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When Good Headlines Go Bad: Lessons From One Site's Marketing Mistake

magazine-coversAt HubSpot, we love to teach businesses how to write compelling copy and irresistible offers. One of the most important elements of any piece of content is having an attractive headline. Especially in today's economy where every company is fighting for consumer attention, standing out is important.

As our CEO Brian Halligan once said, "You can have an amazing piece of content, but if the headline sucks, no one will read it."

Whether it's an email, blog post, news article, or whitepaper -- the better the headline, the more clicks and readership it attracts. That's why magazines have become masters at compelling headlines. Take Cosmopolitan for example: "10 Things Guys Crave in Bed," and "Tight Abs: Our No-crunch Workout." Or Men's Journal: "Five Trips That Will Change Your Life," and "Decoding the NFL Draft." Catchy titles like these, aimed at their target audience, are what gets magazines flying right off the shelf.

It's clear that seductive headlines work. But there's more than just the headline that makes content powerful. If you chose to write a highly-captivating headline, the rest of the content must deliver. More often than not, however, articles will over-promise with the headline and then under-deliver once the reader has gotten to the meat of it. This is referred to as link bait, which is content that is designed specifically to gain attention or encourage a click-through, and many times, the actual content delivers little value or fails to meet expectations.

When this happens, it can hurt a brand more than it helps. Here's an example:

When a Good Headline Goes Bad

A few days ago, I noticed a prominent article in my feed: "Turns Out Marissa Mayer Was the Wrong Person for the Yahoo! Job." I thought this was a great headline for many reasons. The use of the words "turns out" implies the article is revealing new developments about the 38-year-old executive. Marissa Mayer and Yahoo! are also very hot topics and there is no shortage of debates on whether Marissa can turn around the search giant. For those reasons, I clicked on the link into the article to see what I hoped was a combination of new developments, and well-researched reporting that would keep me in the know.

I was then brought to the two-page article written by The Street, a stock market-related online news publication. After a few minutes into the article, I realized I had been duped.

While the author starts his opening with an unbiased viewpoint of Mayer and then a comparison between three tech companies (HP, J.C. Penney, and Best Buy), the article itself provides very little concrete reasoning behind her "not being right for the job." Instead, the article turns into all opinion with no fact. Here is the author's core argument:

"On Mayer specifically -- she's attempting to play the role of head media hotshot at Yahoo!. Consider the latest Kara Swisher scoop over at All Things D: Mayer is trying to cook up all sorts of media "synergy" with everybody from Katie Couric to Vogue magazine.
Sounds great, I guess. But, as is the case with much of what Mayer does, it stinks like a throw as much interesting-sounding stuff against the wall and see what sticks strategy. That's the trademark of Mayer's willy-nilly acquisition binge and now her media push.

Simply put, I think she's out of her league. Manipulating the media is one thing; putting together a multi-platform media powerhouse is another.

Speaking of Couric, Yahoo! would have been better off going with somebody like Jeff Zucker, now the president of Time Warner's CNN Worldwide. Zucker moves somewhat slowly, but shrewdly and aggressively to rebuild CNN much in the way Yahoo requires rebuilding."

And that's it. That's his case on why Mayer is not the right person for Yahoo!. Am I missing something here? Her "willy-nilly, throw-stuff-against-the-wall strategy" isn't exactly an air-tight case. While I don't agree with all of them, I've seen several articles provide a more convincing assessment of Mayer, such as here and here.
By looking at the comments, I felt somewhat relieved to know I wasn't the only one who felt misled. At the time of reading this article, there were over 200 comments, most of them negative.
First of all, it really doesn't matter if the author is right or wrong. Jeff Zuckler might very well be a better CEO at Yahoo!, or anyone else for that matter. And an opinionated piece isn't always a bad thing, either.
Second, you're probably thinking, well, The Street is a website that generates revenue from advertising. And despite this headline trickery, it worked in their favor, simply because it drove a lot of traffic and impressions. Who cares if there are angry readers? No article is perfect.
You see, this type of thinking is deadly. It may deliver short-term results but it damages your brand in the long-term.
Why? Because it's not lovable and consumers today expect to be delighted and do business with brands they trust. Consumers have been fooled by advertising since it was invented. Companies that instead focus on the inbound experience are the ones that win over loyal fans, happy customers, and brand advocates. As Dharmesh Shah mentions in his keynote (video below),
"..the pen is mightier than the sword, but now the tweet is mightier than the pen. Now when you tweet, 50 of your friends see it, some retweet it, some internet celebrity sees it, and word can spread very, very quickly. This means, as sellers, we no longer live in an age where we can focus on the transactions. Buyer have a choice and they have voice. Now we live in an age where it's not buyer beware, but seller beware."

So, What's a Content Creator to Do?

It's a fine line we must walk, to be sure. We want to give our pieces the attention we believe they deserve with a punchy headline, but we also want to deliver as much as we promise readers via that headline. I find the dilemma is most easily navigated by following a few guidelines:
  1. Do your research. Opinionated pieces can be powerful -- as long as they are thought-out and backed up. In the article above, the author failed to clearly provide the why to his statement, and avoided using facts, evidence, or resources. When you do (or don't do) your research, it shows.

  2. Under-promise and over-deliver. There is a lot of crappy content on the internet that doesn't exceed the reader's expectations, much less delight readers. A great headline can, and should, get someone's attention -- but not following through past the headline is a missed opportunity to turn readers into fans and even customers.

  3. Give more than you get. No one wants to do business with entities or people who are selfish. Customers, fans, and readers are all seeking connections, and the way to help connect your company with them is by being generous. Think about creating content that is truly helpful, entertaining, thoughtful, or interesting, and you will be loved.

It's this type of gimmicky content that plagues the journalism industry, and as content becomes a cornerstone to modern-day marketing plans, it can (and does) trickle into other industries, too. A study by Forrester Research found that 85% of consumers don’t trust brands on social networking sites, and only 18% of Americans trust content coming from brands via email. When advertising comes into the picture, only 10% of consumers report any trust. As marketers, it's imperative we focus on delighting our audience and creating more lovable experiences so we can earn the trust back. Simple as that.
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