"The headline now at platform common sense is about to leave..."

By: Rob Corbidge, 12 October 2023

Headlines serve a purpose. Attempting to eliminate them is misguided and will fail.

One possible view of the publishing world is that of plucky, scrappy outsiders forced to constantly weather a storm, at the eye of which sits the climatic whims of those big tech companies who now control much of the content distribution network.

Yet there are clearly signs that while the big entities have cash to burn, their ideas are quite often from the bargain basement end of inspiration, with the law of unintended consequences in full operation.

As a tech business in the headless CMS game we are at the core of any publishing project we are involved in and thus more than aware of the financial challenges in our industry, but we also know publishers aren't short of good ideas.

This week once again saw the one of the well-funded tech players execute another really dumb idea as X introduced their headline-free links in an attempt to keep users within the bounds of the platform.

The immediate effect of this was to pioneer a new social media game on X. In the absence of headlines, a main image from the story is used and the poster is supposed to write some meaningful text to accompany it.

Scrolling down X, a number of personality-driven stories featured simply two headshots of the protagonists in disputes of one kind or another. 

No headline to explain them.

I noticed the image of a famous UK author next to that of a particular UK politician and so a new game was born: What would pull them together in a story? In this case I knew the answer, yet there will be others I don't or can only guess at. 

We're already looking forward to working out the connection between Emerson Fittipaldi and an irradiated ostrich, or Taylor Swift and Norman Borlaug.

Some things exist for a reason. Headlines for example: tried and tested over time, their creativity has been ravaged in the digital age by the ruthless requirements of SEO, but they still they survive. In fact, as more advanced and nuanced techniques for surfacing content progress, techniques that won't require the simple automated reading of headlines, then the headline itself could make a return to its (sometimes) imaginative best.

So in the case of X, being disruptive can also mean being quite silly. Forcing publishers to add yet another content step by writing into the post before they can share it is just plain dumb.

Slate reacted in the best way. Digging into Buzzfeed-era hype tactics, they just wrote "Whoa - you have GOT to read this" on all their posts, with no other explanation. 

Evidently and amusingly, it worked, with traffic up, and Jonathan L. Fischer, Slate's business and technology editor reporting that "The first nine posts we made in this vein got about twice as much engagement on X as the nine posts before them, which had language similar to the headlines of the pieces".

So X has reinvented clickbait. Excellent.

This is all set against the value of traditional public-forum social media channels losing effect for publishers, as we've reported previously, although notably private social is in the ascendancy as some publishers report success with channel-driven content on platforms such as WhatsApp.

The best approach for publishers is to remain platform agnostic, to see each as what it's worth in cold consideration, and disregard any of other noise around them while being aware that the traffic feast of today can become the click famine of tomorrow.