The science and art of crafting headlines for social/mobile

By Allison Inglebright

Kurt Gessler, Deputy Digital Editor at the Chicago Tribune, presented about writing effective headlines for digital media at the 2017 MobileMe&You conference.


The most important function of headlines is to retain and grow audience, which can be a huge stress on smaller newsrooms. Headlines operate very differently in print versus online.

Print readers have more context to take in, including sub headlines, mugshots and drop heads. Readers take in the entire package as one unit. Online readers don’t have as much context when looking at a story. If an online story has a bad headline, people won’t click on it and read it.  

Gessler gave 15 tips for reporters and editors to keep in mind when writing headlines: 

1) Be clear and fact-rich

Specifics and numbers are good. Headlines should state the obvious while keeping your readership in mind. You shouldn’t assume that readers will “Get to the good stuff.” You should tease to the good stuff and encourage them to get there.

2) Add context

Headlines should explain to readers why the story is important.

3) Favor proper nouns

Using proper nouns is important for local and regional publications because geography is core to the brand.

4) Write so it reads fast

Headlines should be frontloaded with critical words at the beginning. This will also help with SEO.

5) Write in active voice

However, passive voice can be much more effective if it reads faster.

6) Don’t be “clickbaity”

Headlines should strive for clarity first and should be a reliable source of information.

7) Is the author important?

Some authors have strong followings and including their name in the headline will increase read time on their articles.

8) Ask a critical question

Asking a critical question can help draw readers in.

9) Use descriptive and evocative words

Tapping into an emotional response will also help draw readers in. 

10) Avoid puns

Using puns conveys a light tone, which can be inappropriate for certain stories.

11) Have a great quote? Use it!

A powerful quote can encourage readers to open the story.

12) Some words just suck, don’t use them

Headlines should be written how people talk in everyday life.

13)  Think beyond the lede

What is the most important issue in a story? This is what readers need to know.

14) Focus on Impact

Headlines should tell people why the article is important.

15) Focus on one damn thing

Including too many things will make things messy and complicated.

Gessler recommends knowing your audience and what is important to them. Knowing this information will allow newsrooms to monitor their articles and adjust headlines as needed. He used the Cubs as an example, which is important to the readers of the Chicago Tribune. If the paper publishes a story about the Cubs online that isn’t doing well, they will look at the headline and change it. Adjusting the headline can increase clicks and read time on the story.

Increasing clicks and read time doesn’t always require deep technical knowledge or expensive web tools.