Good Titles, Bad Titles, and Hooking Your Fish

Picture yourself as the owner of an independent music store in the mid-80s or ‘90s (you know, when people used to actually buy things in music stores).  You’re like the lead in High Fidelity (who wouldn’t want to be John Cusack?). Customers walk into your store throughout the day and while you might not care personally if they find what they are looking for, your livelihood depends on them buying some records/CDs/T-shirts.

So, starving music store owner that you are, you have zero dollars to spend on external marketing. However, once a customer is your store, you are the sleekest, smoothest sales cat that ever wore a Quiet Riot tour shirt. You see a customer and you ask them if they need help. Maybe you’ve noticed what genre of music they are looking at and mention some of the popular bands there lately.  One dude walks up to the counter with Pearl Jam – Ten in hand and you ask if he’s heard of Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots. The girl in line behind him has U2 – The Joshua Tree in hand and you casually comment, “I love that album, but I still can’t decide whether it’s better than The Unforgettable Fire” planting the seeds for future purchases. Eventually on a busy Saturday you toss this sweet song on the sound system (or maybe this video on the TV), knowing that you’ll sell ten copies of it in the next thirty minutes simply because you introduced your customers to its awesomeness.

You might not have any direct way to help get more customers inside your store, but once they are there, you are killing it. Even when one of them gives you a credibility check by asking about some Paul Anka albums you have in stock, you roll with it and say, “My aunt loves that guy, but if you like older stuff, we have a huge Sinatra section with a bunch of rarities in there if you are interested.” Life is good.

Now picture yourself owning a game store. Customers come in, nose around, and occasionally ask for your opinion on what you have in stock. You are always positive, even if you don’t like or haven’t played all the games you carry. “That game has a huge following in Germany, but we have the English version and two expansions right here.” “We have a local group that plays that game every Wednesday night – they love it.” “That game got fantastic reviews on and is actually my personal favourite.” You schmooze, you sell, you rarely neg anything unless you have a good reason and you gradually increase your sales to the point where you only have to eat ramen two nights a week instead of five. Good for you.

Finally, picture yourself owning a fledgling media website.  You have 1000 followers on Twitter. Your front page gets about 2000 hits a day and an average article gets 1500 hits or so with peaks of 2500-3000 and lows of around 700. This is pretty good – you have a loyal following and a few writers that entertain/produce useful material. You are updating five times a week, two articles a day nearly every single week, which means people have a reason to come to your site every single day. How do you make them more likely to click on the material on your site?

Name Recognition
Readers are more likely to click on names they know than somebody new, especially if they have learned to like what that person has to say. They are also much more likely to click on a friendly, smiling face than a blank box that says “Guest Writer.” If you posted an identical article for a dude with a picture and without, you’d see a 30% lag in hits for the one without almost every time.

The problem here is name recognition is something that just happens. It’s built over time and based on quality of work, reputation, and accomplishments. You can hire writers with name recognition, but it’s certainly not something you can create overnight.

Website Design
Take a look at the following websites in different tabs on your browser:
Mana Nation
Quiet Speculation
Star City

What elements from each site stand out? The design in each differs dramatically, but all are at least okay. Quiet Spec is very clean, though I wonder why they don’t have more length to the site to show more content on the front page. At least it’s easy to go back in their archives. Mana Nation is very flashy with the images and the definition of the modern website. This Facebook/Twitter banner is massive and wastes too much space and they have too much white space in their runners along the side, but overall the look is good.

Compared to those two, Star City is a bit of a mess. It has been a bit of a mess for about five years now. Evan pushed to tweak the design a little last year into double columns (a very welcome change given how much content they have), but this site remains ready for a modern revamp. The big problem is that their landing page is the central hub for their store, the Open Series, and their media site. It will take an extremely clever redesign to make all of these parts function together without losing something significant. In fact, I’m not sure it can be done…

Now throw in the somewhat spastic Magic media/Internet vendor/flea market look of Everything that you didn’t like about SCG seems rather muted now, doesn’t it? You click on BB, then on SCG, BB, then SCG… and you end up thinking “Hey, SCG isn’t so bad.” I’m going to guess the guys at BlackBorder have other things to focus on than making their website look slick and spiffy. That or they desperately need to consult someone about color schemes that attract the eye without making your readers hate you. Nice red and lime green fonts in your banner ads…

Anyway, the point of all this is that each site has its own challenges. The design of your website should accentuate your product and whatever your revenue engine happens to be.  Bad website design will cost you hits, new writers, massive first impression points and can even make people not want to visit your website even if they actually like your content (sometimes subconsciously).

Make Better Titles, Dammit!
This one is easy, but first a digression.

Rant On
Why does everyone think they need to have a column name? What is the point? has column names because the columns are fixtures. Something like ten different people have written Latest Developments. At least half that many have written for Building on a Budget. The columns last beyond the authors and therefore they need to have names.

Gerry Thompson’s latest article, on the other hand, does not need a column title. He’s Gerry Thompson. I recognize his name, he writes about different stuff regularly under the same column header, and really all that thing does is take up space. Does anyone else ever write One Step Ahead? The same goes for Shaheen’s terrible column name The Icy Grip. Each article has his name on it, it has his picture right next to it (where presumably he’s thinking about 5 more ridiculous ways he can argue for not playing Preordain), and no one else ever writes The Icy Grip. Shaheen doesn’t even have a different column he writes called The Warm and Slightly Sweaty Grip – they are all just Shaheen columns!

Meanwhile, Quiet Spec has semi-secret column names that do not take up title space but also cannot quite be read in their little image box next to each article. Apparently these are shown up in the big flash box at the top, but I rarely wait for such things to scroll through to see what I want, so I didn’t notice what they were.

Yes, some column names are cool/funny/puntastic but most of them are superfluous and suck. Mixed kNuts was never a column name for me, it was just a signifier saying those articles had more random bits in them than the articles that didn’t say Mixed kNuts on them. Aaaanyway…
Rant Off

As an author or editor, you have two ways to catch someone’s attention once they are on your page. One is through a catchy title and the other one is through teaser text. Titles are a finicky thing because your title either needs to be intriguing or it needs to accurately describe what is inside the article without turning them off. Writers often hate when you change them, so now you have that to deal with as well.

Examples of titles that will immediately turn off readers include:

Fourth Time’s the Charm: PTQ Report *1st* – Great, you won a PTQ. And you wrote a report. That will probably bore me to death with terrible match recaps and stories of stopping to eat at McDonald’s. Instead give me a deck tech about your super-sweet deck, why it worked in the PTQ grinder metagame, and use some of your PTQ games as examples. NOW we have the hot hot hits.

Sideboarding – I don’t know if you know this, but we’ve had at least 10 articles on this same topic in the last year. (That said, the guy who wrote this one might be the only one that matters. It still needed a better title.)

GP Denver Report, Part 2 *Level 4* – Part 2. Of a GP report. Where you apparently didn’t Top 8. I’m never, ever clicking this unless Part 1 was unbereaveable or I have reached the end of the internet.

How to Leverage Your Image As A Drafter – How to what my what? What does this even mean? It might as well be called ‘How to Buzzword my Johnson.’

It Was Fear Of Myself That Made Me Odd – This article might make me cry. Or it’s yet another self-help article written by someone under the age of 30.Either way, I think I’ll just go watch Dawson’s Creek.

Chairman Mao Zvi Tung and the Red Army – Too obscure. While I personally might find this entertaining, you probably overshot your audience by four years of higher education. If they don’t understand it, they won’t click.

Examples of rather spiffy titles include:

Breaking Standard and Fixing Extended – Yes! I want to read about this!

Lily Bring the Bling – The title alliteration and rhyming means it’s going to be stuck in my head anyway, so I might as well click on it.

Trading Like Robocop – I don’t like financial articles but I do like Robocop. You have officially given us a chance to connect via pop culture. Now tell me what you’d buy for a dollar.

The Top X Foo in Wuzza Wuzza – Yes, obv clicking yes yes can’t stop myself. Blargh.

How to Beat Force of Will – This seems like something I should know.

Why Don’t You Just Play Caw-Blade? – An excellent question! I must click to find the answer!

Michael Jackson’s Old Nose or Mono-Black in Standard – Funny, pop culture, rogue deck. Oh yeah!

The take away thought? Good titles matter. A lot. Spend more time thinking of ones that don’t suck and you will be rewarded.

The final thing I was going to address today was teaser text, but I’m out of time and it deserves proper attention. Think about this and we’ll come back to it:

New blog entry today! This one has Cheating for hits, Zac Hill, and donkey fucking! #crossingthelinepeople #tasteless


9 responses to “Good Titles, Bad Titles, and Hooking Your Fish

  1. I want to sit down with Blackborder’s web designer and ask them why FEATURE is splashed across the teaser text of most of their articles, obscuring the very thing that is trying to get me to click through.

  2. 1) One of the most common requests on the forums when you were doing that recent revamp for SCG was more (and better) video content
    2) Donkey fucking is a good source of hits

    I think you can see where this is going.

    • You are evil. Just because I’m independent doesn’t mean I’m COMPLETELY tasteless. (Okay, I probably am, but aren’t bestiality vids illegal in the U.S.?)

  3. First – congrats, you’ve made my RSS feed. Don’t let it go to your head.

    Second – personally, I use an article series name to identify the reader with my work. A lot of people (mostly legacy people) know me as Nightmare or AdamNightmare, but many don’t actually know my last name, nor have they seen me in person to recognize my picture. Having a column name that is 1)Easy to remember, 2)Poignant, and 3)a play on words (I’m Nightmare, and my articles are recurring), makes me feel more comfortable since my content is not limited to one topic.

    Third – I try very hard to make every single article title relevant and witty. I spend a significant amount of time thinking of appropriate titles (see: On Stranger Tides – an article on High Tide, and the next Pirates of the Caribbean film; Needled 24/7 – an article about how good Pithing Needle is, and a song by Children of Bodom; Voyage of the Ink-Treader – a play on the Narnia book title, and a report using a CB/Top list in Ink-Treader Nephilim’s colors). I think this is something I am good at, because I agree with your points that bad titles are a sign of lazy writing. You’ve gone to the effort of writing 6+ pages of article. Figure out five words that don’t suck.

    Fourth – I’m probably not even on your radar, let alone high enough on the Name Recognition chart to care. I just wanted to do something to avoid work for a few minutes. Mission accomplished.

    • I know who you are Adam, though I don’t follow your work closely. I actually paused at your column title when bebopping around looking for things to discuss and decided I liked it. They aren’t ALL bad… just most of them. 😀

      • I’ll take that.

        Apparently, I remind people of Mike Flores. You used to like his writing, right? Maybe you should read me so someday you can used to like mine!

  4. In an article on writing, Elmore Leonard said something to the effect of “if I don’t have a good title for for a book within the first twenty pages, I scrap it. It’s not going to be good.”

    That stuck with me, and has left me really wanting to put a solid (and early!) effort into having a good title for each article. I know my major risk is passing right through “snappy” and ending up in “obscure,” thus losing my potential audience.

  5. The first thing I do every week is write the title of my column for the week at the top of my Word document. I try hard to make it relevant, and I probably spend a little more time on the teaser text than most people (and I don’t leave it up to my editor, just makes more work for them). That said, I’m not sure that my column titles are great, but they are better than “GP Report – Top 556*. I also try to title my own tournament reports.

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