More Clicks, More Money: What It Takes to Make a Good Headline

By Daniel Varitek

The more visitors you have trafficking your site, the more money you’re making. Amanda Wilkins and Holly Rusak understand this well. Operating as the Audience Development Editor and Social Producer, respectively, for the Dallas Morning News, both have extensive experience in developing their online articles for the highest engagement.

Online is a different beast than Print. We understand that at The Signal, which is why our editors ask reporters to draft both a “Head” and a “Web Head” when writing their articles. These two headings are often drastically different, and cater to completely different audiences. In print, the reader has already picked up the paper. For a print heading, you’re considering catchiness, the size of the heading (so that it may fit well with your design), and the flow to its subheading and subsequent article.

Online, you’re battling for the attention of thousands of followers scrolling through their news feed. Your competition is literally hundreds of thousands of articles, pictures, videos, and memes from around the internet. How do you turn a scroll into a click? Amanda and Holly tackled this in their College Media Convention panel, “Connecting with Your Audience: Writing Great Headlines and Social Media Posts”.

Let’s talk strategy. Amanda and Holly would be the first to say there is never a one-size-fits-all model for social media posts. Depending on the mood and type of story you’re promoting, drastically different strategies may come into play. Here are a few:

1. SOMETIMES STRAIGHTFORWARD WORKS

Don’t convolute the headline and confuse your readers. Sometimes, simply stating the news works best. This works well if a story is very interesting on it’s own. An example Amanda and Holly gave was an article about a 14-year-old stabbing her sibling. There’s no need to strengthen that story any more with a far-out headline. At face-value, the article is shocking by itself. Just state the news!

2. IS CLICKBAIT OKAY? YOU WON’T BELIEVE THE ANSWER…

Yes! It’s okay! Clickbait, to Amanda and Holly, is a cheap way of discrediting a great headline. Let’s be real — if a headline gets clicks, it’s doing it’s job. But there are some principles you should keep in mind here. If an article that is “clickbaity” doesn’t deliver on what it suggests, that’s not cool. Otherwise, full steam ahead with the clickbait.

3. TEASE THE READER

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 6.22.16 PM.png

If the article seems bland up-front, maybe you should tease some interesting content from it. Take this tweet directly from Dallas Morning News. Even if you didn’t know Jordan Spieth is a famous golfer, now you’re left wondering — “Wait, Obama and aliens? It’s gotta be good.” Click. 

4. CONVERSATION, POP CULTURE, ALLITERATIONS, AND CREATIVITY

As long as it’s appropriate, a conversational headline is okay. Amanda suggested following the Washington Post for a great example on this. According to Amanda, WaPo is killing the game in two-sentence conversational headlines. It might be longer than a conventional headline, but it reads very well.

The same principle applies to pop culture references, alliterations, and creative headlines. It would definitely not be appropriate on an article relating to suicide, but for a football game or an upcoming event, you’re in the clear.


Most importantly, know your audience. Differentiate your social media strategy depending on what platform you’re using. In the case of Dallas Morning News, Amanda shared that their Facebook and Twitter audiences are vastly different. On Twitter, readers can take a joke and enjoy controversial headlines. On Facebook, the opposite is true.

It’s not smart to post the same content on all platforms. By gauging your analytics and figuring out which posts get the most clicks, you can begin to develop a strategy for different platforms. This also works well with growing your audience on all platforms independently. If you post the exact same content on Twitter as you do Facebook, what’s the point in a reader following you on both? Differentiating your content makes for a unique experience on all platforms. This is a principle I’ve been exploring recently with The Signal.

After listening to this panel attentively, I’ve realized I will need to take a more active role in restructuring headlines for social media engagement. Previously, I’ve taken a small stance on the matter, not intending to butcher a reporter’s work. But it’s important to understand that an online headline needs to be catered towards an online audience.