It has been suggested that Super Caley should start a taxonomy, a sort of unofficial classification of different types of headline. A great place to start is today’s internet sensation, a Tumblr post titled OTTERS WHO LOOK LIKE BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH.
This was posted by Sherlock enthusiast Red Scharlach, who didn’t consider if worthy of use on her main site and stuck it on to a subsidiary blog, “Red Scharlach Points at Interesting Things” before leaving for work this morning. After spending all day being forwarded, reblogged and retweeted to infinity, the story has spread into the print press. Tonight the Metro has picked the story up with BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH TAKES ON NEW ROLE AS OTTER LOOKALIKE, while The Sun got in on the act mid-afternoon with W-OTTER DEAD RINGER.
It’s notable that neither of these professional headlines is even close to being as good as the original. So let’s take it apart.
How to write the perfect online headline
1. Don’t even think about it
Sometimes, and particularly online, the best headline is the very first thing that you think of – the title that simply falls into your head. Going on Red Scharlach’s rather bemused post this evening, this is what happened to her. She executed what you might call a Ronseal headline: it does what it says on the tin.
2. Know your memes
OTTERS WHO LOOK LIKE BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH is of course a remake of CATS THAT LOOK LIKE HITLER, a popular blog title from a few years ago. Red Scharlach has rather sweetly tried to give credit to what she sees as a more direct fore-runner, HEDGEHOGS THAT LOOK LIKE MARTIN FREEMAN. But of course this isn’t anywhere near as effective because Benedict Cumberbatch a) looks so much more like an otter than Martin Freeman does a hedgehog and b) is extremely hot property at the moment. Which is another reason Red Scharlach managed to…
3. Grab people’s attention
Conventional, SEO-optimising wisdom has it that you must always carry a celebrity’s full name in the article title if you want to get lots of search traffic. No doubt having the Sherlock actor’s full name in here helps. But besides celebrity there are three other elements in here that the internet loves: animals (the otters), humour (the otters) and the promise of pictures (looks like). In six words, the only word that isn’t a strong draw for online readers is “who”. And you need “who” (or “that”, depending on your animal rights position) so that it makes sense.
So overall: clear, intriguing, succinct.
Elementary, my dear Watson.