Digital Publishing: A Checklist to Help Journalists Write the Best Social Media Headlines

By: Rob Tornoe

Jake Grovum wasn’t sure if any of his peers would even be interested in talking about Facebook and Twitter.

Grovum, acting head of social media at the Financial Times, set up a table talk about what makes a really good social media headline at the 2017 Online News Association (ONA) Conference. But he was quietly afraid attendees would be more interested in more buzzy and trendy topics than a challenge editors and reporters have been wrangling with for the better part of a decade.

“I was worried going into it maybe headlines are boring. I mean, it’s not exactly virtual reality,” Grovum said. But show up they did; some 50 journalists joined the table discussion, which quickly became four overflowing tables full of inquisitive reporters, editors and producers looking for ideas how to make their headlines pop on social media.

At the best of times, writing social media headlines (especially Facebook) is a tough balance between seeking clicks and encouraging engagement. Grovum spends most of his day using a platform called Social Flow to craft specific social media headlines for the Financial Times’ branded Facebook pages. He also helps write headlines for the newsroom’s main Twitter account, @FinancialTimes, which remains hand-curated for its 3 million followers.

Even on the best day, the social media traffic coming into the Financial Times’ website is leveraged on the headlines written by editors trying to strike the right balance between social, search and homepage traffic. When they ask Grovum for advice on writing headlines that might do well on Facebook, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities graduate has often found himself at a loss for words.

“Part of the reason I came up with the idea to do a table talk about social headlines was I didn’t have a good sense of what to tell people what could be a good one, other than knowing it when I saw it,” Grovum said.

Following the discussion Grovum had with the 50 or so journalists that joined his talk, he developed a list of eight questions he thinks of as a checklist for any reporter, editor or producer to go through to help them craft the best possible social media headline for their content. He agreed to let me share it here:

  1. Is it fair and accurate?

The first question is obvious enough. You’re not going to garner much long-term engagement if you mislead your readers about your content.

  1. Is it tailored to the audience youre trying to reach?

The business-heavy audience of the Financial Times is much different than the local readers of the Baltimore Sun. To understand your audience, Grovum suggests simply participating in social media and speaking to your readers directly. Very quickly, you’ll begin to understand their interests and what content resonates among them.

  1. Is it tailored to the platform where youre posting it?

Facebook is not Twitter. It’s also not the homepage of your website. Crafting a headline on Facebook should take into account the fact that readers will see the story in their feeds alongside photos of their friends’ kids and quizzed shared by their relatives. Picking and choosing the stories that will do best on your company’s Facebook page is vital to the overall success of your social media strategy.

Grovum said despite the hundreds of stories produced by the Financial Times each day, he and his team typically share just two to three posts an hour during the site’s most busy times.

“Everything that we post is either something that we think do well or it’s an important story,” he said. So it’s worth asking if you’d share the content yourself before posting it on your news organization’s Facebook page.

  1. Is it specific?

Newspapers are so famous for generic, overarching headlines that The Onion has made millions parodying it. Don’t be dull—look for the interesting nugget, analysis or opinion that you think has the best chance of resonating with your audience. If you’re looking for examples, the news headlines written by the social team at the Washington Post is a great place to start.

  1. Is it emotional?

One of the many reasons people share content is because of the emotional reaction they have with a story. Emotional headlines can be popular, but only if the story supports it. Grovum said his economics-heavy stories often don’t carry the emotional heft as local news pieces about crime and beloved businesses closing, so it’s a route he mostly avoids with his posts.

  1. Will it stand out from all the other Facebook posts or tweets about this story?

Tools like Social Flow and CrowdTangle (a free program well worth playing with) can allow you to see the headlines at other outlets that are doing well in your local area. Standing out and writing something unique is key to your sharing efforts.

One of Grovum’s greatest social success stories was on the Financial Times’ piece about President Trump criticizing Nordstrom after it dropped his daughter’s brand. Every outlet had that story, so Grovum waited until the closing bell on Wall Street to share the story with a new headline focused on the company’s stock closing 4.1 percent higher despite the president’s attacks.

“It was a different angle on a story that everyone was a talking about,” Grovum said.

  1. Is it clickbait?

Clickbait is a term that creates a block for many journalists. I think it should be framed like this: we want clicky headlines, not clickbait. Withholding some information from a headline can sometimes encourage people to click, but misrepresenting your story just to get clicks not only runs the risk of angering readers, it could end up being flagged by Facebook, which has been cracking down on clickbait headlines since last year.

  1. Is it how you would describe this to a friend?

This is sometimes the hardest point to get across to other journalists. The most successful headlines are conversational, as if you’re summing up the story to a friend at a bar or your wife at the dinner table. Normal people don’t say “area man” or refer to their town as “the region,” so social headlines using bland newspaper terms will never resonate as much as something that appears written by a human being.

The table talk might have only developed an eight-point checklist, but Grovum said the changing nature of social media all but guarantees new items will be added to the list.

“It’s always a work in progress,” he said. “Within six weeks, they’ll be a number nine and a number ten.” 

Rob TornoeRob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Reach him at

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Published: December 19, 2017


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