Wait — was that headline a bit dramatic?
Maybe so. But after we’ve spent hours perfecting an article or blog post, it’s tempting to go to extremes to draw in readers. After all, what good is the world’s best content if nobody sees it? With dismal click-through rates and readers’ propensity to scan, even headlines aren’t immune to the effects of limited attention spans. That’s why, as a headline-writing mentor once told me, “it’s worth sweating the headline” to ensure it’s not only accurate, but also maximally engaging.
A headline has dual goals: to accurately label an article’s contents and to entice readers to absorb them. Old-fashioned newspapermen might say that accuracy and fit within a physical space take headline-writing primacy — but they’re also presenting stories to the captive audience that has already picked up a paper. Those dealing in the online realm know that article titles must also be skimmable, searchable, and irresistible.
The Psychology of Headlines
As Kissmetrics notes, no leads will click on a call to action without having first read your copy, and nobody will read your copy without having first been captivated by a headline. That headline has to present your key ideas in the most condensed way, as usability research has shown that headlines that are absorbable in a single glance are the most effective. Readers tend to take in only the first and last three words of the headline, so paring it down to six total words ensures better comprehension.
That’s limiting, of course, and not every headline can or should be that brief. But aiming for concision can prevent you from giving away the whole story and can still leave open what Upworthy calls a “gap in curiosity.” We don’t need to tell readers how to feel about our ideas (especially because so much of the time we’d be wrong); we just want to educate them.
A good headline should be clickable, but that doesn’t mean clickbait. Readers are savvy and have caught on to clickbait practices, and Facebook announced last year that it was cracking down on blatant pleas for attention from publishers. Making quick attention-grabbing attempts may generate some vanity inflations of social media metrics such as page views, likes, and unique visitors, but those fleeting impressions won’t keep readers engaged with content or convert them into brand advocates. Ultimately, it’ll just turn them off.
With online media proliferating and competing for our attention, the quality of content matters now more than ever. It’s important to make an intriguing proposition with a headline and then overdeliver with high-quality content. We don’t just want to attract attention for the sake of it; we need to wait until we’re truly spiffy and polished before yelling to everyone, “Come see how good we look!”
Crafting the Perfect Headline
After we generate content we’d love to share with the world, we need to write an effective headline that exemplifies the message of our content and aligns with our core values.
So how do you write a good headline?
First, don’t obsess about working in puns or crafty wordplay. Focus on finding the headline that aligns the most perfectly with your content, tone, and style.
Myriad formulas can get you started (Kissmetrics’ SHINE guideline is great), but it’s most important for the result to feel authentic, not formulaic. Think about what makes your content unique, and highlight those elements. If you want to start brainstorming without a net, here are two basic approaches:
- Express your main point or most compelling idea in sentence form, and distill it into tighter phrasing from there.
- List all the keywords necessary to get your point across (or necessary for SEO purposes), then assemble those into one coherent idea. Then, write multiple drafts. Create plenty of options. Try different angles and approaches. Brainstorm, then edit. A/B test your finalists, if you choose. But spend significant time on it — some suggest up to 80 percent of your total effort.
As you’re adjusting the headline options you came up with using the above two approaches, keep the following strategies in mind to ensure your headline succeeds:
- Be specific. It should feel concrete and knowledgeable and act as a clear label of the contents.
- Quantify what’s quantifiable. Does your content contain tips or lessons? Do you know how many people are affected by a problem? Tell readers how many. For example, our recent blog post “How Our Guest Content Boosted Conversions by 151%” used the specific percent increase for our first-quarter content marketing ROI in the headline because it’s attention-grabbing and gives readers more insight.
- Make it personal. Identify a concept within the content that will play on readers’ surprise, put yourself in their shoes by framing the title as a question they might have, or write it in terms of a “how to” question they might Google.
- Create immediacy. Make it clear that your content addresses a problem that readers should seek to understand right now.
- Pinpoint the newsworthy. What’s novel, proximal, and impactful? What aspects would your audience write home to their mothers about?
- Tempt readers with curiosity. Deploy juicy adjectives and explosive verbs — just make sure to pick the most accurate words. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
The key is what HubSpot would summarize as being human: considering your audience members and imagining what they care about and why — from their perspective. Don’t just apply the first title you think up; instead, flex your intracranial muscle and really sweat that headline. It’ll serve as an invitation to readers to form a connection that could evolve into a beautiful relationship.