Speak the Language: Earn Results with the Right Headlines
February 21, 2020 by Leela Bozonelis
Headlines are the most important aspect of any piece of written content. As a general rule, they are what is read first. In some cases, they’re all that is read. They set the tone for the piece and serve as a matter-of-fact summation of the content as a whole. A 1,200-word piece of pure content gold could be rendered irrelevant by a five-word headline that fizzles.
That’s the last thing that marketing and communications professionals need. Spending time to develop creative, strategic headlines will showcase your valuable content and thought leadership and attract and retain audiences.
What goes into a creative and strategic headline? Here are two tips—followed by two caveats—to get you started.
Tip: Create a Headline with Intrigue
A headline should be intriguing enough that a reader quickly scrolling through a feed on their smartphone could see it in a split-second and be engaged enough to “slow their scroll” and click to continue reading or exploring more of your content.
This means creating a headline that does two things: 1) piques curiosity, and 2) doesn’t give too much away.
If the headline gives too much away, potential readers have no incentive to click through. Instead of simply stating a fact, try crafting a headline that addresses the broad topic with suggestions of the new information or insights you have to offer.
Likewise, a simple statement of fact may not make the impact needed to grab attention. Use the headline to set the stage, provide context and relate the topic to your audience in a way they can understand without much explanation.
Caveat: Don’t Use Clickbait
How intriguing and evocative a headline is should reflect the content itself. The content and tone of a headline must reflect the overall body of the piece. There’s a word for headlines that don’t adequately suit the article at hand: clickbait1.
Clickbait is the common term given to articles whose headlines sensationalise the topic or otherwise draw readers in under false pretenses. Employing clickbait destroys credibility, erodes trust and—most recently—can even result in search engine optimisation penalties2.
While professional communicators should be encouraged to employ tips for writing headlines that earn results, those tips shouldn’t be used to generate inauthentic “clicks” simply to earn vanity metrics.
Tip: Use Unique Headline Styles
Even the most casual consumers of content will no doubt recognise some established headline conventions. For example, headlines that promise a defined number of facts or insights (ex. 3 Company Qualities that Attract Millennials) have been shown to be particularly effective at grabbing attention.
Defined, list-based headlines like this work well because they communicate to the reader that the article will be neatly organised in a way that can be easily skimmed. That’s not the only way to format a strategic and creative headline, of course. Instead of using numbers in your headline, also consider using strong action verbs to reel readers in.
Action verbs grab attention by immediately showing readers the purpose—or “so what”—of a piece. Starting with a strong verb means starting with a bold assertion and promise of what readers can gain. It shows the author is confident and provides the reader with a sense of purpose.
Caveat: Don’t Overdo it
Variety is incredibly important. Readers (and, frankly, writers too) will quickly tire of headlines that follow the exact same prescriptive formula again and again.
Take a moment to audit your headlines. Do they all discuss “five ways to…” or “three important reasons…”? Or, do they all promise to help “drive leads with…” or “skyrocket revenue by…”? If so, consider switching things up a bit to make the most of multiple effective constructions.
Instead of finding a single headline formula used every time, experiment with several different headline styles. Test and optimise headlines to select a repertoire of several headline conventions that work well with your audience. Then, intersperse each style throughout your content cadence to keep things fresh.
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1. It's Everywhere, the Clickbait, theatlantic.com
2. Why Social Media Companies Frown on 'Gaming the Algorithm', wired.com