Tag Archives: Communications

What’s in a Headline?

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):

  1. Woman dies in fall at high school reunion at a Shelton casino (July 31, 2011)
  2. Seattle murder conviction tossed out over ‘racist’ comments (June 9, 2011)
  3. Sign him up! Fan catches bat, saves beer (March 6, 2011)
  4. OK for suspect to view child porn in Tacoma jail (July 13, 2011)
  5. 40 kittens later, ‘Harry Potter’ movie franchise calls it a wrap (July 9, 2011)
  6. Educating Gabriel, 13, an off-the-charts prodigy (Oct. 8, 2011)
  7. Wis. Democrats say AWOL lawmakers will return (March 9, 2011)
  8. 12 wounded as gunfire erupts at Kent car show (July 23, 2011)
  9. 96-year-old woman confesses to 1946 murder (June 8, 2011)
  10. 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.Image
  • 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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Communications, Media

Cigarette Warning Labels: Will They Work?

As you may have seen in this week’s news, the federal government unveiled new warning labels for cigarette packaging, set to debut early next year, that depict gruesome imagery evoking the health impacts of smoking, from a person blowing smoke through a neck tracheotomy to damaged lungs. The images are fairly gross,  but the campaign got me thinking about whether a campaign like this will be successful or whether it will backfire.

The situation is this: After years of decline, the smoking rate has finally leveled off. The text-based warning labels on cigarette packaging, unchanged since 1985, have increasingly become background noise. Smokers are seemingly aware of the health risks associated with smoking but continue to light up. It turns out that roughly 30 countries use graphic imagery to discourage tobacco usage, so there is a wealth of data demonstrating that it has worked in those countries. In Thailand, the percentage of people who thought about the health risks of smoking went from 35 percent to 55 percent. When Canada became the first country in the world to adopt image-based labels 11 years ago, a full 85 percent of survey respondents reported using tobacco packages as a source of health information.

So the data shows it should work. But will it? It seems to me that there are three important issues that will determine whether this campaign will achieve its desired results—the messenger, the audience and the message.

The Messenger

Do consumers believe that the messenger—the federal government—has the credibility to change their behavior? A blog post from economist Robin Hanson put it this way: “We decide it’s not a good idea to let the government ban this product, or to require a doctor’s prescription to consume, then that means that everyone should be allowed to consume it if they choose.” But we can probably agree as well that it’s not a good idea to let the government be decider-in-chief about which products are “cool,” even though that’s exactly what this campaign tries to do. To get consumers to take a desired action, the message has to be believable coming from the messenger. If the messenger can’t do this without fear of striking the wrong cultural chord, it’s possible that they should take a different approach entirely.


The Audience

It seems that the missing link in this campaign is pinpointing who the target audience is. Is it aimed at preventing new smokers (i.e., teenagers and young adults) from picking up the habit or at encouraging existing smokers to quit? It reminds me of a campaign from the 1980s aimed at reducing roadside littering in Texas. An early PSA campaign that focused on littering as a moral issue and “doing the right thing” was a dismal failure. But a second campaign focused on the core audience, which was tough guy males, ages 18 to 35, who didn’t think twice of throwing trash out the window. They unveiled a campaign with the slogan “Don’t Mess With Texas” (now celebrating 25 years) and enlisted celebrity spokespeople such as Texas Rangers baseball players and musician Stevie Ray Vaughan. Roadside littering decreased by 72% over the next four years. To get a change in behavior, you have to know whose behavior you’re trying to change and where their pressure points are. Finding the right messenger to reach that audience is nice too.

The Message

And that leads us to the message itself. Does visually depicting smoking as a death wish discourage smoking? Or are these images so beyond the pale that they have the opposite effect by tapping into the bravado (think Marlboro Man) associated with smoking in early advertising campaigns? For young males, a key target audience for cigarette companies, depictions of smoking as dangerous, gruesome and unhealthy may add to cigarettes’ appeal simply due to an increased appetite for risk-taking. Some of the images on these labels evoke the t-shirts for the brand of heavy metal bands that I grew up with—and those shirts are typically worn as a badge of honor among teens and young adult males.

Which leads me to a final thought. At least one of the image-based ads from Canada took a different approach that would resonate with young males—humor and fear of sexual impotence. Now ask yourself a question—which campaign is more effective?

Leave a comment

Filed under Communications, Media

The First Rule of Communications Is…

Be honest. And if you can’t be honest (though you should be), for the love of all that is holy don’t put out information that will be refuted a month later.

Via the New York Times, a government panel called the Flow Rate Technical Group just doubled its estimate for how much oil is spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, from 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day (the original BP estimate) to 25,000 to 30,000 barrels per day. That’s a lot of oil, close to one Exxon Valdez every eight to ten days. According to the article:

The assessment was conducted by the Flow Rate Technical Group, which was created federal government to accurately gauge the oil being released into the Gulf after questions were raised about BP’s own estimates.

Italics are mine. That’s now how to build public trust if you’re BP. If you’re the government, however, it’s not a bad start to emerging as the good guy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Media