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Why We Need Better Headlines, Decks, and Leads

Posted on Sunday, January 31, 2016 at 2:59 PM

Evaluating how effectively three magazines use headlines, decks, and teaser copy to attract readers.

By William Dunkerley

The strategic importance of headlines, decks, and leads is greater than ever before. That's because many readers will consider only these parts of an article before deciding whether or not to read it.

In the print era these elements were important, too. But readers had a greater view of the article. They had the gestalt of first page or spread, plus photos, subheads, diagrams, and interesting layout on subsequent pages. They all could be points that could sell readers on the article.

But here are a few examples of what confronts readers today:

Forbes: "Why Your Credit Score Matters Most in Your Twenties." Readers see only that headline before they decide whether to click. No photo, no additional text.

Time: "1 Escaped California Inmate Turns Himself In" is the bolded headline. A head-shot photo of the subject escapee is shown, as is a blurb that is a slightly tightened version of the lead: "One of three inmates who escaped from a Southern California jail a week ago is in custody, but the other two remain at large. Escaped inmate Bac Duong turned himself over to police, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said."

IEEE Spectrum: "Lily's Flying Camera Is Flying Off of Virtual Shelves" is the head. It is accompanied by a photo of a Lily Robotics company co-founder and two children watching the drone in action beside a backyard swimming pool. Beneath the headline is teaser copy that is not repeated in the article's text. It says, "A drone for people who would never buy a drone. And the company is flying high."

Assuming an equal interest in all three article themes, which one would most motivate you to click?

Points to Ponder

The Forbes treatment targets a specific demographic: people in their twenties. And the headline is strong and direct on a very relevant topic. Would adding a photo and descriptive text motivate more readers to click? Or would those elements just create clutter that dilutes the headline's message? If clicking is an impulsive act, won't the headline-only approach best prompt a click before the impulse diminishes? What do you think?

Time's strategy is to present more of the story. Some in marketing circles subscribe to the adage "the more you tell, the more you sell." That would suggest that the added details in the Time piece would help to close the deal and prompt a click. Or might all that information sufficiently quench the thirst of readers, leading them to decide there's no need to click? What do you think?

Spectrum's title is kind of cryptic. It also uses a cutesy approach in its play on words. But the photo really spells it out and invites a lot of interest. Maybe we need to broaden our concept of a headline to include visual information as an integral part. Is a words-only notion of a headline passé? Spectrum's teaser copy really rounds out the picture. So what we have here is a head, photo, and teaser copy, neither of which could stand on its own. But they combine effectively to pack a real punch. What do you think?

My Analysis

I'll tell you what I think. I'd give the Forbes example an A. The headline alone seems powerful enough to compel a click. Time gets a D minus. The three elements -- i.e., the headline, the head-shot photo, and the replication of the article's lead -- don't seem to create much synergy. And Spectrum? I'd give an A minus there. But to get to that conclusion I had to redefine what a headline means to me. All three elements here are essential. And following the headline with teaser copy instead of just previewing the lead makes a lot of sense. The reason for my "minus" is because in the photo the drone can't be seen distinctly enough. It should be more in the foreground.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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