Here’s some fun year-end reading . The Seattle Times released its list of the top most-read stories on its website last Thursday—and notably it’s far from a list of the top stories of the year in terms of what any sane person would consider news value (locally that would probably be something like the Amanda Knox acquittal or the Seahawks making the playoffs as a 7-9 team). Instead, it’s a case study in what makes a great headline. After all, in the world of online news, the almighty click is king—if you can’t get your attention’s audience from the get-go, you won’t get a chance to tell your story.
Here’s the top 10 list (again, these are most read—or if you prefer, most clicked on—stories):
- Woman dies in fall at high school reunion at a Shelton casino (July 31, 2011)
- Seattle murder conviction tossed out over ‘racist’ comments (June 9, 2011)
- Sign him up! Fan catches bat, saves beer (March 6, 2011)
- OK for suspect to view child porn in Tacoma jail (July 13, 2011)
- 40 kittens later, ‘Harry Potter’ movie franchise calls it a wrap (July 9, 2011)
- Educating Gabriel, 13, an off-the-charts prodigy (Oct. 8, 2011)
- Wis. Democrats say AWOL lawmakers will return (March 9, 2011)
- 12 wounded as gunfire erupts at Kent car show (July 23, 2011)
- 96-year-old woman confesses to 1946 murder (June 8, 2011)
- Together 74 years, Kirkland couple die less than a day apart (Aug. 7, 2011)
What stands out in these headlines to you? To me, it can be narrowed down to a few things:
- What’s more detailed than 40 kittens?: While I’m married to a Harry Potter fanatic (and kindergarten teacher), I have very limited interest in the Harry Potter movies. But I recall clicking on this article when it ran back in July—it had me at “40 kittens later.” With an image like that I had to learn more.
- Tell me a story: Very few things can provoke the imagination like “96-year-old woman confesses to 1946 murder.” This headline immediately had me envisioning the story like it was a movie trailer. Talk about hooking your audience from the get-go. Same thing with the couple from Kirkland.
- Action and the unexpected: Headline #3—about a baseball fan who caught a bat flying into the stands while grasping a beer in his other hand—is probably my favorite, and not only because I have horrible eye-hand coordination (you don’t want to sit next to me in foul ball territory). The “sign him up!” introduces an element of a voice into the story, giving you a conclusion before you read more, and the unexpected detail of saving a beer adds a new layer too. It’s like a good joke with one punchline after another.
- Provoke a response: Some of these headlines were clearly designed to upset a reader before clicking through. Case in point: “OK for suspect to view child porn in Tacoma jail.” Entirely upsetting, and yet you have to know more. Click.
- Keep it local: The Times’ accompanying blog post notes that readership of individual articles can spike when a story appears on Google News or gets national attention, but I was struck by how local these stories are. With the exception of the baseball story (which happened at spring training in Florida) and the Harry Potter wrap-up, these stories were very local in nature. Two takeaways: 1) We have access to all the world’s news, but what’s happening in our backyard really turns us on. 2) There’s an “oh, them” element here. Dying in a fall at your high school reunion? Only in Shelton. Viewing child porn in jail? I knew it smelled bad in Tacoma, but that too? Gross.
- It helps when your audience is, well, bored: I was struck that 7 of these 10 stories hit in summer (June-August). Aren’t people supposed to be on vacation and not online then? My best guess is that in many desk jobs things are often slower in the summer and people are looking to procrastinate. Minor detail—but always worth thinking about what it takes for your audience to engage with you and what variables are at play.
Overall, it’s a good reminder that storytelling is more art than science, and when it’s done right, there’s rarely a better model for good storytelling than looking at headlines. Which is why people love America’s finest news source The Onion so much.