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How to Write Attention-Grabbing Headlines in 2017

How have headlines changed in two years? We look at ten publishers’ top stories to discover the trends behind engaging headlines on social. 

There’s no question that social media has changed the way that we read and share news. Publishers have had to adapt to our diminishing attention spans, a proclivity to skim content instead of actually reading it, and cute cat videos stealing page views.

The evolution of newspapers online has been ongoing since the first publishers joined the web in 1980 as little more than reprinted paper news. But what works in print doesn’t necessarily work online. Publishers need to be ahead of what’s catching their readers attention on each of their distribution channels.

The most direct way is to catch readers’ eyes is with a provocative headline. We’ve looked at headlines before, looking at how publishers can optimize theirs for social and the best practices for headlines on Facebook.

Knowing the headlines that work gives your content the best possible start to attracting attention on social.

Armed with years of social media metrics, we turned to NewsWhip Analytics to analyze how headlines of ten top publishers has changed in just the past two years. Let’s take a look.

 

Reflective of Current Times

 

To compare headline trends, we looked at the top engaging articles for January 2015 and January 2017 thus far, across Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest. All of the publishers and their top ten headlines can be viewed at the end of this blog.

The most overwhelming comparison between 2015 and 2017 was how reflective of current times the top headlines have become.

Granted, 2015 wasn’t an election year, but the unrest of 2017 has already deeply permeated even global and foreign press: BBC, the Daily Mail, and the Guardian all saw many of their top articles this month have to do with the U.S.’s political atmosphere.

USA Today headlines

Looking at USA TODAY’s headlines, the tone of the most engaging articles becomes distinctly more somber. More of January 2015’s top engaging headlines for USA TODAY were soft news topics, while hard news rules the day in 2017.

The 2017 headlines are more serious in general for the publishers we analyzed. With more and more content on the web, publishers have to try harder than ever to stand out to their audiences. This means staying relevant to the big issues readers care about. More and more, a data-driven strategy can help indicate the topics that are resonating with your target audience.

 

Publishers Reflecting Their Audiences’ Stances

 

Beyond just staying relevant on big current events that audiences care about, some publishers now seem to be reflecting their readers’ political stances and societal struggles. These headlines stray from maintaining a level of objectivity. 

BuzzFeed has come a long way from viral memes and entertaining cat videos. Of course, those are still there too, but the publisher has branched out into long form journalism and content that challenges societal problems. 

BuzzFeed Headlines

While there are still BuzzFeed’s famous lists in January 2017’s top engaging headlines, more than half of the articles had to do with politics or social issues like bigotry or mental health. Compare this to 2015’s lighter topics, about New Year’s resolutions and nostalgia.

Beyond the top ten, more of BuzzFeed’s top engaging headlines in 2017 follow this format: “This Four-Year-Old Had Her Own Women’s March With Dolls” and “Indian Parents Aren’t Raising Their Sons Right, And It’s Endangering India’s Women”.

The New York Times is another publisher with more politically charged headlines dominating its top ten in January 2017. Also noteworthy here, is how engagement has shifted from opinion pieces to news articles, which is quite a reversal.

New York Times Headlines

Staying savvy of what your audience cares about, and being willing to post those stories can lead to big engagement wins. You can build trust from your readers for covering these topics that matter to them.

 

Less Variety

 

In January 2015, the biggest headlines for these publishers varied across topics and stories. In 2017, many of the same news events took precedence in their top stories.

Trump’s inauguration and the new administration’s actions featured in the top headlines of all ten publishers that we analyzed. Headlines around the global women’s marches also ranked predominantly, as did political commentary from other politicians and celebrities.

In 2015, the articles varied across many different areas of interest, from science to crime to life and culture. Even though the Charlie Hebdo and Boko Haram attacks featured in a couple of the publishers’ top ten, there were no topics that featured as unanimously in the top headlines as in January 2017.

Washington Post Headlines

One thing publishers can note here is finding a unique angle on a breaking news event can lead to significant attention. Interested readers may try to read all that they can on a current news topic. Publishers can stand out by offering alternate stories within the big breaking news story, something that is true to the nature of their publication. 

 

Less Clickbait, More Explanatory

 

Even in 2015, some publishers’ top headlines seemed to mimic print headlines. They were short and snappy. In 2017, headlines of top publishers have become more expository.

Huffington Post Headlines

Clickbait and listicles were a far more common tactic in 2015 for these publishers. Huffington Post, among others, used somewhat cryptic headlines that were written in the first person. 

This could be just from over-saturation of these tactics. Likely, it’s also linked to Facebook’s promise to fight clickbait in the news feed last year. Articles with nebulous, attention-seeking headlines are less likely to feature in users’ news feeds. 

 

Top Headlines

 

Below are the top headlines for the ten publishers we analyzed, in January 2015, and January 1st through 28th, 2017. The data comes from NewsWhip Analytics. Feel free to reach out to us here or on Twitter with any thoughts or questions.

  • IfeanyiIbeh

    Thank you, thank you and thank you so much for this Gabriele Boland. The information here will come quite handy and go a long way in my line of work.

    • Gabriele

      Happy to hear that! Let us know if these tips help you!

  • Thanks Gabriele. Awesome piece here! Keep ug the good work!

    • Gabriele

      Thank you, Emmerey! Always glad to hear it was helpful to you!

  • Patrícia Ventura

    Great piece, Gabriele! I wonder if the best way to calculate headline effectiveness is from engagements on publisher’s content across they profiles on social media. Shouldn’t it be calculated from clicks? CTR, actually?

    • Gabriele

      Hi Patrícia, thanks for the comment! Our data measures social media metrics: likes, comments, reactions, shares, etc. Social media distribution seems to play a bigger and bigger role for publishers, so we were measuring that engagement here in our analysis.

  • oluseye petphil

    Great work Gabriele I must commend. However, going by the most engaged headlines according to the analysis suggests that those with expository lines tend to do more, whereas Facebook claims shorter headlines will do better. Which position is advisable to take here?
    Cheers.

    • Gabriele

      Hi Oluseye. Publishers can adjust how their stories are presented on Facebook, to use shorter headlines, or add other captions. It seems that Facebook may be pivoting toward the explanatory headlines, as the platform focuses on battling fake news and sensationalism.