By Christopher Gillespie
Originally Posted on 11/20/2020 at the National American Marketing Association Website
Words can’t do everything on their own—a strongly branded blog will entice readers much more than an emphatic headline
Digital channels have grown crowded this year. The events industry is on pause and no small number of businesses have diverted that spend to online media. The resultant battle for clicks is nothing short of epic.
Fifty percent of marketing teams have purchased new tools to address new channels. Paid search and social spend both rose more than 25%, says the IAB, and yet sales still dropped 17.8%, according to The CMO Survey.
The issue has come to a particularly painful head with blogs, where digital content operations were not built to navigate these waters. We’re coming off of the decade dominated by content marketing where good advice was stripped to its bare essentials and repeated endlessly, often incorrectly. The experts all said “quality” but companies heard “volume” and now everyone’s armed for daily, multi-channel content publishing in a world where more is no longer more—it’s all just noise.
Amid this maelstrom, I began wondering: How does my team write more enticing headlines? Ones that actually get noticed? What I discovered was that the key has very little do with the writing itself—a rather tough pill to swallow for many writers. In the inbox or on Google, the person sending the message matters more than what they say.
In short, your blog team would do well to focus a lot less on “emotional” or “strong” words in their titles and a lot more on the blog’s branded appearance, style and tone.
Headline Analyzers Are a False Prophet
Every month, more than an estimated 800,000 writers visit CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer, a web tool designed to “optimize” your headlines. It is incredibly popular. Nearly everyone I spoke to in my informal study had heard of and used it.
The analyzer is built on the assumption that adding more strong, novel or emotional words will increase the rate at which people click. The assumptions here are many. Who decides what word counts as emotional? What constitutes a strong word? Where exactly is this data coming from? You might think such a highly-trafficked tool would be based on some analysis of actual headline success, but it seems not to be.
I ran a test and found that the analyzer seemed to disdain the headlines from articles that were among the most successful from publications like Wired and blogs from companies like Google, Shopify, and Whole Foods. None scored higher than 62%. Instead, the analyzer delighted in lingual rubbish: “Rare ecstatic exploit killing it nematode” earned a 76%.
Below, headlines that were hugely successful everywhere but in the analyzer.
How a ‘Diabolic’ Beetle Survives Being Run Over By a Car = 59%
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Storms Twitch = 29%
How Brand Discovery Is Changing for Today’s Consumer = 60%
Building a Niche Board Games Business Through a Million-Dollar Crowdfunding Campaign = 38%
And so on.
If the headline analyzer can’t confirm real-world success, can it really be predictive? And furthermore, why were some admittedly drab headlines from the publications and blogs I discovered still so successful? For example, “What Our Leaders Can Do Now” and “Market Update” were objectively uninteresting, but universally read and shared. It had to be that there was something more I didn’t yet understand.
Containers, Context and Clicks
For my study, I gathered headlines I both liked and didn’t like into a spreadsheet for analysis. When the pandemic went into full-force, I abandoned the project, only to return three months later to find that I didn’t recognize any of the headlines. Some that I’d ranked highly, such as
“What Happened to Lee?” no longer held any interest. It was only upon revisiting the articles themselves, in their natural environment, that I understood.
Below, the deliciously moody thumbnail is what had caught my eye.
What Happened to Lee?
This led me to explore the idea of “containers,” or the context within which all of these headlines lived. Time after time, I found headlines to be far more interesting in their original form. The text, I realized, could not be divorced from all else—the author, the typography, the image, what’s
happening in the news that makes the headline relevant, and so on.
Each of these elements is part of the whole message—the entire blog’s brand. And each matters. The author, for example, can even be their own brand. You may not know what the business Ahrefs does, but if Ann Handley wrote the article they published, and you like her, you’ll read it. At the more extreme end, you may not be an avid reader of The New York Times, but if the morning’s opinion piece is by Jerry Seinfeld and he makes you laugh, you may give it a try.
Do you recall the “objectively uninteresting” headlines from earlier? Below, I’ve added the author and context back in, and you can see why they were successful:
“What Our Leaders Can Do Now” — written by Bill Gates in March 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 scare.
“Market Update” — written by the chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, from the same time period.
Once apprised to the idea that sender matters as much as the subject line—perhaps even more—I started to realize this phenomenon everywhere I looked. I click LinkedIn articles because of the person who posted them. Sometimes, I click rather drab titles from otherwise interesting people, assuming they must not know something I don’t. It’s the same in the inbox,
on social media, and in search.
People click for many reasons—a clever headline being only one of them. And that’s led me to the conclusion that the most powerful thing you can do to increase your clicks in a raucous digital publishing environment is not to visit the headline analyzer, but to instead ask, what is our brand communicating that will make people want to click? Then, alter your blog to make that brand clearer.
To Improve Your Blog Branding
I do realize that many readers may not have direct access to their site’s design. Saying, “Just update the blog” may come across a bit like telling someone who’s hungry to start a bakery. It is difficult. But it is, I promise, the most effective thing you can do long term. If you don’t hold the keys to the site, appeal to those who do. Publishing is only growing more crowded and this will only grow more important.
The good news for some is that you don’t need permission from the entire business to revamp your content’s brand. Lots of content teams take an “ask for forgiveness” approach and only after they’ve proven its success, pitch it to the entire company. You can even experiment by branding specific channels to see how audiences react.
Take Duolingo for instance. The language learning app has a mission that’s staid and corporate: “Personalized learning.” But its podcast is a tour de force of soaring, emotional promise: “To help you learn and expand your view of the world.” While the app is full of fake-feeling scenarios like “Let’s find the library,” the podcast interviews people about their lives and covers tough topics like genocide, kidnapping, and gender rights. I don’t know who created the podcast, but it has my undying loyalty, and that transfers onto the parent brand.
A Four-Step Process for Blog Re-Branding
1. Decide what you’re promising your audience
Write a mission statement (what you do) and a vision statement (the change you’d like to see) that are specific to the blog. What do you stand for? How will you achieve it? Who is the blog intended to help?
2. Alter the blog to make your position clear
If needed, rename your publication to fit that vision. (There are no wrong names except, “Blog.”) Add a one-sentence tagline that summarizes the mission and links to an “about us” page that goes into further detail. Then, the design changes. If you are missing any of those pictured, add them to your site. They are crucial for helping readers understand who the sender is and vital if you, the publisher, are to build a relationship that makes them want to click.
3. Devise and uphold strict editorial standards
Where many corporate blogs go wrong is they’re a bit of everything for everybody. Which means that rather than thrill one audience so much they’ll click anything you write, it bores everyone equally.
To uphold your standards, publish a mini style guide, which is easier than it sounds. As you take or receive feedback, collect all of those preferences in one document that serves as a checklist for anyone writing for the blog.
To ensure you publish only the highest quality stories, manage a content backlog and accept only on-brand stories. Then, edit ruthlessly to ensure consistency and quality.
4. Defend the brand
By now you understand the value of clear and precise blog branding. But these topics probably aren’t generally understood within your company and you’ll have to educate others about the necessity of narrowing your focus to increase your effectiveness. Publish a blog guideline which begins by explaining the blog brand and its importance. Then, decline off-brand stories, partnerships, channels, so you can focus on your mission. When you have a strongly branded blog where people recognize you simply by the topics of stories you choose, it will sing.