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. The process requires a blend of information and innovation that entices the reader to engage with 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, it had to be sensational because that sold papers.
These days, content creators still do many of those things. However, some of their methods have evolved to accommodate digital users. To capture and retain readers, digital newspapers, magazines, and blogs must know how to write the perfect headline.
Why Good Headline Writing Matters
So, what is good headline writing and why does it matter to you?
The answer lies in “attention.”
Good headlines, whether online or in newspapers, lead to eyeballs. The more eyeballs on an article, the better they perform. Eventually, those eyeballs lead translate into dollars by way of advertising and/or subscription fees.
If the headline isn’t descriptive, engaging, 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 yet 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. Your piece needs a spark to catch the reader’s eye or it will vanish the second it falls out of the top story rotation. Since most news sites display stories in chronological order, your piece might be buried in a matter of hours.
Fortunately, there are several ways to create a headline that loiters on the front page longer than teenagers at a 7-11.
One solution would be to include a relevant keyword. Imagine a reader who wants 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:
- Knowing who your audience is
- Knowing who you’re most likely or able to attract to your content in addition to your regular audience
- 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.