Metrics. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.
Actually, it’s the latter.
Metrics are showing us a whole new way to appreciate – and measure – the perfectly crafted headline.
Only the moon, and perhaps my expense account at the paper, waxes and wanes more than the trends in headline length.
If you’d picked up The Times during the 18th Century you’d be offered a glittering smorgasbord of headlines and cross-heads disappearing like an on-page fractal as it sought to draw you in.
Add a century or so and the march of the tabloid had distilled it down to just one word: Gotcha! The effective but short-lived first edition headline from the UK’s The Sun splash on the sinking of the General Belgrano during the Falklands War.
When the internet woke up and decided news might be a thing, length became fashionable once again as your reader was no longer just a human being but included the web-crawlers armed with algorithms that loved to see meta matching headlines.
We have discussed this apparent tension between elegance and design and function before here. And the world leader, mailonline, continues, even today, to eschew the clickbait listicle and instead throw the equivalent of verbal flypaper at its headliens to ensnare even the most casual browser.
But the mighty MailOnline almost stands alone as browsers have followed mobiles and into our pockets and handbags. The real estate can no longer afford the sprawling luxury of unlimited words working as a team. Now only a select few dare venture out and smuggle themselves under the gorilla glass of your smartphone for your attention.
The rise of social and the noise that goes with it has led to clickbait – a craft in itself – and the short-form headline is once again queen to its king (which, we are told is content).
But don’t take our word for it.
With big headlines comes big data. And Herbert Liu only had to dip his toe into the thinky waters of medium.com and other social fora to see what pitch returned the best return.
And The Results Will Amaze You!
In his excellent analysis of headline length Liu sorts the wehat from the chaff – and keeps the chaff. Short is the new long and Less is the new More.
Your Headlines Sucked. These Didn’t. Why?A Data-Driven Guide to Contagious Headlines on Medium
His analysis shows that no matter the content – dark or heavy, worthy, light, inspirational etc – the most successful headlines, the ones that elicited the most views, were five or six words long.
It is no coincidence that this is maximising browser real estate and great to see the newspaper art of the tabloid headline making a welcome and brawling return to prominence. It remains an art to engage a reader and the best content can lay unread unless well-signposted.
And the question still remains.
So was this headline too short?