Techmeme will rewrite headlinesJust two days ago, tech news aggregator Techmeme announced that it was going to start rewriting the headlines of stories that it presented on its site. This is a significant development because it blurs the line between the roles of reporting and aggregating. A site that reports news is obviously expected to write its own content and headlines. But aggregators have, by and large, been expected to, well, aggregate. Which is to say, we expect them to pick and chose from the news of the day and present us with the stories they think we’ll want to know about in an unaltered state.

That expectation is about to change in the world of tech news aggregation but it’s nothing new in the news business thanks to sites like the Drudge Report. So why does Techmeme feel the need to rewrite (some of) the headlines of the stories they aggregate? They wrote a blog post with 7 reasons and each one of them carries with it an important content marketing lesson.

Headlines and Content Marketing

Lesson #1: Know your audience.

“News organizations that cover more than just tech often favor headlines describing the story in the most general terms that the widest possible audience can appreciate at some level. So headlines will omit references to specific companies, people, and technologies unknown to most of their readers yet familiar to Techmeme readers. As our coverage increasingly relies on sources like The Guardian and Washington Post (for reports on government surveillance and other policy matters), this has become a significant issue for Techmeme.”

Techmeme knows its audience and they understand that readers want to understand the technology angle of the article. It’s why someone would subscribe to them in the first place, but they’ve noticed that some of the organizations doing the reporting are “dumbing down” the headlines because their audience is so varied. It’s important to note that there’s no right or wrong approach here. The Guardian and Post are both writing headlines they feel will work for the majority of their readers and Techmeme is simply saying that it doesn’t work for their audience.

This goes way beyond simply writing headlines. It means understanding the audience you want to reach in the first place and being faithful to them in the topics you cover and the headlines you write.

Lesson #2: Know your subject matter.

“In some news organizations, particularly the older ones, too often the editor tasked with writing the headline doesn’t appreciate the most newsworthy part of the story, “burying the lede” with a headline oblivious to the news.”

For me, this one is the most fascinating and holds the most intrigue in terms of looking into the future of reporting. What they’re saying here is that the people doing the original reporting don’t even understand the full implications of the story they’re covering! Our world is becoming extremely reliant on simple devices that rely on highly complex technologies. When you post a picture and comment on Facebook, are you thinking about the encryption level used to transmit the data? Or about the 20 pages of terms of service that govern that simple act? Or (for U.S. citizens) your 4th Amendment rights to unreasonable search and seizure of your private property? Probably not. And journalists are paid to be expert in using words to convey stories. They’re not encryption experts or legal scholars (usually).

We are in the early stages of a content marketing arms race. Content that’s a mile wide and an inch deep will lose. Marketers that win will be the ones with content that adds value and doesn’t miss the mark. To do that, you’ll need to know your subject matter (or hire someone who does).

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Lesson #3: Own it.

“With few exceptions, companies announcing bad news will omit specifics at the headline level. For example, a post disclosing the theft of a million user passwords will usually carry a headline such as ‘Important Security Update.'”

This one still baffles me a little bit. In my view, this is a relic from a bygone era in which big companies used to be able to control the message. Because there were relatively few media outlets and they could pay for sympathetic coverage, they could spin bad news into something that sounded like they were doing the world a favor. Not anymore. There are too many media outlets and too much social media to get away with spin.

When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you should do is to stop digging. If you have bad news to report or have to admit a mistake, treat it like removing a band aid; just RIP IT right off! Get it over with. Admit your mistake. Express empathy. Explain how you’re going to make it right. Own it.

Lesson #4: Traffic doesn’t pay the rent.

“Some publishers value clicks from Twitter or Facebook over readers’ time, writing (and tweeting) headlines that deliberately omit key details, requiring readers to click to get the most basic summary.”

There are sites on the Internet that need visits in order to survive because a major source of revenue is advertising impressions. If that’s the case, then focusing on clicks is understandable. It’s ill-advised (because it’s temporary and fleeting), but it’s at least understandable. But I’m guessing that something very close to 100% of my audience is not in that position and , instead, you need customers to pay the rent.

And so you need to focus on conversions, not clicks. Don’t be “that guy.” Use your content marketing to build trust and drive conversions.

Lesson #5: Don’t waste my time.

“Even worse, some misleadingly inflate the importance of the news in the headline, goosing clickthroughs, but setting up discerning readers for disappointment.”

This is a low-value maneuver. Yes, it may get you lots of clicks but many of them will be low-value because you’re trying to trick people. Guess what? They know when they’re being tricked and they don’t like it. The result is that you’ve not only attracted a low-quality visitor, you’ve pissed them off on top of it. Chances are they won’t click on your murky headline next time.

Don’t waste my time. Be as concise as possible with your headlines and let people know what the payoff will be and then be sure to deliver that payoff.

Lesson #6: Don’t outthink yourself.

“Bloggers with a devoted readership who can count on readers consuming the bulk of their output often enjoy writing more cerebral, enigmatic titles with meanings that fully reveal themselves only after reading the story.”

This is something I’ve been guilty of in the past. I’ve had to swallow my compulsion for puns and be more deliberate in my headlines because people are so bombarded with headlines and Tweets that you really need to just get to the point, already. Let the reader know exactly what the story’s about. This way, you’re more likely to get more readers and as an added bonus, you won’t be guilty of  Lesson #5.

Lesson #7: Don’t be lazy.

“Some bloggers consider composing a headline a mere chore, dashing out a few words thoughtlessly, and moving on.”

Once again, I’ve been there and done that. I got lazy with my headlines. Don’t. They’re too important. Especially in our frenetic world of contracted text messages and 140 character updates. Headlines are crucial and deserve your attention and your best content marketing efforts.


I think Techmeme is doing a good thing for its readers. There will be plenty of detractors who worry about bias, but I was gratified to see that they addressed that issue head-on, saying “All news is laden with opinion. The very act of publishing a story conveys the bold assertion: this is noteworthy.” Exactly. They’re already biased and admitting it. I like that.

I have a couple of posts in the archive that talk about headlines in case you missed them:


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