Clever vs. Descriptive Headlines:
Which Works Better?

Manga in Wired

I have a confession.

I absolutely love clever word play.

Puns, turns of phrases, neologisms, Spoonerisms, etc… I love them all.

I just don’t use them in headlines.

Browsing through the latest issue of Wired (yes, the actual paper magazine!), I noticed the title of the feature article by Dan Pink on Manga, the Japanese illustration style for comics.

Japan, Ink.

Now that’s a really clever title. The use of a homonym to make reference to the corporate dominance Japan enjoyed in the 1980s in the context of Manga made me smile. And I would expect no less from Mr. Pink.

But you wouldn’t want to use that as an attraction headline on the cover. And that’s why Wired didn’t.

Instead, they went with:

Manga Conquers America: How Japanese Comics are Reshaping Pop Culture

A nice descriptive headline in the “how” format gives the reader a sufficient promise of what’s to come (the Manga illustrated female didn’t hurt, either). It also provides the necessary context for more people to enjoy Pink’s clever article title.

Note: Dan Pink just emailed me to say he didn’t come up with the article title, a Wired editor did. So Dan gets no credit I guess. :)

It just shows you once again that Fight Club can teach you all you need to know about online marketing:

Tyler Durden: How’s that working out for you?

Narrator: What?

Tyler Durden: Being clever.

Narrator: Great.

Tyler Durden: Keep it up then.

If your goal is to have a few readers who think you write clever headlines, keep it up then.

If your goal is to enlighten lots of people with what you have to say, be descriptive instead.

P.S. Yes, descriptive titles work better for SEO as well. What a happy congruence.

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Comments

  1. I love clever wordplay, too. I am a journalist and I use clever headlines a lot. But when it comes to writing blog headlines, I try always to use the descriptive. Especially because lots of blog fans (like me) use RSS readers and the headline is all they have to go on. However, sometimes I just can’t get over myself and go with the clever head, but I am sure it costs me readers.

  2. When I read your title for the post I thought about this for a second. I would think that the SE factor would have made descriptions the winner on online use anyway.
    It is good to know it would be the way to go otherwise also.

  3. This is such a hard topic to decide on…I struggle daily with what I should go with. I like to be interesting but if I am will I get all the hits I should? I don’t know…but thanks for the tips!

  4. No one said descriptive titles had to be boring. The goal is not to be obscure by being clever and killing your read rate.

  5. Perhaps it is best to use descriptive titles in the beginning of the blog, like I do for instance. Later on, when one has a loyal amount of readers, the titles can be made clever.

  6. Does this advice, which makes perfect sense, BTW, apply to domain names, as well?

    My “problem” is that my podcast/blog name is the same as the domain name, which is loooong: http://www.PodcastingForMedicalProfessionals.com. It’s descriptive, sounds authoritative rolling off the tongue…but takes up a *lot* of real estate on business cards, and has a lot of letters to mis-type when entering it for the first time.

    Descriptive works great when folks are scanning for relevance, deciding whether to land or not. But pithy has its place. Cute and pithy – not bad, either.

  7. Totally agree. It’s also worth taking the online vs offline reading environment into account. Magazine readers are more likely to be lazing around, feet up on the lounge, casually (or excitedly) flicking through their latest issue. They stumble across an article with a clever headline – an eye-catching image doesn’t hurt either – and they are more likely to give it the once over. Even though it wasn’t something they were necessarily searching.

    One place online you can probably go for a little more ‘clever’ than ‘descriptive’ is in teasers eg news/magazine homepage bites that link to full articles. However, the description underneath needs to be both clear and enticing.

    Otherwise, it all ends up part of Project Mayhem.

  8. You need to check out the article behind my name (its not spam)

    Discusses how descriptive titles (usually writing for search engines) is bad for writing. Which I think is true. We want a play on words and puns not boring description. People need to go beyond writing for search engines.

  9. John, I’m sorry.. but that’s just not realistic. People want descriptive headlines, and journalists want to display their wit. Who are you writing for, the readers or yourself?

    There are reams of testing data that show that clever headlines are the kiss of death for response. This dates back to David Ogilvy and well beyond.

    What are you basing your article on?

    And just so I’m clear… are you saying that Wired Magazine wrote a headline for the *print* version to please search engines? Spend some time at a news stand and tell me what professional writers whose jobs depend on circulation are doing with their headlines.

  10. “I was planning on getting a dog and naming it Entourage. That is how bad your life can get.”

  11. What we need is a support group where we can post stories/projects of ours with the witty headlines we crafted… and correctly decided not to publish.

    We all want validation from people who “get it.” So let’s share.

  12. I misread your title as “Clever vs. *Deceptive* Headlines”…

    Now that would be a nice contest.

    Descriptive vs. Deceptive would be even better. Where’s Mr. Nielsen when you need him?

  13. Good point (I enjoyed your use of the Fight Club dialog as well – that scene is one of my all time favorite movie scenes).

    What I think is fascinating is that major corporations and their advertising agencies continue to violate this rule all the time in expensive print advertisements.

    Got to love the headline from this article:

    “Consider it Done!”

  14. The obvious answer is clever AND descriptive headlines!

    This is something our editorial teams grapple with daily. When writing an article, we try to balance sensationalism with search-engine friendly headlines.

    Some news websites (BBC comes to mind) try to do both – a descriptive search-friendly headline and a more user friendly headline that resolve to the same article.

  15. What are neologisms, and Spoonerisms?

    Someone just told me that there is no such thing as a dumb question, so…

    P.S. Did you read about the guy who won the land speed record? Amazing!

  16. Lawton, Google is your friend on these types of thing. :)

  17. I agree, I won’t try to be clever to write for a few. I would write for my friend, SEO in order to enlighten more people.

  18. I’m a wordplay fan too and I admit to succumbing to the urge every so often. For the most part I try to stick to descriptive titles, but I might toss in a little wordplay in the subheadings.

    Shor I immediately thought of your recent post on SEOmoz while reading this one.

  19. Difficult combination being clever, descriptive and creative.

  20. I am not a good writer and it is really a big challenge for me to come up with clever headlines. What I did is to provide descriptive headlines (using lot of “how to”, discover” etc) and they work well for me.

    Given the choice, I wouldn’t mind to have a clever AND descriptive headline. Is that possible in the first place?

  21. Beautiful use of the “Fight Club quote!

  22. Ah yes, but what about both when you can get it? How about something like:

    Japan, Ink: How Japanese Comics Are Reshaping Pop Culture.

    Best of both worlds really. Just my opinion, course. I think writers can do both if they always remember to serve the reader first.

  23. The titles of business books are perfect examples of your point, Brian. First you get the clever title, followed by a colon and the subtitle to explain what the book is really about.

    A quick review of the current marketing best sellers on Amazon:
    1. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.
    2. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.
    3. Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant.

    Take away all the information after the colon and you wouldn’t have much to go on.

  24. @Geoff:

    Your goal is worthy, but even with the headline you’ve suggested, you’re missing out on a couple of key points.

    1) “Manga” is not in the title. So you just lost everyone searching for manga in Google.

    2) “Japan, Ink” doesn’t necessarily imply manga. Sounds like a Japanese tattoo parlor to me.

    3) The word “Japan” in the headline twice. It’s redundant.

    Wired has a great headline. They get the keywords in the front, then explain the story in the rest of the title.

  25. No one said descriptive titles had to be boring. The goal is not to be obscure by being clever and killing your read rate.

    I think that’s the gem right there, Brian. Well said.

    I’ve been trying to use the “curiosity factor” in my headlines, and I can see how they could benefit from better descriptions. Thanks for the tune-up.

  26. In some circles, the term “clever”, as it is usually envisioned, is considered to be the same as stupid. If you could really measure its effects, I’d bet you’d find it was much more “clever” to just be very good at what you do and people will show up and then do more promoting for the author than any number of clever ploys combined.

    Very good question, though.. I Sphunn ya!
    Sam Freedom
    ps. I think you’ll find this relevant:
    Stupid Subject Lines… Don’t Be An Internet Marketing Celebrity Amateur.

  27. “Cleaver Headlines: Why I need to give vague attention getters the axe.”

    This post hit me right in the blog, Brian. I’ll defnitely reconsider my approach and make sure I’m not doing more harm than good.

    Thanks, friend.

  28. It depends on your audience. In press release writing your audience is a journalist, who needs to understand your story in a nanosecond amongst all the other releases.

    Obviously when it comes to print it’s a different matter. Tabloid newspapers, for example, revel in word-play.

    As for blogs, I think it’s up to you. If you want to reach out and grab readership, then maybe descriptive is best (like the writers above say, the whole RSS feed comes it). But it’s your blog, so you can do exactly what you want. If that means obtuse word-play, then hey – why not?

  29. I’ve always liked that cut from Fight Club.

    I also tend to use the clever titles over the descriptive ones on my personal blog, but then, it’s working great for me, so I’ll keep at it. ;)

  30. Although I’m new to blogging, even I noticed the conciseness of this article and how it told me exactly what I was looking for, without any fluff. Thanks for the insight.