Writing Good Headlines is Art, But Picking Them is Science

Science and art in online communications

A nice distinction came up in a conversation earlier this week: writing good headlines and subject lines is a creative art, but picking the right ones to use is pure science.

Good headlines walk a tricky path in the digital world: they have to feed search engines the keywords they need, but not sound robotic to the human ear. They have to tease potential readers with enough information to persuade them to click, but not say enough to give the game away too soon. A good headline both sings and sells!

Subject lines serve fewer masters, since their raison_d’être is to make people click. But they brand as well, since even those of us bent on deleting the offending message may still take information away in the process that alters our desire to click tomorrow. And with repetitive lines losing power once they’re seen too often, senders need new ideas all the time. Creativity is the answer, and dreaming new lines up is committing an act of art. Poetry for the inbox, my friends.

But PICKING the right headline or subject line out of all of the possible options? That’s become a science, using the array of the testing techniques campaigns and advocates have learned to employ in recent years. If you can think up twenty good subject line ideas, great! With a big enough email list, you can test all of them on small groups of users to help you spot the best and send it to the rest (“Hey”). Headlines are testable too, as Upworthy showed and other online publishers have learned. Data, baby!

So writing for the web is both an art and a science: an art as you strain to join words in new and compelling ways, a science as you see which ideas do the dance right. The upshot: what a wonderful time for those with heads in both worlds.


Written by
Colin Delany
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