I was at an event yesterday where writing effective headlines came up, so I thought I’d pull something together in my own words based on what I’ve learned so far.
Headlines are massively important because… well, how do you use the web? Do you work through search results or follow links to pages, then read each one slowly and carefully to find all the good stuff? If you do you’re quite unusual!
The internet trains us to have short attention spans, because there’s so much info and we want to focus our time on the best resources for our needs right now. So we filter aggressively, scanning a small amount of info at the top of a page and moving on unless we get cues to stick around.
Headlines are the key to what’s on that specific page, alongside what the site’s title and branding tells us about its topics and style. Also, headlines are often what gets us to click through from a social media post to check the article out. So as you might expect, there are a lot of resources on this for online marketers – like Copyblogger, which has a handy guide on template headlines in its download library.
For this post, I want to boil some of that down to quick principles. Here goes!
1. Zone of connection
You need to establish a mental ballpark that the reader feels connected to. “This is about stuff that’s relevant to people like me”, or, “Nothing to see here, move along”.
What are they looking for? Is there some need, or source of pain or dissatisfaction, that they’re looking to answer? Might they want to improve their skills, or see another informed viewpoint on something they often think about? It’s crucial to sell the benefit(s) here. Don’t be cagey or clever about what they can get out of your article. Copyblogger says that people don’t really want to learn how to do more stuff: they want ways to cope with what’s already on their plate by making it quicker, easier, simpler, clearer and cheaper.
Who are they? Make the language match your intended audience. For example, 3 tips to improve SEO for better Google rankings and 3 tips for writing posts that show up in Google search might be about more or less the same topics, but the first sounds like its written for folks with online marketing savvy and the second is pitched at beginners who want simple, practical tips in plain English.
2. Point of suspense
Make your title ask a question, and leave it hanging. That creates a tension so that we continue reading to get the resolution. Our brains like to fit things into patterns, and get antsy when they can’t. Stories work on sequences of tension and resolution, and so does music.
It doesn’t have to be phrased explicitly as a question, like What do expert bloggers know that you don’t? It can be an implicit one, like How I doubled my blog traffic within a week: we want to know how you did it.
An easy way is to include one of the classic question words in the headline: who, what, when, where, how, why. You can sow doubt, like Do you make these basic flyfishing mistakes?, though that can feel a bit disempowering. Another way is to intrigue by making unusual associations, like Lions, roller skates and customer service. I just made that up randomly, but if you saw it used for real the tension would come from wondering how those elements connect together.
This also relates to your distinctive approach and experience. If you can convey a clear benefit in an area familiar to the reader that’s delivered in a way they haven’t seen before, you may be on to something. Building your brand – insights from my twenty years as an undertaker. Would you be intrigued to check out what that perspective can tell you? Similarly, opening a story can make us want to connect the dots: How a flat tyre raised £60,000.
3. Portion size
Most people online, most of the time, want fast food. They want the promise of being able to get to the good stuff with minimum commitment and then move on.
I think that’s what numbers in titles do. You see them all the time: You can look like a Yorkshireman in 7 easy steps (sometimes called “list posts”). It promises that your content is a finite thing that doesn’t require a major investment. Numbers also suggest definite benefits or learning points (so do make sure you deliver those). The downside with putting numbers in your headline is that it’s so common people may filter it as “shallow marketing attempt”. So don’t overuse it, and make sure it doesn’t make your post sound cheap. (This may be more of an issue in the UK, where we are more sensitive to flashy or over the top marketing messages than US folks seem to be.)
How else can you suggest snack portions? Your headline could include elements like quick, rapid, in a nutshell, primer, simple…
Sometimes people may want a full three-course meal. That’s most likely if they’ve already got to know you and find some aspect of your thinking intriguing. They want you to draw it out more. If you mention something as an aside in social media and are surprised by the number of responses, it might be time for one of these. Generally, though, keep them much less frequent.
So now all you have to do is capture those in just a few well-chosen words! I think everybody’s in a learning process here. Keep an eye out for other people’s headlines and try to see what they’re doing. Each article you post is an opportunity to practice.
And yes, the headline for this article is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Try for more subtlety and less kitchen sink than that!