You Can Do Better Than This: 3 Headline Writing Techniques to Make Your Stories Pop

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Headline writing is hard. Honestly, it might be the most difficult piece of the content creation process. There’s a certain finesse that goes into writing the perfect headline, a blend of information and innovation that entices the reader into checking out your content.

Before the rise of the Internet, newspaper reporters were faced with several challenges that made headline writing a nerve-wracking endeavor. Headlines needed to be gripping, but brief. They also needed to tell you what the story was about, but not give away the punchline. And above all, if your story was on the front page and above the fold, you needed to be sensational because that sold papers.

These days, newspapers and other content creators are still doing many of those things, but have also evolved some of their methods to meet the demands of a rising demographic of digital users. To capture and retain readers, digital newspapers, magazines, and blogs must take care to craft the perfect headline.

Why Good Headlines Matter

So, what makes a good headline and why does it matter to you? The answer is pretty simple and revolves around our self-serving need for attention. Good headlines, whether online or in newspapers, lead to eyeballs. The more eyeballs on an article, the better they perform and the more likely a person is to come back for more. Eventually, those eyeballs lead to the almighty dollar by way of advertising, subscription fees, or some combination of both.

If the headline isn’t descriptive, impactful, or interesting, there’s a good chance it’ll get passed over. Readers will often come across a website and see headlines strewn all over the page like Legos in a living room, most of which are text-only links. This means you don’t always have an accompanying photo or short blurb to whet your readers’ appetites. But there are a few simple but powerful ways to weather the storm and draw readers to you and your stories.

A Good Headline Has Staying Power

It isn’t enough to pump out a SEO-optimized headline with a slew of keywords. If there isn’t some spark worth catching a reader’s eye, your piece will be gone the second it falls out of the top story rotation. Most news sites tend to display stories in chronological order, which means as new content is created, old content is pushed aside. On busy days, your piece might be buried in a matter of hours.

While there are several ways to create a headline that loiters on the front page longer than teenagers at a 7-11, including a keyword that you know people will be looking for helps. Take a reader who is looking to learn more about Pokemon Go, for example. The Atlantic’s article title tag on Google reads “What is Pokemon Go?,” which isn’t exactly a show-stopper. But once you click on the link the real story title (the main header of the page) is revealed: “The Tragedy of Pokemon Go.” It’s flashier, but it also doesn’t please Google nearly as much as the direct question has. By switching up the title tag and the headline, The Atlantic is making good use of what I call staying power.

A better headline, though, and one higher in the SERPs, comes from Forbes: “Ten Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Pokemon Go.” This is a great headline because it contains keywords people are looking for (Pokemon Go), but it also includes a call to action in the form of a list people can interact with.

A Headline: What is Pokemon Go?

A Headline With Staying Power: Ten Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Pokemon Go

A Good Headline Is Descriptive

There’s a simple reason why news articles and blog posts tend to have longer headlines than on paper, and it has to do with the online landscape and search intent. Newspapers are essentially a captive audience, meaning you get what you buy and that’s that. Online, however, variety is the spice of life.

Organic searches account for the majority of searches online, so if you want your content to rank it needs to have a descriptive headline and at least mention the topic your piece is about. Example:

A Vague Headline: Pokemon Go News: Big new update for Raid fans

An Informative Headline: Pokemon Go raids are a mess of bugs, and players deserve compensation


A Good Headline Is A Little Flashy

Writing a good headline isn’t just about stuffing keywords into a title; it’s about strategically placing the right keywords into a title around other compelling words and phrases. Numbers, active adjectives and calls-to-action are all tried-and-true ways of ensuring people read your content. But as with everything, try to use these types of words in moderation. No one likes a showboater, and headlines with too much flair could be criticized as click-bait.

A Click-bait Headline: Have you given Pokemon Go access to everything in your Google account?

A Headline With Just Enough Pizzazz: Privacy scare over Pokemon Go app for iOS

A recent article from Buzzsumo analyzed more than 100 million headlines to see what words and phrases drove the most engagement from users and, not surprisingly, the value of actions and emotions were big winners. Unfortunately, the rising number of “click bait” articles makes this style of headline writing dangerous. Google is beginning to recognize what these stories tend to offer readers and is demoting them in the SERPs, which is a boon for reporters, but maybe not for advertising teams trying to sell for the site.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Buzzsumo’s exhaustive review of headlines is that there is a rather simple formula you can use in nearly any situation online that will engage your readers and cause them to interact with your writing. It all boils down to:

  1. Knowing who your audience is
  2. Knowing who you’re most likely or able to attract to your content in addition to your regular audience
  3. A descriptive, honest, gripping headline.

If you can make people ask themselves questions, spark curiosity, engage them emotionally and give them a reason to care in a few characters, you’re much more likely to have people read and engage with your content.