If you’re capitalizing every word of your headlines, you’re missing out

This is writing practice as old as Shakespeare and counsel as old as The Elements of Style: “Use definite, specific, concrete language.”

The most concrete of concrete words are proper nouns — words that denote specific persons, places and things.

Anyone who’s ever monitored the headlines and subject lines that drive audience engagement — clicks, email opens, shares, retweets — has noted that proper nouns increase engagement. If your audience is tech-oriented, “Apple” is sure to draw readers. If you’re covering retail, “Target” will rise quickly on your traffic chart. Politics? “Trump.” Real estate or terrorism? “World Trade Center.”

But each of those words or phrases can also be a common noun (just “an apple” or “a target” or “a trump”) and therefore tough to pick out in a crowd of words unless the others aren’t capitalized. So why do so many organizations hide their proper nouns in title case headlines — those in which Every Word Is Capitalized?

A much better option is sentence case, where we bestow capitalization only on the first word of a title and on proper nouns, which then become more prominent for readers.

A demonstration: Here’s a word-search box in which all words to be found have been capitalized. How many proper nouns — the words most likely to drive audience engagement — can you find in 10 seconds? Start your stopwatch … now.

Title case: How many proper nouns can you find in 10 seconds?

Now, here’s a puzzle in which only proper nouns have been capitalized. How many can you find in 10 seconds? Go.

Sentence case: How many proper nouns can you find in 10 seconds?

If you’re like most readers, you’ll have had an easier time finding engaging words like “Apple” and “Target” in the second example. (The puzzles are identical except for capitalization.)

So which of the following two sets of headlines would you expect to perform better: This one, in title case?

Organ Donor Registration Apple’s Next iPhone Goal
Stellar Monthly Sales For Ford
Police Seek Thief Accused Of Robbing Target Stores
Tallest Model Of World Trade Center Unveiled
Tweet By Trump Called Racist

Or this one, where the proper nouns are more easily spotted, in sentence case?

Organ donor registration Apple’s next iPhone goal
Stellar monthly sales for Ford
Police seek thief accused of robbing Target stores
Tallest model of World Trade Center unveiled
Tweet by Trump called racist

Based on more than a decade monitoring traffic across a variety of platforms, I assure you it’s the second set.

Bottom line:

If you’re using title case for your website, email or social media presence — I’m looking at you, New York Times and a lot of local broadcast websites — dump it for sentence case.

If your engagement doesn’t increase, I’d like to hear about it.


Update, July 21, 2016. This ambiguity becomes all too common with title case headlines:

July 18, 2016

P.P.S. ALL-CAPS headlines are even worse.

July 30, 2012 (Recalled July 30, 2016.)
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