The Problem with Carefully Crafted Headlines

Raining books
Raining books image from Big Stock

My youngest showed me a bookmark that listed the 20 Texas Bluebonnet nominated books.

“Mom, I’m going to read all 20 of these books,” he said.

Needless to say, I did cartwheels and back flips in my mind. (The only place it can happen as I haven’t done a decent cartwheel since the ’80s.) A child who wants to read? My oldest was average about reading. The middle one despises it.

A little background. The Texas Library Association runs the Texas Bluebonnet Award program, a reading program that encourages children in third through sixth grades to read more books. They must read at least five nominated books to be able to vote.

We reviewed the list to find his next read. Then I did what I should know better to do. I started judging books by the title. An interesting thing happened. The synopsis of the titles that interested me sounded like books worth reading. And those with blah titles didn’t.

After my son finished “Benjamin Franklinstein Lives!” I picked it up. Good title, right? I don’t like monsters or anything, but I knew it wouldn’t be scary since this is for kids. Here’s the synopsis:

Victor Godwin’s orderly life is upended when he discovers that Benjamin Franklin never actually died. In truth, he was put in suspended animation and hidden away for more than 200 years in Victor’s basement.

Intriguing, right?

I didn’t like the book.

Bad Headlines Live!

That’s what happens when I come across a headline that interests me. I click through only to find a disappointing article that doesn’t deliver.
There are jillions of articles about writing headlines for blog posts and online articles. They give advice, tricks and formulas for crafting a super duper catchy one that hypnotizes people into reading.

Please stop. Just stop.

It happens often enough that I quit visiting a few websites that let me down again and again and again. Everyone has an off day. Of course, I didn’t stop visiting after one over-hyped or perfectly crafted headline. These sites were notorious enough that I started remembering how they wasted my time too often.

Sometimes it’s not so obvious. Some headlines say they’ll show you how to create a plan or strategy only to be vague without helping you.

Back to Basics

A simple headline that describes the article beats out another using a formula that over promises and under delivers.

The same goes for email subject lines. I open plenty of email newsletters with basic subject lines that tell me what the issue is about. They don’t always have a benefit or add a sense of urgency. Some even use the same headline such as: “Newsletter name: Title of key topic or article.”

Just say what’s in the email and make sure the content in the email matches the landing page. Bryan Eisenberg shares great examples of how an email promises one thing and delivers something else. (Check it out. It’s unbelievable how companies overlook something so basic.)

Now when I review the Bluebonnet list, I look up the book’s summary and read well-written reviews. I also ask around for recommendations. 2013-2014 nominee “Walls Within Walls” caught my eye. And guess what? The school librarian loved it. And my son is already hooked. (Bonus points: the book takes place in New York, my dad’s hometown.)

For 2012-2013, my son voted for “Aliens on Vacation.” If I could vote, it’d be “Wonderstruck,” which left me — like its title — wonderstruck after reading it.  (Its author, Brian Selznick, wrote “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.”)

At my son’s school, “Wonderstruck” received the most votes. “Postcards from Camp” won the 2012-2013 Texas Bluebonnet Award.

Are headlines becoming a problem for you in your Internet travels? Do they live up to your expectations? What can we do to write better headlines?

8 thoughts on “The Problem with Carefully Crafted Headlines”

  1. Hi Meryl,
    I do not think it’s only the headlines that can be problematic, but also the synopsis. I have bought books based on their titles and synopses and was very upset because there was a major disconnect with the actual content.

    • Avil, great point there too. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen often as I’ve been fortunate that most books I pick based on that info live up to expectations. “Benjamin Franklin Lives” synopsis is accurate, but it’s more general and it’s still a book aimed at youth especially boys. Although I enjoy reading children’s books — there are bound to be a few that don’t interest me because I’m the wrong audience for it.

  2. Headlines are the reason I stopped following two “must follow” bloggers. It was all shouting and promises — then the letdown when the content was the same, regurgitated stuff that’s been circulating for years.
    Blogs like yours, Meryl, are the reason I haven’t lost faith in blogging. Fresh content, great ideas, and aimed at helping, not driving up traffic.

  3. This struck a cord with me as my eldest (shes almost 7) really struggled to get into reading when she started school and a lot of the time it was because the book had lost her interest before she had even opened it, the title alone put her off, she loves it now but still prefers choosing her own books by using titles that capture her imagination the problem is with some the title is the best part and therefore she doesn’t finish the book! Mind you my sons (hes 4) fav book is dinosaurs wear underpants and the book pretty much does what it says on the tin lol!

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. Covers are critical especially with young children as they’re drawn to the illustrations and titles just like you say. I remember I didn’t read “The Phantom Tollbooth” because I was put off by the cover. Years later, I read it and loved it. So I spend time reading several book websites to determine whether a book is worth my time.


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