by Will Brent
March 27th, 2014

The New York Post is legendary for its headlines. ‘Headless Body Found in Topless Bar’ is perhaps the pinnacle (or nadir depending on your point of view). In today’s always-on world of digital media, though, the art of crafting headlines is being informed increasingly by the science of analytics.

I spoke recently with Zach Seward, ex-Wall Street Journal digital guru and senior editor at Quartz, about their approach to headlines (Zach must be doing something right – Quartz surpassed the Economist for US web traffic in August of last year).

Quartz has an internal editorial chat room, where headlines are workshopped. One writer recently put forward 25 different headlines for a story. Unlike other sites that do A/B testing on headlines post-publication, Quartz focuses its energy pre-publication and tries to avoid simple click-bait.

“Click-bait is optimising for the click, which is cheap and easy, and therefore tends to over-promise what the story actually delivers,” said Zach. “For us, if there is a single goal, it is writing something that will be shared. That’s a higher bar, but more effective.”

So what is the Quartz strategy? Zach stresses that there is no single strategy — “Because that gets tiresome very quickly…and we don’t want all Quartz headlines to look and sound alike” — but he does call out a couple of approaches that have worked well:

- Start with ‘Why’ and ‘How’ – these headlines flag stories that are more informative in nature, and strongly signal that the reader is going to learn something

- The Thing” – these headlines focus on one “atomic bit of information in the article”, according to Zach. One that did particularly well: ’59% of America’s ‘tuna’ isn’t actually tuna’. The story was about food mis-labelling in general, but used an alarming factoid to draw in the reader. “That requires being able to let go of a headline encompassing the whole piece. Trying to capture everything in the headline is a mistake,” he adds.

Will Brent is senior vice-president at Weber Shandwick

This article first appeared on the Weber Shandwick Technology Practice blog

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