Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines

by Jakob Nielsen on September 6, 1998

Summary: Online headlines must be absolutely clear when taken out of context. They should be written in plain language (no puns or clever headlines). 5 additional guidelines + examples of bad microcontent.


Microcontent needs to be pearls of clarity: you get 40-60 characters to explain your macrocontent. Unless the title or subject make it absolutely clear what the page or email is about, users will never open it.

The requirements for online headlines are very different from printed headlines because they are used differently. The two main differences in headline use are:

  • Online headlines are often displayed out of context: as part of a list of articles, in an email program's list of incoming messages, in a search engine hitlist, or in a browser's bookmark menu or other navigation aid. Some of these situations are very out of context: search engine hits can relate to any random topic, so users don't get the benefit of applying background understanding to the interpretation of the headline. The same goes for email subjects.
  • Even when a headline is displayed together with related content, the difficulty of reading online and the reduced amount of information that can be seen in a glance make it harder for users to learn enough from the surrounding data. In print, a headline is tightly associated with photos, decks, subheads, and the full body of the article, all of which can be interpreted in a single glance. Online, a much smaller amount of information will be visible in the window, and even that information is harder and more unpleasant to read, so people often don't do so. While scanning the list of stories on a site like news.com, users often only look at the highlighted headlines and skip most of the summaries.

Because of these differences, the headline text has to stand on its own and make sense when the rest of the content is not available. Sure, users can click on the headline to get the full article, but they are too busy to do so for every single headline they see on the Web. I predict that users will soon be so deluged with email that they will delete messages unseen if the subject line doesn't make sense to them.

If you create listings of other people's content, it is almost always best to rewrite their headlines. Very few people currently understand the art of writing online microcontent that works when placed elsewhere on the Web. Thus, to serve your users better, you have to do the work yourself.

Guidelines for Microcontent

  • Clearly explain what the article (or email) is about in terms that relate to the user. Microcontent should be an ultra-short abstract of its associated macrocontent.
  • Written in plain language: no puns, no "cute" or "clever" headlines.
  • No teasers that try to entice people to click to find out what the story is about. Users have been burned too often on the Web to have time to wait for a page to download unless they have clear expectations for what they will get. In print, curiosity can get people to turn the page or start reading an article. Online, it's simply too painful for people to do so.
  • Skip leading articles like "the" and "a" in email subjects and page titles (but do include them in headlines that are embedded within a page). Shorter microcontent is more scannable, and since lists are often alphabetized, you don't want your content to be listed under "T" in a confused mess with many other pages starting with "the".
  • Make the first word an important, information-carrying one. Results in better position in alphabetized lists and facilitates scanning. For example, start with the name of the company, person, or concept discussed in an article.
  • Do not make all page titles start with the same word: they will be hard to differentiate when scanning a list. Move common markers toward the end of the line. For example, the title of this page is Microcontent: Headlines and Subject Lines (Alertbox).
  • In email sent from your website, make the "From" field clarify the customer relationship and reduce the appearance of spam or anonymous intrusion (but don't use the name of the customer service rep. unless the user has actually established a relationship with that person: mail from unknown people also has a tendency to be deleted and will be harder for users to find in a search).

Examples

Email subject: Opportunity
Makes the message seem like spam. A sure way to be deleted unread.
Email subject: Web Design Conference in Norway
Sounds like a conference announcement: would be deleted unread by somebody who doesn't plan to travel to Norway any time soon. Better subject line: Invitation: Keynote speaker at Norwegian Web Design Conference .
Email from line: musicblvd@musicblvd.com
Email subject: Your Music Boulevard Order
Not a horrible subject, but it would have been better to say Music Boulevard Order Shipped to You Today (starting with an information-carrying word and being more precise than the original). The from line should have included a human-readable name like Music Boulevard Customer Service
Page title: Big Blue and Wall Street too
Probably has something to do with investing in IBM, but people who don't know that nickname would be at a complete loss and would never be attracted to clicking on this headline. Even people who do realize that the story will be about IBM don't get told what's new or interesting in the article.
Page title: Reading your PC
Say again? What can this possibly be about? This is a real example (as are all the others) from a major U.S. newspaper. It probably worked fine in print, but not in a listing of headlines on a third-party website.
Page title: Sound Card Competition Heats Up
When shown on a computer-related site, this is a great headline. When placed out of context it may be better to add a qualifier: Sound Card Competition Increases in PC Market . Note that the page title will still work if the last part is chopped off in some listings.

Additional User Research and Design Guidelines

Full Report

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