Master (Title) Baiters! Can UK Headline Hyperbole Teach American Bloggers Guile?

Posted in Content

I’m here for SES London, where I will have the pleasure of keynoting Day Three on Thursday.  I notice America’s language gap every time I scoot across the pond.  The UK’s colloquial dominance makes sense. After all, the Brits’ invented the English language, right? Pound for pound, effervescent embellishments after splendid magnification, UK newspaper headlines display unique title-bait mastery. It’s inspiring really.

Maybe propensity to write killer headlines is genetic or something in the water. Perhaps the literary education system is superior. Here, writers draw readers in with effervescent vocabulary and twisted spins.  American bloggers would do well to take note. The daily news in London is like reading in 2008. It’s true that some American newspapers are more than willing to dish. Still, vernacular angles and rhetoric are rampant here and all the way mainstream.

This morning the waiter in my Trafalgar Square hotel offered me one of six UK newspapers over morning tea.  I took them all, thinking our readers might enjoy a tour of today’s saucy news headlines as delivered by mainstream UK newspapers. From well-respected news sources to total sensationalist rags, we’ll overview headlines and then analyze factors that make for mainstream title-bait heroics.  There are great insights to be gained for bloggers anywhere. These headlines come from The Daily Mail alone:

  • Whistleblower furore grows…Now A Gag On Doctors And Nurses
  • Cable: We’d be happy to vote with Labour on £2m mansion tax
  • Confessions of a ‘reluctant’ sex bomb, Doper smoking with Sellers, how Rod wore my underwear and why I walked out on a date with Beatty, by Britt, 70
  • Iceland boss: I wouldn’t eat ‘value’ food because it won’t contain much meat
  • One in ten of us has done no exercise in a decade
  • A TENTH baby for the woman told she would never have any children
  • How Mum hired a psychic to sabotage my career, Shirley McLain’s daughter on how her jealous mother tried to scupper her movie career-and her marriage

For goodness sake, SCUPPER! 🙂 Here are some faves from The Times:

  • Manic, marvelous: this is the style city with a golden touch
  • Pakistan talks cloud Cameron’s Indian charm offensive
  • Wind-farm verdict that will help decide the future of the countryside, The quiet revolution blowing in from the sea
  • Here’s a thought: scientists may have invented telepathy gadget
  • The fast-track new Pope
  • Do stop shuddering, you poncy gourmands

Whew! For Americans unfamiliar with the word, “poncy,” it means Someone, something or somewhere which is overpriced, over styled, over rated, or thinks more highly of itself than it deserves,” as defined by the Urban Dictionary.

Taking a peek at The Sun, just look at how it handles today’s mainstream news.  Whereas the Boston Globe headline reads, “Oscar Pistorius to face premeditated murder charge,” Britain’s The Sun exclaims, “PISTORIUS KILLING EXCLUSIVE, STEROIDS AT BLADE RUNNER’S MANSION Cops find bloodied cricket bat too.  Which headline makes you want to read the article?

Other Sun headlines that caught my eye include:

  • Welcome Romania bye bye by-election
  • BANKSY ROBBERS Mural hacked off wall set to sell for £45lk on auction site
  • BRIT KIDNAP HELL Nigerian hostage crisis

OK, The Daily Mail and The Sun just a bunch of sensational junk news you say? Looping over toe The Independent, one of the more responsible UK dailies, even a conservative rendering of today’s news gets my juices flowing more than via America dailies.

  • Anger over pay deals for ‘fat-cat’ rail bosses
  • Revealed: Britain sells £3.7m in weapons to Sri Lankan regine
  • The mean streets of Pine Bluff-America’s most dangerous town
  • Bocellis’s song of hope for those in the dark
  • No unhappy end to Chelsea’s latest dramatic subplots

Scanning the Irish Independent, the headlines are colorful as well.

  • Bieber fever grips as ‘biggest show on Earth’ rocks the O2
  • Man turns dog’s best friend as heroic first-aider brings Hector back to life
  • Frozen meat sales collapse by 44pc as consumers return to butchers
  • Mum at stab victim’s side in Australia as he loses fight for life
  • Gospel choir puts soul back into deprived community
  • Liverpool find easy prey in feeble Swans
  • Reality bites for Luton as Millwall end fairytale
  • Oldham brought back down to earth after last-gasp heroics

The DAILY Mirror provides plenty of hot title-bait fodder for news (and junk news) consumers.

  • WHY KILL MY ANGEL OSCAR? New horror as ‘bloodied’ cricket bat found in star’s home
  • 48 TONS OF ILLEGAL MEAT IS SMUGGLED IN Gangs flog horse and donkey from East Europe
  • Butcher gives his village a counter culture
  • 800% LEAP IN HOMELESS FAMILES LIVING IN B&BS Huge rise over last 2 yrs
  • ANXIETY ATTACKER Martinez Wing ace Callum gets so nervous about playing that I have to lie to him!
  • DENNIS WISE DUNNE ME UP LIKE A KIPPER Alan dreams of make up for final heartbreak

What Makes These Headlines So Colorful?
CASE: It’s interesting to note liberal usage of title, sentence and all caps case in these headlines. There is a wide diversity of case and caps approaches, even within the same newspaper and on the same page.

VOCABULARY: These writers are seriously colorful.  Not afraid to use words like “hell,” “leap,” “ANXIETY,” “KIPPER,” “soul,” “feeble,” “prey,” “fairytale,” and “last gasp,” the sheer verbosity of this culture is awe-inspiring.   Calling Cameron’s campaign a “charm offensive” is brilliant.  “The quiet revolution blowing in from the sea” is a fantastically colorful way to wax on about a wind farm.

DIRECT QUOTES: One common headline tactic here in the UK is to include quotes from the news-makers of the day.  Framed properly, quotes can pique readers’ emotions in conversational ways. Bloggers could stand to do more of this to draw readers in.

METAPHORS: If the team is called the “Swans,” the writer uses the word “prey.” You can almost imagine the “feeble” swans being eaten by Liverpool.  Can you just visualize doctors shut up with a “gag?”

HYPHENS AS CONCEPT-CONNECTORS: The Brits’ use hyphens in cool ways. Today’s news included “first-aiders,” “fast-track” (Pope), and “bye bye by-election.”

MULTIPLE: A headline including‘fat-cat’ rail bosses connects all the dots, utilizing both quotes and hyphens to engage readers. These Brits’ mix up mechanisms in beautiful ways. There are awesome case and direct quote mashups as well.

On a final note, it’s not just the newspapers here that are more colorful than in America. The entire European culture is a bit saucier. This is the elevator sign promoting the bar here at the Trafalgar Hilton.  Hyperbole is everywhere here.


We’ll leave you with that thought and hope to see you at #SESLON. Cheerio!

  • Carl Moss

    Hey Marty, really enjoyed your blog here – glad to see our tabloid headlines are effervescing your receptors. Ponce, by the way, is commonly used here as a term for a pimp or poncing around is to act effeminately. Sock it to ’em on Thursday!

    • Marty Weintraub

      Thanks Carl,
      I’m glad too. Your Pilates studio is fantastic. Thanks for checking out our blog before I got there. Good job Googling your online customers :).

  • James Mathewson

    I like AimClear. I’m a big fan. But borrowing practices from print, especially tabloid journalism, flies in the face of the mission of web clarity. The web is a literal medium. Users aren’t perusing a newstand before deciding to read a blog post. They’re searching and finding information outside of conventional context. In the absence of context, they need bloggers to, well, aim clear, by using headlines that concisely describe what the post is about in plain language.

    • Marty Weintraub

      James, I appreciate your perspective. Still, I think there is a happy medium. All of blogging “borrows” from print. All journalism is in quest of eyeballs and interest. The noisier the medium, the more it matters. All of the web is a balance between straight-to-the-point literal headlines and click bait. Why did Digg exist? Why do Tweets get retweets? It’s not because being literal is always the way to go. Your comment is much appreciated .

  • James Mathewson

    Thanks Marty,

    I suppose there is no one-size-fits-all approach. There might be contexts where clever headlines work better. But I find I get high bounce rates and low conversions if I try to use clever headlines. I’d rather people not find my content than bounce as soon as they find it. Here is the long form view: It’s based on my book, in which I explain in detail how web writing is fundamentally different than print writing. My perspective was informed by my experience as the editor of a tabloid-style national monthly (ComputerUser) and its companion website. We tried to repurpose the print pub on the web and it rarely worked, in large part because our print headlines used clever puns to draw readers in. These puns confused the search engines and our users who came to the website from search. More than anything, they reduced our search volume by confusing the search engines. So we had to modify our headlines to make them more literal before publishing on the web.

    • Marty Weintraub

      James, like you said…one size does not fit all. We often use headline hyperbole (including this post) at aimClear and our time on site ranges from 1.75 minutes to over 10 minutes depending on the post. Also, you were kind enough to say you are a fan of our blog. You not only read this post but also engaged in a really meaningful way. Why is that? The headline is hyperbolic as hell. You did not seem confused by the title 🙂 Finally, I’m a book author and a blogger and there’s not much difference for me. Maybe I’m only “OK” at both but readers seem to think it’s decent. You and I may just disagree about this. I appreciate your thinking and enjoyed your post.

      So far as search volume, we often have one optimized title for the SERPs and another heading the post for social sharing. They are two different animals. Further, great headline hyperbole is also clear as a bell AND optimized. It need not be unoptimized or unclear. Interested in your thoughts. I’m going to compare the time on site, loyalty, etc… for the various approaches. Thanks so much for the stimulating dialog. Super.