Over-worked headlines reveal cracks in paywalls

The BBC’s roundup of the newspaper’s Tsunami stories brings home a valuable lesson.

Image from SecretLondon123

A headline is not enough.

In David Ogilvy’s day the headline was everything. “By the time you’ve written your headline, you’ve spent 80% of your money,” he said, in a way that explains why sub-editors get paid so much more than journalists.

And it’s supported by the increased focus on making content that is multi-channel, multi-platform, multi-media that leads to multi-tasking and attention deficit. A web page gets 4 seconds of someone’s attention, so if people are spending 0.8 seconds considering whether a piece of content is worthy of their attention, then we’re asking a lot of our headlines.

So obviously our focus goes into creating a great headline, whether it’s on our site or for display on an aggregator.

But it’s not enough.

  • Sunday Mirror: “Wiped out”
  • Mail on Sunday “The Town That Vanished”
  • Sunday Telegraph “Devastation”
  • Indendent on Sunday “A Nation Begins Its Fightback”

All good headines and all linking to in-depth stories online, with pictures and video and opportunities to dig deeper into the story of a biblical-scale catastrophe.

And then there’s The Sunday Times: “Fear of Catastrophe as Nuclear Plant Explodes”.

I’m faced, as a reader, with the value proposition equation: does the competitive value of this product outweigh the cost of purchasing it?

This against:

  • CNN: “Preventing a nuclear disaster” (free)
  • Reuters: “Japan scrambles to avert nuclear metldown” (free)
  • Scientific American: “Nuclear experts explain worst case scenario” (free)
  • LA Times: “Japan nuclear agency reports emergency at another reactor” (free)

Even if The Sunday Times somehow trumped these stories, you can’t store that amount of value in a headline.

Worse, to show the extended value of a Times subscription, the paywall advert pops up a photo slideshow. As I decide whether I want to pay £1 to continue reading, the picture shifts onwards to the next story in their marketing cycle and I’m shown Goga Ashkenazias, one of Prince Andrew’s “colourful friends”. The desire to show the range of the editorial from the Sunday Times has effectively distracted me from the reason I became interested in them in the first place.

In Ogilvy’s day, the headline was all-important because everyone was operating on the same business model. It was a shortcut that described the only real discernible difference between products.

In a multi-model world, we need the shortcut to do more. And a headline just doesn’t cut it.


About Morgan Holt

Morgan Holt is senior strategist at Wolff Olins, the global game-changing brand consultancy. He is also chairman of the Branded Content Marketing Association, and a non-executive director of CN Media Group.

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