You know that person — maybe a close friend, spouse or sibling — with whom you’re so close that you can finish each other’s sentences? Journalists Tanya Wildt and Elissa Robinson can do that, but instead of sentences, their mind meld creates engaging news headlines that inform hundreds of thousands of readers each day.
Wildt and Robinson are web editors at Gannett’s Detroit Free Press who specialize in improving headlines through AB testing on the news organization’s homepage.
Their work often leads to headlines that are more interesting to audiences with measured engagement rates doubled, tripled, and sometimes increased by factors five or more.
To add to the impact on individual articles, Gannett’s content strategy team funnels learnings from the Detroit team’s headline work to the rest of its network of sites, benefiting local news editors editors across the country at publications large and small.
Gannett has used Taboola Newsroom, a realtime audience analytics platform built for journalists, for the past year, so we at Taboola have been able to witness this inspiring work in action.
We reached out to Gannett’s Detroit headline testers and content strategy team to find out more about their methods and thought processes. Here’s what we learned.
Consistency, Creativity, and Collaboration
The first aspect to conducting headline AB tests is choosing the article to test. For the Detroit team, they don’t discriminate much when it comes to an article’s subject. From restaurant reviews to entertainment features to hard-hitting journalism, everything is fair game.
One thing that makes an article a particularly good candidate is if it has, what they call, a “hidden gem” — or an seemingly ancillary factoid that reveals to the reader the type of important or interesting information the article contains.
“If it’s a fact in the story, and supports the main feel of the story, it’s generally game for a headline test,” Wildt explains.
In most newsrooms, the reporter and editor will write the initial headline. It’s important to get this foundation from the people most familiar with the topic. But digital homepage editors such as Wildt and Robinson can help because they’re often the ones most familiar with the site’s audience and they can make sure the all-so-important headlines are as impactful as possible.
“Our best headlines come out of collaboration; Elissa Robinson and I work on headlines together all day,” Wildt says. “Often, I’ll write one half and she’ll be able to complete the second half. We blend our thoughts and spark new ideas by sharing.”
While the digital editors can often write and test headline variants on their own, sometimes cross-team collaboration is necessary based on the sensitivity and complexity of the article.
“[We] loop in reporters for questions on whether it’s OK to use certain words or phrases,” Wildt adds. “We want headlines to be accurate and reporters are the best source for that.”
In addition to creativity in finding those hidden gems and interesting ways to describe them, the headline team is always looking for the most engaging formats for every situation such as using first and third person pronouns in headlines or two-sentence headlines.
It’s impactful work and it doesn’t happen by magic. Planning and preparation are crucial.
“Oftentimes, we’re looking ahead to stories that are coming the next day or even the next week, in order to be armed and ready with plenty of ideas as soon as the story posts,” Robinson explains.
Like most worthwhile pursuits, practice makes perfect.
“You should be headline testing all day, every day,” Wildt says. “There’s always a better headline out there — even after you find a winner.”
Respect the Audience
The exercise of creating engaging headlines has an all-important north star: respect.
Several years ago, Facebook was flooded with headlines predicting “you’ll never guess what happened next” or perhaps “what happened next will inspire you.”
The backlash against this negative UX was harsh, not only from users but also from news companies whose content was being drowned out by clickfarm articles. Facebook had to make multiple changes to its algorithm to address this problem.
Audience-focused journalists’ takeaway from this was that engaging headlines should not oversell or attempt to trick readers.
As described by Robinson and Wildt, the goal of the Detroit team is to use headlines to clarify to readers why they may be interested and to preview the content of an article.
“We respect our readers’ intelligence and stay away from clickbait headlines like ‘You won’t believe what Matthew Stafford said,'” Wildt explains.
This distinction can often be a fine line that takes journalistic skill to navigate.
Robinson shared an example of this to make the concept seem more concrete. While they’d certainly avoid a headline that blatantly withholds crucial details such as “Michigan restaurants set to reopen on this date,” the headline editors may signal to the audience that there’s interesting background details within the story by writing “Michigan restaurants to reopen Feb. 1 for indoor dining — but not everyone is happy.”
The goal is both positive engagement and user experience. And while the AB tests measure engagement effectively, editors can look to article-level metrics such as average time on page and bounce rate to ensure they’re readers to articles that are thoroughly fulfilling.
Beyond just engagement, headline testing can help a news team be aligned with its audience on future coverage decisions.
“We can test multiple ideas and when one of them rises to the top, it’s a good indication that our audience cares about it,” Robinson says. “This benefits not just us, but the audience too, because we know that more coverage on this topic would likely be something our readers would want.”
Share the Wealth
Headline and image AB testing helps draw attention to individual stories, but they also produce a wealth of valuable information when the results are reviewed in bulk.
Do question headlines work? What types of verb tenses are the most engaging? When can a two-sentence headline drive home the point?
AB testing formats over time allows you to determine answers to these questions that are supported by evidence. That’s why the Detroit team takes time to analyze their results and provide feedback to others in the newsroom.
“Sharing wins and losses with the hard data behind them is an easy way to get [reporters and editors] onboard with trying different angles in a headline that perhaps, they would’ve never considered,” Robinson explains.
Beyond ad hoc feedback, the team will put together presentations with trends and best practices based on AB results data both for colleagues in their own newsroom and beyond.
Gannett has newsrooms across the country in large cities and small towns alike. Some of these smaller operations may not have the homepage audience traffic volume to do AB tests and get statistically significant results.
Learning from Gannett AB testing work at the Free Press, in addition to other larger sites like USA Today and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is a crucial resource for editors at the company’s hundreds of other sites.
“Journalists across the country have been trained on strong headline writing based on information gleaned from Taboola Newsroom,” says Tovah Olson, a content strategy manager for Gannett’s USA Today Network.
Start AB Testing Today
After reading this far, certainly no one will be able to tell you that you’ll “never believe what happens next” if you start doing your own headline AB tests.
“A good headline sells a story; a bad headline can kill it,” Wildt says. “It doesn’t matter how important or great a story is on the inside if no one clicks on it to read it.”
That’s right, more people will read your important and great stories!