By Beth Fox published February 6, 2012

7 Ways to Write Eye-Popping Headlines

Every day, people are inundated with content. Put a lousy headline on yours and you almost guarantee that it will be ignored. But create a great headline and, “click,” people want to read more.

Think about it: From videos, blogs and tweets, to press releases, articles, and the latest deals, it takes literally seconds for someone to decide whether your piece is worth a look. If the headline doesn’t grab them, your idea will be cast into the vast wasteland of unappreciated content — no matter how well-written or produced it may be.

That’s why headlines are critical. As a former television news producer, I became well acquainted with one of the most important rules in newswriting: Don’t bury the lead! In other words, when people first encounter your content, they should be lured in with a well-written headline that can quickly answer these three questions:

  • What are the “nuts and bolts” of this story?
  • Why is it important to me?
  • What will I miss if I don’t read it?

These rules hold true, not just for news, but for any kind of web content. Whether you consider headline writing to be more of an art or a science, there are seven relatively simple ways to give your headlines a boost and help increase your visibility:

1. Know your audience

If you don’t focus on your readers, it will be nearly impossible to grab their attention. Instead of asking yourself, “Would I want to read this?” ask, “Would my target audience want to read this?” If you’re 20 years old and single, you may not care a bit about babies’ toys — but a young mother likely does. So don’t bore her with a headline like “Educational Toys for Babies.” Appeal to her passions and emotion with a beefed-up version such as “10 Educational Toys No Baby Should Be Without.”

2. Grab attention, but be sure to deliver

Don’t lure in a tech-savvy reader or viewer with a great headline like “Awesome Gadgets That’ll Rock Your World” only to disappoint them with some wishy-washy content about run-of-the-mill electronics that everybody already knows about. Offer useful, honest information with real value. If there’s nothing new to tell your audience about these gadgets, don’t write about them. Keep digging until you come up with a story that has some teeth.

3. Don’t use ridiculous scare tactics

People don’t appreciate being scared into reading something. For example, if your story is about common childhood hazards and your headline reads: “Five Things That’ll Land Your Kid in the ER,” you need to rethink your tactics. You can write a good headline without sounding like a supermarket tabloid. “Five Quick Ways to Childproof Your Home” is more appropriate.

4. Be a tease

If you give away all of the important information in the headline, people won’t feel the need to read more. For example, the headline “High-Cholesterol Eggs May Lead to Heart Disease” gives away the entire story. Instead, something like “Breakfast Foods You Should Think Twice About” is more intriguing. It entices the reader to discover more.

5. Be brief

Get to the point as quickly and accurately as possible. In my experience, 10 words maximum is a good rule of thumb for headlines, and fewer is better. If your article is about the latest in-depth, scholarly findings on weight loss, it doesn’t mean the headline needs to be complex. Instead of choosing something like “XYZ-5R7 Increases Fatty-Acid Oxidation in Muscle of Middle-Aged Females,” choose a headline that simplifies: “Study: Women Lose 4 Pounds a Week Using New Supplement.”

6. Use numbers and lists

People are in a hurry. Using numbers in your headline gives them an idea of how quickly they’ll get the information they came for. It’s also good to present information in quick lists or a series of tips. For example, you could teach them “Five Easy Ways to Write Killer Headlines” or “Three Rules Every Successful Blogger Follows.”

7. Compare

It’s always helpful to see how your competition positions its content with headlines. If you’re writing a blog, take a look at the top blogs on Delicious, Digg, and other sites for inspiration.

An extra tip

I would go so far as to say that your piece should be crafted “around” the headline, rather than the other way around. Why? Because this makes it easier to deliver on the promise of your headline. If your headline accurately reflects the most important aspect of the story, then you’re more likely to craft a better introductory paragraph, strong supporting statements, valuable tips, and useful information. If the headline isn’t well reflected in the rest of your writing, then it’s time to rework the content until it is.

In a world where content is king, a good headline can help make you royalty.

Author: Beth Fox

Beth Fox is a senior natural search optimization copywriter at iCrossing, where she develops search-friendly content for clients of the global digital marketing agency. She has a writing background in print and broadcast media. Beth has a Master of Arts in interdisciplinary studies and a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook or on Twitter @bethiefox.

Other posts by Beth Fox

  • http://www.ferreemoney.com/blog/ Neil Ferree

    Beth, pretty handy headliner Tips. I’ve found that #4, #6 and #7 work best for my audience or maybe I’m partial to those 3x tactics since I myself like lists and comparisons and the “tease” tactics (if done well) prompts the reader to ask themselves “Oh Yeah”:: You sure about that”?

  • http://essaychampions.com/ buy essay

    Great!

  • Rose Eliff

    I love a writer who can be both complete and concise. The way you crafted each point and then provided a This-Way-Not-That type of comparison is very easy for readers to digest and know how to apply in their own work. Your points about being brief and positive are important; people generally scan (in an F-pattern) than read for content so the writer has to engage interest quickly and positively. And because readers scan, using lists or bullets provides white space that is easy on the eye when scanning, allowing the reader to easily note the highlights.
    Thank you; I really enjoyed this piece!

  • http://twitter.com/NenadSenic Nenad Senić

    Beth, a great clear post. And isn’t it amazing that all these applies to all tools at our disposal: print publications, blogs, even invitations to events, etc. However, I am not so sure about #3. It depends on a point of view of the “publication” and its target audience. Both examples you mentioned there seem fair game to me. What do you think? 

    • Beth Fox

      Hi, Nenad – Thanks for the feedback!
      In the case of #3, I think it all comes down to the first rule about knowing your audience (#1). Many teens/women magazines, for example, use scare tactics like that all the time and it seems to work for them (Why He Cheats on You, etc.) So, all the other rules come secondary to knowing your audience…afterall, you should know them better than anyone. Overall, though, I think it’s best to earn the trust of the group you’re targeting rather than scare them….so you can build a relationship with them.

  • http://twitter.com/AJamesEditing Amber James

    Hi Beth,

    I find that I usually come up with a topic for a blog post before I know the headline. Certainly a headline would help keep the post focused, but my copywriter brain just isn’t wired that way. I’ll give it a try though on my next blog post and see how it goes!

    Thanks for all the great suggestions and examples.

    Cheers,
    Amber

  • Guest

    This website has good content, but your web platform sucks. All your links get stuck waiting for outbrain.com. WTF is that? Speed it up or lose your audience.

  • Middle-aged female

    I agree with others, it’s a very well-written piece.   So, where can I get some XYZ-5R7?

  • http://www.pugetseo.com/ Seattle SEO

    Totally agree on writing content based on a great title than writing a title based on content. Interestingly, I have found that this usually leads to better, and more focused content. Not to mention more SEO friendly. Cheers!