The Horrible Truth About Headlines

headlinesA piece written in the Chicago Tribune detailed a fun little prank played by a satirical news site called the Science Post. They put a story up on their site with the headline “Study: 70% of Facebook Users Only Read the Headline of Science Stories Before Commenting.”

Almost 46,000 people shared the post and here’s what’s interesting about that:

Below the headline was a brief introductory paragraph followed by over 1,700 words of meaningless “Lorem Ipsum” text. Maybe some of those 46, 000 shares came from readers perpetuating the joke, but you can bet that more than a few people shared the piece in earnest without reading past the first few sentences.

This past year Columbia University conducted a study that revealed that 59% of links shared on Twitter had been re-tweeted without the reader having even clicked to open them.

That should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the nature of content marketing.

Copyblogger says that on average 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest.

So what’s the takeaway? This piece isn’t about how important it is to write a good headline or the ins and outs of headline psychology. That’s been done already by people who have applied a ton of time, effort and analysis.

Instead, let’s take a look at the bigger picture. From a branding perspective, to the 80% of the people who will see your headline without clicking through to read the content the words in the title serve as a clear measure of your message.

If you go back and look at the headlines for pieces you have published, what do those headlines say about your brand? What do they say about your message and your tone? Are they fun and playful? Are they smart and authoritative? Edgy and controversial? There is no right answer, but be aware that the tone they carry is the tone that readers will associate with you.

In addition, the content of your headline can go a long way in establishing (or harming) your brand. Take one of your headlines and paste it in a Google search box. Do a lot of very similarly titled articles appear? Would your headline just blend in with all of the noise rendering it invisible? 

The headlines you use can also help you to determine the type of content you should be creating.

Using this concept you can build a mini-strategy for a handful of content pieces. Consider the stages of your buyer’s journey:

  • Awareness – the prospect realizes they have a problem that needs a solution.
  • Consideration – the prospect is searching for solutions to their problem(s).
  • Decision – the prospect makes a purchase and hopefully they choose your solution.

Now write 3 headlines that your buyer’s persona would identify with at each stage of the journey. Write some great content for each of those headlines and you now have a solid handful of pieces designed to guide the buyer through your funnel. Rinse and repeat and you will find yourself with a robust collection of content that can capture and convert new visitors in various stages of their buyer’s journey.

It’s nearly impossible to know who will click on your content based on your headlines. One thing you can control is what those headlines say about you and your message.

OK, Burger King!


Let’s address this Burger King ad that ran recently. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about because EVERY outlet seemed to cover it. And for those of you who missed it, I’ll give you the hot take on it so that we can all be on the same page.

Recently, Burger King shot this tv spot ad and basically it went down like this: An actor on screen says “this is a 15 second ad and that’s not enough time to really describe the ingredients for a Whopper so I’ve got an idea. OK Google.” And then the camera pulls in close to the actor and he says “what is the whopper burger?”

When that commercial plays, it instigates a wikipedia read-out-loud thing that describes the ingredients of a whopper using words that makes the Whopper ™ sound way more succulent than it actually is.

People lost their minds. The OK Google command initiated google home devices, cell phones, tablets, you name it. Users clamored to Google and demanded that they keep the villainous corporate claw of Burger King out of their private lives.

Google swarmed in and changed some security algorythms to disable the ads access.

Well apparently, BK was ready for the backlash so they made some of their own adjustments. They also had ads set up for late night talk shows an when the ads on those shows aired, they re-initiated google assistants.

So here is what it comes down to: this was either a brilliant marketing campaign or it was gross negligence in terms of using brand strength to push forward a marketing message.

I want to know how you feel about this. Are you thinking “not cool, BK! How can I trust you as a brand?” Or are you thinking “brilliant move. Wish I had thought of it.” I have just sent out a tweet with the hashtag #OKBK. Please use that hashtag and reach out and to say which camp you are in.

On the side of “not cool, BK!” I can see how the campaign might seem invasive. Burger King is an internationally recognized brand…why would they risk their trust factor by pulling this stunt? I mean, it’s not like they need to go viral on news sites to let people know they exist, right?

I get that, and I think that this perspective makes perfect sense. However, to play devil’s advocate and make an argument for the “Brilliant Move” camp, think about it this way: this wasn’t a cheap ad buy. BK spent a lot of money on placement and air time. But the coverage they got from all of the news outlets maximized their exposure exponentially. Like, every outlet carried a version of the story. So for the amount of exposure they got from the stunt, they paid a fraction of the cost that it would usually take to get in front of that many people.

Why would an internationally known brand even need to mess around with a campaign that could potentially turn customers off to them?

Three words: TOP OF MIND.

Let’s say someone is riding around in their car, and they are hearing about Burger King’s stunt on the radio or maybe they saw it on the news on tv or flicked through a piece about it in their news feed on their phone earlier that day.

Maybe they are hungry and their sense memory goes back to the story or their top of mind impulses kick in and they think “You know what sounds good right now? A big bag of candy corn!”

No I’m just kidding, they are thinking “it’s been years since I’ve had a Whopper!”

Speaking further to top of mind, there is this psychological phenomenon called the observer-expectancy effect. Here’s an example: let’s pretend their is someone that you are romantically interested in and you want to trigger them to think about you throughout the day even when you are not around. You could say something to them like “you know what I’ve noticed lately? It seems like I see SO MANY blue Hondas on the road. Like way more than normal.”

Now you have just triggered that person into observer-expectancy. So for the rest of that day, and probably several days afterwards, every time they see a blue Honda they will think of you. They will also probably feel like they are seeing a preponderance of blue Hondas that they hadn’t seen before. The reality is there are just as many blue Hondas as there always were, but you have initiated the observer-expectancy effect.

In content marketing, this goes hand in hand with “top of mind” techniques to extend your customer’s awareness beyond the normal shelf life of your content’s message

And in a way, I feel like whoever got the OK Google campaign green-
lit by the powers that be at Burger King probably pitched this as the end game.

What camp are you in? “Not cool, BK” or “Brilliant Move”?

I’d love to know. And you chime in with me on Twitter by using the hashtag #OKBK.

You could also be my new best friend by listening to my podcast called Let’s Talk Content.