Do Your Headlines Deliver? Nonprofit Wordsmithing Makes a Difference

Tom_FurtwanglerGuest blogger Tom Furtwangler manages digital communications and social media for a large international development nonprofit based on the west coast.

There’s a headline arms race on the web these days. Upworthy’s “curiosity gap” approach to click-enticing headlines is now widely imitated and even parodied. You know what I mean: those “You won’t believe…” headlines that we don’t believe anymore.

I love Upworthy, and I regularly send communications colleagues to their amazing “How to make that one thing go viral” slide deck. Read it and take their advice: for every post, write twenty five headlines, test them, and then maybe write twenty five more, and a good, clickable one will eventually emerge.

“You won’t believe…”

As communicators, the advocacy goals or financial success of our organizations often hinges on attracting sufficient attention to the issues we are writing about. But as we share our stories on social media, at what point does our use of highly enticing headlines cross the curiosity gap and venture into territory that’s closer to clickbait pandering, potentially damaging our brand?

Seeing the following recent headline made me realized how far things have shifted: You Won’t Believe How One Chemical Company Tried to Discredit a Scientist’s Research. Can you guess whose story that is? No, not Upworthy. Not Business Insider. Not Viralnova. Nope, it’s a tease for a post on the website of venerable PBS newsmagazine Moyers and Company. When I saw that, I thought, “If Bill Moyers can do Upworthy-style headlines, my nonprofit can do it too.”

I brought that example to our next blog planning meeting. Soon, our nonprofit’s headlines got more provocative (a bit). We shared them on Facebook. Our clicks went up. But everyone else is doing it too. And like me, you’ve probably noticed that increasingly, headlines I’m seeing (and clicking) from reliable news sources simply aren’t delivering on their promise.

This recent headline from NPR, for example, Apple Jacks The Headphone Port, appeared in my Facebook newsfeed with the subhead, “Industry folks and Apple fanatics are upset about the company’s plan to lose the standard 3.5mm connector…” The article, however, dials back the rhetoric significantly, saying, “It’s a possibility.” Not a plan, simply a possibility. That’s pretty far from the done deal implied by the headline. Or this example from PBS Nova, a paragon of science reporting: “Scientists have found a way to make people aware that they’re dreaming by sending gamma waves into their brains.” Is that what we get when we click? No again. In fact the article itself quotes a Wired writer who says, “I think these headlines are getting carried away.”

Curiosity Gap or Credibility Gap?

These days, my team uses a headline mantra I first heard from my colleague Anna. “Deliver on the promise,” we remind each other, as we narrow the list of draft headlines for each blog post.Don’t leave readers disappointed that the content they are reading is different from the tease that they clicked.

Exploit the curiosity gap, sure. Tease a little. It’s a proven click-increaser. But don’t sacrifice your brand’s credibility in the process. Deliver on the promise.

How far is your organization willing to take your headlines? I’d love to hear about your experience and opinion.

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