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.”
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.