Headline and Location Matter More Than You Think

Today I conducted an unexpected experiment when posting the same news analysis (except for outward links) to two different sites. My story responded to a lawsuit against Apple, alleging consumer harm from there being less available capacity to users than stated storage. Meaning: 16GB isn’t, because iOS 8 and preinstalled apps consume space. Funny thing: Day before seeing news about the legal filing, I nearly posted an analysis praising the company for offering double to four-times more storage than competitors give.

So I combined my response to the lawsuit with the concept; they fit. I wrote the story here but published it first to BetaNews. Difference in response to the same story posted two different places is startling. 

Two Heds are Better Than One
I deliberately used different headlines and art. The hed here is closer to what would have been without the lawsuit as unexpected context: “Storage is One of iPhone’s  Biggest Benefits“. The almost identical BN version: “That iPhone 6 storage lawsuit is so bogus I just laugh“. Art here is iPhone 6, while over there a jackass seemingly laughing. Like real estate, location matters in online publishing. BetaNews gets considerably more traffic than my personal site; the headline there is affirmative and provocative.

As I write, there are more than 200 comments to the “storage lawsuit” story. That’s exactly the kind of response I wanted. Most commenters make legitimate arguments for or against the lawsuit and engage one another in further discussion (or fanboy accusation). While one reader accuses “Author’s real name is Click-Bait Joe”, my objective in art and headline choice is the one achieved. If I cared about clicks, I wouldn’t risk Google’s penalizing my repurposing the same story among sites.

I don’t write for Google search, nor to muster pageviews. I write for people, purposely provoking so they will think and discuss. But reaching any audience doesn’t just happen. Location (meaning where you post) and presentation (headline, dek or lede and art) are essential elements. While BetaNews gets considerably more exposure than my own site, a tech blog like GigaOM or Gizmodo would likely generate greater response to my story. Better location and organic traffic matter.

Verbs Reverb
That said, I’m convinced that if the headline and art for the BN version looked more like that on my site, most readers would have overlooked the story and the response would have been tepid at best. Headlines are everything. They should provoke interest and nearly always contain a verb that is active voice. The traditional magazine and newspaper descriptive style is old-fashioned—and that’s an overly kind description.

“North Korea Sanctioned over Sony Hack” pisses compared to “Barack Obama sanctions North Korea for Hacking Sony”. An American reader might blink past the first but mutter “motherfuckers” before clicking the second. Here are some real (and dull but traditional-style) headlines about the Apple lawsuit:

Apple Insider’s hed is much better: “Class-action lawsuit accuses Apple of misrepresenting iPhone storage with iOS 8“. As is The Telegraph’s: “Apple’s 8GB iPhone is not 8GB, lawsuit claims“. The Scotsman‘s “Apple deceiving users over iPhone says US lawsuit” would ring if changed to “Apple deceives users over iPhone says US lawsuit”.

Editors, bloggers, and journalists! Save yourselves from these boring, descriptive headlines meant to be accurate and authoritative. Your heds can be punchy, too. The assertive approach also conveys that you know what you report is true. The lawsuit is filed. That’s a fact. The allegations are clear. So state what you know to be true with certainty by using verbs and active voice.

Lies, Damn Lies
For blogs or news sites that are high-trafficked real estate, there is more reason to affirm even though many can get plenty of reader engagement with less. The Journal’s hed is example; “false advertising” is a tweaker to click, even as presented. I would prefer something different: “Apple cheats iPhone users, lawsuit claims” or “Apple iphone scheme holds grandkids’ photos hostage, lawsuit claims”.

Another approach would be to quote from the legal filing: “Lawsuit claims iPhone false advertising causes ‘harm to consumers'”, or “Apple iPhone advertising ‘is deceptive’, lawsuit claims”.

As for my headline, it describes exactly my reaction to the lawsuit while reading it: “bogus”, and I repeatedly laughed at the absurdity, particularly singling out Apple for industry-wide practices going back decades. Anyone whoever bought a PC before ever purchasing iPad or iPhone encountered less available storage than stated capacity; more so starting last decade, after manufacturers began creating restore partitions on hard drives rather than shipping separate restore discs.

If I were to choose a descriptive headline, it could be: “‘Deceptive’ iPhone lawsuit flawed”, “Smartphone storage fraud common practice”, or with a verb “iPhone  storage lawsuit alleges practices common among smartphone makers”. Who really wants to read something like that? Bo-o-or-r-ring!

So why the staid headline on my personal site for the same story? You might wonder why post two stories. I take my own advice from last week: “Writers, Own Your Content!” My personal blog is the hub for my writing. Because more people are likely to see something posted on BetaNews, that’s where I want the headline that is more likely to hook readers. I make the other hed dull  to minimize any risk the nearly identical stories might compete with one another for readers. Similarly, I only promoted the BN story on social media, for same reason.

But long-term, my site is the brand I plan to nurture and expand. For now, my priority is preserving content for future purposes and expanding core audience over time. However, today the traffic isn’t there yet. So on joewilcox.com I can be patient. At the BetaNews storefront there is the traffic for immediate influence and response. My location isn’t that good. Yet.

Photo Credit: Éole Wind