Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Title as a Promise to the Reader

Whether in fiction or non-fiction, the title is a promise
to the reader that must be compelling enough to make the
reader choose your book off the shelf or click your article
from a search engine results page.
Photo by Brad Sylvester.
Titles of web news articles serve many purposes. They help increase search engine rankings, entice potential readers to click on them, and a host of other functions. At it's most fundamental level, however, a title is a promise, it is a personal commitment from the author to the reader (and to search engine algorithms) about the content of the full article.

As with any time that one person makes a promise to another, the author's reputation depends on whether or not that promise is kept. At a higher level, the website's reputation or rank with search engines also depends on whether that promise is kept.

Let me explain. Let's use a fictional title: "Killer Hiding Out at Bronx Zoo." That's an eye-catching title that might cause someone who sees the title to click on it to read more. Why will they want to read more or to ask another way, what has the author promised them with that title?

By clicking on the title and reading the full article, the reader expects to learn who or what the killer is, why the killer is at the Bronx Zoo, whether the killer is still there, if there is any ongoing danger, and the reader expects to be entertained by it all.

Entertained? Really? Yes. If the author were promising only straight information without entertainment, the title would be less... let's say, mysterious and playful. It might read "Deadly Egyptian Cobra Missing from Bronx Zoo." By using the word killer, which normally implies a person in this context, the author is saying "let's have some fun."

The facts can be delivered very quickly and succinctly, almost police blotter style and that's exactly what CNN has done with the above-lined title. In about 100 words they have delivered the facts, exactly as promised in their title. They tell you where the cobra is, how deadly it is, whether the public is at risk, and what steps are being taken by zoo staff to locate the snake. Furthermore, the CNN report even explains why it's called an Egyptian Cobra as the inclusion of that information might be inferred by a typical reader from their title. The CNN article delivers on the promise of the title and upon CNN's reputation.

With our title "Killer Hiding at Bronx Zoo," we've made a different promise which includes entertainment on top of the facts. Our title reads more like a murder mystery, and so should our article. "Officials on Sunday released a statement advising the public that a dangerous prisoner has escaped and is still at large. The escapee remains highly dangerous despite the fact that it is unarmed, and indeed, unlegged as well."

To keep our particular promise, we'll deliver all the facts, but describe the situation in the terminology and style of a crime drama. We might ask members of the public to report any sightings to the Bronx Zoo, giving out real contact information. We'll use original sources like statements from the Bronx Zoo, but we'll also use other sources that help us differentiate ourselves from the traditional news outlets. We might use the social media pages of the Bronx Zoo for updates and public comments so we can include original content like "While some Bronx Zoo Facebook fans like Nikola Marijana Bankovic expressed fear and vowed "We'll be staying away from the zoo until the snake is located,' others viewed the situation more humorously, 'Cobras eat rats,' noted New York resident Julie Charles, 'maybe it's headed to 85 Wall [Street].'" We might include a pencil drawing of the cobra mimicking the work of a police department's forensic sketch artist, or a wanted poster. [Note: check the TOS of the specific social media site to see if using other people's statements is allowed. A really good case could be made posts made to the fan pages of public entities (like the Bronx Zoo) have no expectation of privacy and are de facto public statements, but I'm not a lawyer so check into what's allowed for yourself. Ask the help desk of the particular social media site if you have a question and save the response.]
We are not going to outcompete traditional outlets like CNN or Reuters with simple restatements of facts, and that's not what Yahoo! News wants us to do. They have access to wire services and their own in-house news crews for that. Instead, they are looking for Y!CN writers to offer unique viewpoints, deeper background information, and original presentations on popular news topics.
That's not to say that we should always take a humorous approach. Serious topics demand a serious tone, but whatever promise we make with our title, it should be different than the promises made by every other news service. By making and keeping promise with every single piece of content we write, we'll not only build our own reputation with readers while developing our own style and voice, but we'll also be preserving our search engine rankings and news feeds.