Buzzfeed, Facebook & The Rebirth Of The Headline

A few years ago there was a lot of talk about journalists learning SEO. I should know, I was one of those doing the talking.

The idea was that as people moved from choosing what news to read based on what they saw on a news-stand or in a newsagent to what they found in Google, journalists and editors need to rethink the art of the language that would be needed to attract them. I created a programme to train all the journalists at RBI to do just this, and even created a series of posts on the subject. Probably one of the high-points of my career to date was being asked to train BBC journalists in SEO for news writing.

One of the posts was about the art of the headline in which I argued that the modern article needed to move away from the puns and metaphors of the past and become more explanatory, clear and informative; the BBC couldn’t implement my ideas around headlines because their CMS had to be able to push content on to Ceefax.

But if I was re-writing that post today, I’d probably have to make a slight tweak. Though I might describe it as the greatest tweak ever known to man!

Yesterday I mentioned some great ads that have been created by Volvo Trucks; as I said, I think the ads are really rather good, and certainly a refreshing change from a lot of the dross that clutters our airwaves. But I’m not quite sure that:

Advertisers Should Just Quit. Nothing Will Ever Top This Volvo Commercial

No matter how great a piece of creative is, it’s probably a bit much to suggest that nothing will ever top it.

Or maybe it’s not. Certainly, based on some of the other headlines that appear to be popping up more and more, it’s actually rather light-weight in terms of its enthusiasm.

If you watch the video above you might be struck by how generous and selfless people can be. But I’m not sure you will necessarily think that fuzzy footage, with a painfully cheesy soundtrack, of people being pulled off of tube tracks or a car being pushed off a train line, is:


I’ve seen the footage of Allied troops discovering the concentration camps at the end of the Second World War and I’m afraid some badly spliced footage of good Samaritans doesn’t really compare.

In the same vein, I don’t think that these are “the most thought provoking images of all time“, I doubt that a slowed down version of Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball will “haunt me forever“* and I’m almost certain that a fortune-cookie philosophy speech with a piano backing track isn’t going to “inspire me to live life to the fullest“. But hey, at least it ends with a shot of a model in ligerie biting her lip. Stay classy Jason Silva.

What’s interesting is that it took me approximately 5 minutes to find all of these examples of articles (or rather very short posts which essentially repost content from other places) where the headlines are master-classes in hyperbole.

All of them had been posted to Facebook and showed up in a quick trawl of my newsfeed this morning. It seems that in this world where having virtual ADHD is a feature not a bug, the old adage of under-promise and over-deliver has been consigned to the dustbin. In a world where news, or rather content, is increasingly found via social channels rather than search, it seems that click-bait is getting worse and worse.

Interestingly, at exactly the same time as serious media companies are following down this path that Buzzfeed has blazed, Buzzfeed is setting itself up as more of a serious content creator. This piece on the real numbers behind Snapchat is as good as, if not better, than much of the coverage I’ve seen in the main-stream tech press (which maybe shouldn’t be a surprise). And whilst the argument behind this piece on the British housing market is full of holes, at least it shows a desire to cover serious issues in a semi-serious way.

It will be interesting to see who wins out, or whether there is space for both to thrive, even on one site. It strikes me that products like Flipboard reward high-quality imagery rather than headlines that appear to be written by a ten-year old who has just chugged two-litres of Red Bull, but Flipboard is nowhere near as big as Facebook. If it scales this trend towards ridiculous hyperbole might fade, otherwise it will probably require a Facebook algorithm change such as the ones that did for social readers.

Back in the real world however, Bon Jovi are back in the US charts because of a site that reposted a 4-year old YouTube clip of a guy dancing to Livin’ On A Prayer at a basketball game. Here’s hoping that this really is the perfect time to be launching a newspaper.

Buzzfeed HQ by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

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