You won’t believe how well better titles work — even when they’re not clickbait

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Image: Green Means Go

People write boring titles and subject lines. They can do better. Here’s how to draw the line between informative and clickbait.

What is clickbait? You know it when you see it.

It’s the headline designed to pull you in. “You won’t believe how Phyllis Diller looks now!” “Is your mortage underwater?” “Bernie Sanders wants to tax your child’s teddy bear.”

True clickbait doesn’t care whether it actually delivers what you thought you were getting, because there’s no relationship to destroy. So you can promise naked pictures of Kim Kardashian and deliver Mrs. Doubtfire, because there’s no relationship to destroy.

The topic came up in a recent writing workshop I did. I suggested creating better titles for internal documents, and a participant asked, “Isn’t that clickbait?”

What’s in a good title

Here are some bad titles/subject lines:

  • Q4 survey update
  • Strategic Analysis
  • New human resources policy

What’s in those documents? Who knows? Are they important to read? Maybe. But you’re busy. So why should you take the time to root through the document trying to figure out if it’s worth your time?

The author of these documents has wasted your time. And that’s a violation of the Iron Imperative.

Here are some better titles:

  • Q4 consumer survey reveals that smart speaker penetration has doubled
  • We must shift our strategy from distribution-focused to customer-focused
  • Action required: HR virus preparedness plan requires home contact information

In each case, the writer has stuffed interesting facts into the title. Now you know why you need to read them . . . or, that you can skip them with confidence.

Is this clickbait? No. Because these documents deliver what the titles promise.

Every document you create — whether for your colleagues or people outside your company — must compete with every other document in their inboxes and news sources. If you don’t advertise why it’s worth reading, people will skip it. And it will be your own fault.

Don’t create clickbait. Don’t lie and destroy the relationship with your reader. But do make promises, and deliver on them. That’s a crucial skill for communication in a noisy marketplace of content.

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