The importance of titling in the digital media age


Feature image by: Mutiara Karina

Titling cannot be an afterthought in the digital publishing age we’re in, but often it is. As writers and photographers and filmmakers what tends to happen is we create the piece we want, then try to think of a good title to describe it. How many times have you written something and then really struggled coming up with a good title? Why is that?

There are a couple big reasons:

1. You don’t have a clear idea who your intended audience is.

2. You don’t have a tight/concise angle to your story.

Take a look at a title like 11 signs you were born and raised in California. The audience is clear (Californians) and the angle is clear. Any time you produce a piece of content these two things should be at the forefront before you even begin to write. If you don’t have a clear answer to these two considerations there’s a very good chance your piece will fall flat. Starting with a strong and tight title (even if it’s in sentence form) before you write gives you an anchor to hold on to as you progress. Keep the audience in mind. Keep your angle in mind. This will also help keep your writing tight and on point. Anything that isn’t directly furthering your title you leave out.

Another consideration is curiosity, or mystery. There’s a reason why Upworthy was the fastest growing startup on the internet. They studied titling from a psychological perspective. Their editorial team comes up with 25 titles for every piece they produce. They A-B test titles (use different titles for the same article then see which one does better). This is how important titles are at a time when there’s so much media competing for people’s attention. One of the things they mastered is piquing curiosity in viewers. They give just enough to perk your ears (eyes) up but you have to click through to satisfy your curiosity. This is another important aspect: If you don’t satisfy the viewers’ curiosity they’re going to be pissed off. Deliver what you’re promising otherwise it’s pure clickbait and you will lose trust in your readers. A recent example of this at Matador is “Napalm girl” photographer returns to Vietnam with an iPhone. This is what he found.

I know that these sorts of titling conventions are despised by some people. There are those that feel “above” it. That’s their prerogative. But rather than judging these as good or bad, try to think critically about why these sorts of titles work in the context they do. Why are people sharing and engaging with them? Even if you prefer not to use titles like this there are lessons to learn and you can apply them to how you would like to title your work. Often a narrative writer will feel that unless the title is “literary” it dumbs down their piece. Literary titles work in the literary world because the audience is already captive. In digital media you’re competing with so much noise for attention. The title could mean the difference between having 700 people read your article or 70,000 (or even 700,000 – the California title above has over 1.5 million views).

Challenge yourself with you titles, and don’t take them for granted.

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