Cautionary tale: Good headline writing doesn’t end on your blog.


by David Griner

Today, there was a relatively minor bit of Twitter-related news on the social media hub Mashable.com. It was essentially just an update about how MSNBC is expanding its use of the “@BreakingNews” Twitter feed it bought last month:

Mashable headline

Not that big of a deal, right? Except that it soon exploded into a burst of speculation that MSNBC had actually purchased Twitter itself. How could people get so mixed up?

Because Mashable’s Twitter link to the item was one of the most misleading I’ve ever seen:

Mashable tweet

Personally, I’m pretty sure this was just a case of unfortunate phrasing, and not really an intentional misdirection. But that doesn’t change the fact that people were soon retweeting the headline like a forest fire. Like it or not, a lot of people simply don’t read through links before sharing them, a problem exacerbated by the fact that Mashable has nearly 2 million followers on Twitter.

Here are just a few of the many comments posted by the blog’s readers, who overwhelmingly had more to say about the tweet than about the news itself:

Mashable comments

The moral here is pretty clear, and I’m really not trying to beat up on a site as stellar as Mashable. But I think it’s worth taking the time to note that the way you rephrase your headline is just as important as the original phrasing.

Now excuse me while I try to write a Twitter link to this post without implying that I have purchased both Mashable and Twitter.

UPDATE: Response from Mashable’s Adam Ostrow, who wrote the blog post (and headline) at issue:

Hey David – Not sure at what point you saw all this, but here’s what happened and my thinking:

1. Original headline and tweet were both the same with the “Breaking News:” at the start. Typically, when something actually is breaking news, we use “BREAKING:” so I was trying to be (too) cute and reference the name of the brand that the article was about.

2. Quickly noticed a lot of people thought I meant something else, so I changed the headline. However, if MSNBC had bought Twitter, I’d have simply said so (BREAKING: MSNBC Buys Twitter” or something).

3. My thinking was that enough people knew about the @BreakingNews account and the prior MSNBC deal that it wouldn’t lead to mass confusion, but be a clever headline that complimented my story nicely. Clearly, I assumed too much.

4. I agree with you that many people RT before clicking thru – hence, headlines like this one don’t work. Hopefully won’t make the same mistake again 🙂 Thanks for the post.

Big thanks to Adam for taking the time to clarify. Just goes to show that Mashable is, as always, a class act — and that they can be as human as the rest of us.

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2 thoughts on “Cautionary tale: Good headline writing doesn’t end on your blog.

  1. As many of my readers know, MASHABLE is a great source of information. Much respect and kudos to Pete Cashmore and his crew for making the correction and admitting to the simple mistake.

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