We’ve been told, time and time again, that five times as many people read your headline as read your content’s contents. Mahlab editor Amanda Woodard, who’s worked for the biggest media names in both Australia and the UK, offers eight tips for crafting headers so compelling, you’ll capture customers’ attention every single time.
Headline writing is HARD. When you see a good one, it looks really obvious, but it is far from that. It is the result of an expletive-filled path to inspiration. Yet they’re worth the effort as headlines are the juicy carrot, the bar of chocolate, the sparkly diamond that will lure your reader in to view your brilliant content. Your content is brilliant, right?
Hubspot even recommends using half the time you use to write an entire feature to craft the right headline. Many screenwriters write a headline for their movie script before they even begin on the plot. Why? Because the headline must encapsulate the essence of what a story is about. It’s sometimes worth trying this yourself.
Drop-dead-gorgeous headlines don’t always work online
The ultimate goal of a headline is to place in the mind of the reader the idea that ‘This is an article I would like to read. This has got my attention and piqued my interest. It might even have made them smile.’
But let’s not pretend that headlines for print can be the same as headlines for digital. They can’t. Take the recent collapse of the Australian cricket team, a subject I like to return to repeatedly, being English. The wonderful headline ‘Pomicide’ that appeared in one of the national print dailies was inspired, but would have got you no traction if it topped a piece of digital content.
— SMH Sport (@SMHsport) August 6, 2015
Equally, a feature about office jealousy attracted the wonderful headline: Drop Dead Gorgeous. Again, no hope of finding that story if you were searching for the subject. Headlines in print can use alliteration, puns and play on words, they can reference song or movie titles, they can suggest or tease about the contents of the article. The danger is that print headlines are too obtuse, the pun is too cliched, the song title will only be remembered by people who grew up in the 80s. Apply the huh? test, if in doubt. Separated from your knowledge of the article, does it make sense as a stand alone heading?
How to write compelling web headlines
In the digital world, headlines have to be a lot more hard-nosed so that a reader is immediately clear about what they are getting and are enticed to read on. Headlines follow the classic 80/20 rule which dictates that if 100 people read your headline, only around 20 of them will go on to read the rest of the story. Perhaps more surprising is how many people share links without ever clicking through. Bit.ly, the online short link generation company, found by using tracking data that 90 per cent of people who share your content do so based only on the headline and never actually read the article. All of which puts even more pressure to come up with a headline that entices you through the entrance.
For search rankings, keep headlines under 65 characters otherwise they will be chopped off in search engine results. If the headline has to be longer, ensure important words are near the front.
Eight headline styles that’ll please both your readers AND Google’s bots
In an ideal world, a headline for digital content would combine the wit and invention more commonly found in print with the SEO capability required to find your article in the online crowd. Safe to say, it’s quite rare. The good news, though, is that it’s easier to adopt good habits for writing headlines online.
Here are eight of our favourite (and most effective) headline styles
- The How-To Headline format is by far the most common, such as ‘How to tie your shoelaces or ‘How to avoid hyperbole’. (No, it’s not a skin disease). Like salt, the How-To headline, used in moderation is effective. But too much and too often gives you high blood pressure.
- The same applies to The Question Headline. These are good because they imply something is important or relevant or secret or effective. But to find out Why, you have to walk through the door, you have to read the article. This is called “opening a loop” and is used in psychology. The curiosity aroused in the brain has to be answered and to do that you have to read the article such as ‘Why men are more tribal than women’. However, beware of asking a question for which there is a one-word retort, such as: Is telling someone they’re fat always such a bad idea? A reader might simply answer Yes, and move on.
- Putting a theme or famous name (as long as they are in the story!) with a colon separating the headline is a useful tool in SEO. Think of ‘Taylor Swift: How her personal brand is changing the music business’. Or ‘Cyber Threat: is the culprit lurking in your office?’ It’s like having two headlines in one as long as there is a connection and it makes sense.
- The (Brackets) Headline. Brackets serve to highlight the words contained within. Graphically, it grabs the attention and also has the benefit of creating an intimacy, like a whispered conversation, between you and the reader. Example: ‘Take control of your expenses (or end up like Bronwyn Bishop)’.
- The List Headline has spread like a rash over the internet. Top 10 ways to prevent bullying in the workplace. Top 5 reasons to avoid taking painkillers. Again, use with moderation. Research suggests that the numbers three, seven or 10 have proven the most effective and combining these numbers with powerful words such as “today” or “danger” will help.
- Shorter Is Better. Look at your headline and then start removing words. Fewer words make greater impact and on Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc. — a headline that’s too long will have to be cut to fit. Plus, shorter headlines are typically easier to parse.
- Avoid Passive Tense. Your headlines should be in active tense, not passive. If you see an “ing” word, like for example “Planning”, it should be made active, like “Plan”. Example: ‘Writing award winning headlines’ is much better as ‘Write award-winning headlines’.
- Finally ask yourself, which words would you use in a search to find your story? Are those words in your headline?
Learning to accustom yourself to the different headline approaches takes time and effort. Whenever you see a headline that you think works or catches your attention, write it down and compile your own list for each platform.
To end at the beginning, headline writing for print or online, requires wearing two very different hats. For print, you’re choosing that rather elaborate racing day number that is going to make you stand out in the crowd. For digital, it’s more prosaic, the one that keeps the sun off your face on the hike up the hill will do the job. But whichever hat you’re adopting on the day, wear it with pride.