth pieces for maximum appeal and ad dollars.
Looking back and considering this strategy, this approach might sound obvious, but if it is, then why isn’t everyone doing it? If more sites did it, I’d surely cringe less when I see those over-the-top headlines, knowing that there’s some substance to supplement the sensation. What do you think?