The Secret of a Good Title

Here are three titles taken from coverage earlier this year of the change in American patent law from a first-to-invent to a first-to-file system:

  1. The America Invents Act
  2. Important Patent Law Changes
  3. Top Ten Reasons to File Your Patent Applications Before March 16, 2013

If you happened to click on any of these titles, all three legal updates were well written, conveying substantive, useful information for anyone who needed to know about the impending change(s) in U.S. patent law.

However, the third update stole the lion’s share of readership on this topic. Over a two week period it received more than 20,000 unique views from a targeted audience, who then shared and discussed it in online groups and communities of entrepreneurs, inventors, scientists, investors, executives, and the like. The popularity steamrolled as more people read and shared the update. Often, that’s how it goes.

The Difference?

The first two titles above tell you what you’ll get if you click the link. The third title tells you why you should click (and why you should click now). And that, in my estimation, made all the difference.

A good title tells busy people why they should stop doing what they are doing and click your link now.

There are an awful lot of people online reading and sharing information – but if you think of the real estate available to capture a single person’s attention, it’s actually a rather finite amount of space. You have: an email inbox; social streams (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc); the first page of Google results; for some people, an RSS reader (usually well packed with other content); and the small pool of resources we count as our daily reading habits. Often not much more than that.

Couple this with the fact that most of the people you are trying to reach are extraordinarily busy and – well … titles today have to do a lot more than simply tell people what they’ll get if they happen to click on your work.

Discovery versus Habit

Most of the titles that I see are written by smart people with years of well-earned expertise in their field. As writers, though, they make a critical mistake: they believe they’ve already earned their audience. The problem lies in misunderstanding the behavior of their readers.

Given the fluid nature of information online today, most of your readers discover your work (through searches, social shares, or subscriptions of the kind we have at JD Supra). These are people who don’t know you, but should. They discover you (they get to know you) because you are writing on matters they care about; you are addressing what they need to know.

There is another, smaller pool of  critically important readers out there – those who already make a habit of reading you regularly (say, current or previous clients). You are a known entity to these people; they trust you. As a good source of information to these readers, you have more leeway with your titles. You can be oblique, witty, literary, and so on … all the things that, unfortunately, make for a terrible title when you are writing to be discovered.

In both cases, though, you should write to earn your readers’ attention. Even those people who know you – even in-house counsel who can make sense of complicated legal issues – should not be required to work at understanding what you have to say. Why does your update matter? That should be clear to everyone.

What’s the Story?

You’ll hear time and again that story is everything. And I agree with this, although it means many different things, and can be applied in many different ways as we seek to build audience and relationships online. Stories are where people make human connections with each other.

When it comes to titles, I find there is much to learn from the seasoned editors who have spent years honing the skill of capturing story in a title or headline. Below are a few random samples, quickly put together, of what I mean by this; coverage of legal issues by mainstream press.

Unlike many lawyers, who as writers are in the habit of trying to make sure nothing is ever left out, these editors often pin-point a single dramatic focus to their coverage. They identify to whom the issue matters, and they incorporate that story into the title. To varying degrees, the title captures what’s at stake in the story — and usually that’s exactly what’s needed to move from what your update is about to why anyone should read it in the first place:

Nothing fancy here. Just simple clarity. Why you should click.


All of this reminds me of my days in grad school, years ago, when my professor/mentor, a nationally known novelist, would announce to the room: “Titles are everything.”

Feet up on the desk, hands behind his head, staring out the window at the world, he’d say: “Just think. If Thank Heaven for Little Girls was called The Molestor, you’d have a very different song. A veeeeery different song. Titles are everything.”

Indeed they are. Make yours count.