Test headlines, work smarter: How MLB.com’s culture of experimentation improves reader engagement

MLB.com’s content strategy goes well beyond their commitment to test headlines—they also want to cement a culture of experimentation across their digital operations.

“We want to give everyone the freedom to play around and do different things…but we also want to make sure we’re getting takeaways from it,” Senior Manager of Content Strategy Rebecca Fontana said.

That was just one of the key insights MLB.com’s Fontana and Senior Director of Content Operations Dan Silverman provided during the recent webinar, Greatest hits: Creating a culture around headline experimentation at MLB.com.

Here, we outline MLB.com’s learnings from more than 3,000 headline tests. For further details on MLB.com’s best practices in headline experimentation, see the full video below.

Contextualize headlines

Silverman and Fontana noted that a major factor in boosting engagement for MLB.com readers revolves around leveraging headlines to immediately convey context and importance. Silverman said the team found that audiences responded more positively to test headlines with one key fact over rather than an attempt to summarize the entire article. This also means avoiding assumptions—even if you’re serving a niche audience such as MLB.com, use terms that will appeal to both sophisticated readers and new fans of the game.

“We want to let someone know there’s more to the story…more to explore and learn,” Silverman said.

MLB.com on tablet and mobile

Prioritize emotions over data

You have an intimate knowledge of your content. Take advantage to create engaging headlines that humanize your subjects. Whether it is the most interesting quote or subtle narrative embedded in the piece that conveys the emotion of the article better, it’s an improvement over a datapoint they can find once they’re reading the article.

“It proves that people want general emotion of the story, but then they’ll click in to get all of the specific data. You don’t have to give it all away in the headline,” Fontana said.

Set expectations early

Give readers a clear idea of what they’re getting into as soon as possible, such as letting them know whether they’re about to view a video or read an article. Their take—readers deserve to engage with high-quality content and there is only value in giving them a heads up before they click.

“It helped to be more straightforward and let them know what they’re about to read.”

Engage readers—and your team

MLB.com still references Chartbeat’s best practices on headline testing, but never at the expense of creativity. Fontana said that having hard and fast rules should not replace experience and editorial judgment. “If a quality click isn’t there, we won’t use it,” she said.

They also were able to unearth a burning headline question—do puns work as well as we think?

“We found out they didn’t serve our fans,” Fontana said. “It helped to be more straightforward and let them know what they’re about to read.”


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