Why Titles Matter a Lot if You’re a Blogger

Posted on Sep 7, 2013 | 30 comments

Why Titles Matter a Lot if You’re a Blogger

Gabe Rivera wrote a post on why TechMeme is now using its editors to curate titles that appear on its site.

Headlines by Johannes Kraak - Downloaded from 500px

Gabe’s post appears first on TechMeme’s website, which must mean Gabe has paid off some TechMeme editors to get his story to rise to the top.

I never saw it go out with a “tip @techmeme” on Twitter. Did you?

Well.  His article is well worth reading anyways.

It an era of social media and newsreaders titles matter a lot.

I should know. When I first started writing this blog several years ago I had less followers than you have right now. I aspired to rise above the noise by putting out insightful content with a frequency that kept people coming back to check in directly on my website.

But the realist in me knew I couldn’t write daily nor could I convince you to think to check out my blog with regularity. So I need to stand out in two areas in which I compete for attention – social media and news readers.

Titles are an enticement to read a post. It’s how we inform ourselves these days. Often you ask somebody, “Did you see that article on Google buying so and so?” and the response will be, “no, but I read the headline.”

We inform ourselves through headlines. And so it should be. There is too much information to follow otherwise.

The three must reads for me daily are: The NY Times, TechMeme & Media Redefined. Sometimes I just scan and other times it serves as a launching-off point for me to digest the daily news.

And of course the other place I inform myself is on Twitter. I can my feed on my iPhone constantly, looking for interesting stories or just to hear what friends are talking about.

So back to “how I should know that titles matter.”

I invested in a social-media analytics & engagement platform company called Awe.sm and as an investor I always play around with the products in which I’ve invested.

So starting a few years ago I would hit “publish” on a blog post and wait for the clicks & comments to come rolling in. From this I learned the best times to post and how frequently to Tweet a blog post.

But the other thing I learned was how important a title was.

Sometimes I would start with a mundane title like, “Here’s my video interview with Bill Gross” and I would get a ho-hum reaction.

I would delete my Tweet and then write something like, “Your Product Needs to be 10x Better than the Competition to Win. Here’s Why:

Ding, ding, ding, ding.

It’s like a Pachinko machine (yes, I had one in my house growing up).

Headlines matter.

You need to pull out an interesting fact from your article that’s germane to the overall thesis and is interesting enough to get the reader to think, “ok, I’ll bite, why is …”

I also make sure not to just make a statement or people react to it rather than click on it. In the above example it’s why I added “Here’s Why” to the end. If I just wrote, “You’r product needs to be 10x to win” people would just comment on that statement rather than click.

Trust me. I’ve reviewed the data on awe.sm.

And you’ll notice I did the same on this post, “Why Titles Matter a Lot if You’re a Blogger.” Leave out the word “why” and leave out many potential readers.

Another obvious trick that is fair game is to use a list. I often will write, “7 Tips for …” (emailing busy people, building relationships with journalists, getting access to VCs, whatever).

People looooove lists. I don’t know why. Human nature I guess. But awe.sm data has confirmed it and BuzzFeed has built an entire business around it! (and if you haven’t read & watched this YOU MUST! 10 Tips from BuzzFeed on How to Make Content Go Viral

See what I did there?

In Gabe’s post he explained why TechMeme was having editors write headlines. One reason:

“Some misleadingly inflate the importance of the news in the headline, goosing click-throughs, but setting up discerning readers for disappointment.”

He meant to insert the word Business Insider in stead of the word “some” but he lost his nerve at the last moment.

This tactic is known as “link bait” and while it works for Business Insider it won’t work for you. Don’t try it at home. You’ll just piss people off and I guess you’re blogging to increase your reputation.

Then there is the other side of the coin

Bloggers with a devoted readership who can count on readers consuming the bulk of their output often enjoy writing more cerebral, enigmatic titles with meanings that fully reveal themselves only after reading the story.

Some bloggers consider composing a headline a mere chore, dashing out a few words thoughtlessly, and moving on

And by “bloggers” he meant Fred Wilson but nobody would actually write that in public.

Fred is the master blogger. He knows he can write September Bad Mood Blog as his title and everybody will still read it. I’ve talked to Fred about this over the years. He Tweets only once and doesn’t care about headlines or images precisely because he doesn’t have to care. He writes every day so people are trained to get their daily dose of Fred.

I do.

But for everybody else trust me – titles matter. And so does Tweeting more than once if for no other reason than to account for multiple time zones and the ephemeral nature of social media.

So do images. I sometimes take as long to pick and image as I do write a post. I used to throw up clip art. But then people threw up on me all the time. Mostly this guy and this guy. I respect them both so I mostly stopped.

Images matter for a lot of reasons. For starters they help build emotional resonance and memory of a story. Additionally they increase click-through rates dramatically. I know this for the same reason I know about headlines. We’ve run several tests at awe.sm and Tweets and FB posts with images perform much better.

When I Tweet you don’t see my image but on Facebook you do. I suspect this will eventually change on Twitter. Has to. The data says so.

So next time you put out a post think hard about your headline. No sense in writing and not getting the clicks you deserve. And if you do Tweet more than once don’t be afraid of changing your Tweet text to test our your headlines skills.

So Gabe is having his editors change titles on blog posts where the title sucks. Bravo. TechMeme readers will only be better off for it. Now if Gabe could just help edit some people’s Tweets.

p.s. if anybody knows how to get Feedburner to show my titles in my daily email that would be great or if you have ideas on how to convert my Feedburner list to a better email service that would be appreciated, too.

  • http://www.nithin.net Nithin

    “He meant to insert the word Business Insider instead of the word “some” but he lost his nerve at the last moment.” LMAO!

  • http://codeflow.org/ Florian Bösch

    > Another obvious trick that is fair game is to use a list. I often will write, “7 Tips for …”

    > “People looooove lists”

    > ” I added “Here’s Why” to the end”

    Be careful. I have by now become mostly blind to some of these trends. Partly, because each one is employed far more often by linkbaiters than by good content, and party because it’s just all over the place, like advertising. You don’t want to use titles that people are immunized against.

    Depending on the kind of content you’re publishing (tutorials and tech articles benefit more from it) you might also think about a headline that has the quality to be googleable. By that I mean, if people remember nothing but the headline (or parts of it) how do they find it? Have you ever tried googling for “Here is why” or “7 tips to…”, yeah, you don’t even need to try. Abject disaster. Whereas say something like “Deferred Irradiance Volumes”, ohboy, if you remember nothing but the words, you will *always* find that blog post.

  • Random Jones

    Why is every other sentence a new paragraph? That’s just annoying.

  • Holly McIlwain

    Forgive me for a trivial comment, please, but how did you come to have pachinko machine in your house growing up? My grandfather brought one back to me during the Viet Nam War while he was stationed in Japan in the Air Force. As a kid I would play with it a bit every day. I only sold it on e-bay recently, because no one had touched in in years and I have a new 6-month rule on clutter. I’ll admit it was hard to part with and most peeps have never heard of one, so I was just curious about yours. Thank you for the information in your post and I will check out Awe.sm.

  • http://raymondduke.com/ Ray

    “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” – David Ogilvy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Ogilvy_(businessman))

    Very common and popular quote on writing headlines by Ogilvy.

    Here are my thoughts on lists

    Even though I know people love list, I will never use them; nor will I ever read an article that starts with X number of reasons why you should Y because it feels like a cheap tactic. And sure, it works, but it feels so slimy, like the author read on a blog somewhere (like Buzzfeed) about how writing a listicle will get you more views.

    If views is all you care about, then yeah, go ahead on keep on writing listicles and posting cat pics. Whenever I see a listicle, I expect the content to not be great, which is why I don’t click listicles.

    Views doesn’t mean anything, really. People want views because they want to qualify the work they are doing. I would rather receive a handful of amazing comments than have a post of mine get 100,000+ page views.

    Thats the real qualifier – the feedback you get from your readers.

    But to get back on subject, headlines to matter. On a final note, I will make a mention that I love what http://www.Digg.com does with their headlines and subheads – they are both informative and clever. Right now for an article called
    The Curse Of The Olympics they have “FULL MEDAL RACKET”.

    Now that’s good stuff.

  • http://mattamyers.tumblr.com/ Matt A. Myers

    It’s for pause, effect.

  • http://mattamyers.tumblr.com/ Matt A. Myers

    The title of my last blog post is “Kindness, Integrity, Humanity” – a rant – which sometimes requires a broad stroke – http://mattamyers.tumblr.com/post/60452501803/kindness-integrity-humanity

    Sometimes straight-forward clarity works best, as to my previous post entitled “Google and Uber – The $258 Million Play” – http://mattamyers.tumblr.com/post/59367835647/google-and-uber-the-258-million-play

    And if I can, I’ll state the conclusion as the title, if I can sum it up so nicely, “Thinking Ahead, Efficiencies Discovered” -http://mattamyers.tumblr.com/post/59318403534/thinking-ahead-efficiencies-discovered

    A lot of the time when I am writing, I already have the thoughts, and then a holistically descriptive thought will pop into my head for what it’s overviewing – and that becomes its title – and then my guiding metric for keeping on track, and not going on too much of tangent.

    I think I’m getting pretty good at title picking.. *knock on wood*

  • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

    “I can my feed on my iPhone constantly”

    You can never have too much canned feed. Be sure to boil it first, though.

  • http://www.johnsjobs.me/ John’s Jobs

    Re: feed to email service, I have heard good things about FeedBlitz (not a user myself – still wallowing away with Feedburner :)

    While we are on the topic of increasing CTR , it should be on every bloggers short list to add G+ authorship tags in posts as well.

    This will mean that your lovely (!) mug will show up in search results next to your post, which SEO gurus like SEOmoz have found to be a huge, huge factor in increasing CTR.

    It’s sort of a pain to set up, but well worth the effort.

    Here’s a link to a post from KISSmetrics with the gory details about how to configure this for your blog:

  • Trent Robinson

    Nice read. As someone fairly new to blogging, I find myself devoting most all my time to content and usually spending very little time coming up with a title after the fact.

  • http://www.crunchbase.com/company/vumedi Roman Giverts

    Not just business insider. Bleacher Report built a 100M business off of crappy headlines. And they’re all exactly like you said, “why this,” “how that,” and lists. The content is really uninsightful, but if you’re a 9ers fan and the headline is “10 reasons why the 9ers win Super Bowl” you will click. And then read a completely obvious and thoughtless article split into 10 slides so you have to click after every paragraph.

    Meanwhile, amazing writing like on Grantland is likely worth nowhere near 100M.

    It’s sad and really makes me wonder…

  • Prakash

    Hey Mark,

    Speaking of titles, don’t you think a clearer title for this post would be, “Why Headlines matter a lot if you’re a blogger”?


  • http://krispennella.com/ Kris Pennella

    This was a fun read, thanks for this Mark!

    Lists give the effect of bringing order to people’s lives – grocery list, to-do’s, etc. so it makes sense they work in blog titles. Plus it helps in laying out your reasoning, keeping each item short enough to be read/digested, as well as how many points you want to tackle at once. I try to keep mine around 5, I’ve found those to be more popular than the 7-10 range traffic-wise.

    As a blogger (and a non-bot) tweeting human, I’ve been wondering what the acceptable number of times is for pushing a recent post. Four seems reasonable as not everyone lives and dies by their twitter feed 24×7 (though I know some who do).

    Tom Wolfe in an interview once said “If you ever have a preposterous statement to make … say it in five words or less, because we’re always used to five-word sentences as being the gospel truth.”
    (Note it was referenced in an article in the NYT Review section this weekend – resonates well with the ideas in this post).

  • http://byJess.net/ Jess Bachman

    People who click lists often want to read lists. Lists are built for people to get in and out of quickly, it’s just reader pattern, and attracts a different audience. People who are short on time often qualify their appreciation with a tweet or FB share, not direct feedback.

    But like all things requiring moderation, there is a sweet spot.

  • http://www.startupmanagement.org/ William Mougayar

    I’ve had the same experience as you when re-writing a title for Twitter, and it suddenly gets more engagement. Sometimes, a re-tweet that changed my title got more clicks than the original title.

    HuffPo is the master at that. They will write 2 or 3 different titles to the same story, and monitor clicks in the first hour or so, then they pick the one that got the most engagement and stick with it.

    And retailers are notorious for this too…Remember when you’d see a blue and green box of cereals that’s virtually the same thing, but they are test-marketing how color/packaging affects sales.

  • FakeValley
  • http://ohheyworld.com/ Drew Meyers

    I seriously hate lists, and I’m starting to do what you do – ignore them automatically….because they are generally crappy content written by seo marketers. I only click on them if it’s written by someone I already trust.

  • http://atcounseltable.com/ Alex

    Insightful. Thanks.

  • http://blog.ideatransplant.com Jan Schultink

    I agree that it works, but using headlines like these comes at the price of sounding like link bait sites such as Business Insider…

    The focus of my blog (presentation design) is too niche for it ever to amass a Seth Godin-like audience. I use blogging to organise my own thoughts and build up a smaller but interested community of readers, plus show case my philosophy to potential new clients.

    In your case, I think you have a (very large) regular audience that reads your content in depth. The catchy titles will bring other people to your site (partly driven by social media experts who love to retreat juicy titles on Twitter), but I guess that these are not the ones who are going to stick around.

  • http://ciurca.ro/ Vlad Ciurca

    Now that you mentioned this, why doesn’t your newsletter title contain the blog post title? Thanks

  • http://www.marketingrockstarguides.com/ Josh Hill

    Feedblitz, Aweber, or Mailchimp will help with automatic RSS emails. I moved our feeds to Feedblitz to have more control over it than Feedburner. Feedblitz has a helpful converter tool. The downside is it costs $50/mo.

  • http://www.iheavy.com/blog/ Sean Hull

    Great post. Analytics don’t lie, they inform bloggers & editors on what works. That may drag much of online journalism toward the sensational daily news type titles, but if it does that is what people enjoy, want, react to. Take your pick.

    To the naysayers, if users are becoming wise to all this, the analytics will inform that, and a better pen will result.

  • http://www.iheavy.com/blog/ Sean Hull

    PS: Muckrack Daily is probably a better role model that Business Insider. Clickable titles that urge you without sliding into the linkbait territory…


  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ awaldstein

    Yes and yes to your points.

    Titles matter of course, but shock bloggers are just that. Decide where your want of an audience makes you a shill.

    I hate lists. They are arbitrary and bullshit 99 % of the time. I’ve done 3 I think. Yes, audiences love them. Some are useful.

    I’m all about winning. I’m all about being popular as well.

    There is just stuff I do and stuff I don’t. Everyone needs to have their own line.

  • btrautsc

    you’re spot on re Bleacher Report. I feel the same way about Buzzfeed – sure they have some articles, but I just checked in and basically its a festival of lists, which after clicking 2 are just a mashup of gifs from around the web (tumblr) and adorable photos – most likely from reddit.

    Yet, every_single_day my wife sends me a link about tiny animals or puppies or hangover gifs… aaand I click it.

  • Jonson

    **** Really great!I’m so impressed to see that pompously your site is going to be considered to many on-line users as a great offer, by which they all may get well scopes to make something comfortable.

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com/ Donna Brewington White

    Yeah, I thought he meant the blogger’s title and thought I was sunk. Headhunter doesn’t have quite the same appeal as VC.

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com/ Donna Brewington White

    So now I know why “Abolish the Job Description?” got a lot more clicks than “Job Description Clinic” on my blog.

    So funny about Fred’s titles. So true. BTW, he uses Feedblitz and his titles come through in email.

    Mark, it never ceases to amaze me what practical insights you continuously post. And things that matter. Thanks.

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com/ Donna Brewington White

    More readable and engaging. Big blocks of text are a turn off.

    Works great for email too.

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com/ Donna Brewington White

    I figure if it was important enough for Mark to mention, it is important enough to comment on. :)

    Never knew until now what a pachinko machine is.