Back to Basics: How to Write an Effective Headline

Back to Basics: How to Write Effective Headlines

Get tips on how to write an effective headline, a compelling window into whatever you are writing.
Article Outline

In any article or blog post or other piece of marketing content, headlines are very likely the first thing people see, next to the images. In fact, it may be one of the few things in the item that readers view, because, let’s face it, most just skim.

A few years ago, the Washington Post claimed roughly 40% of articles were consumed beyond the headline. Copyblogger sets that number even lower, stating that only 20% of articles get fully read.

In some cases, the headline is the only thing people read. According to Forbes, more than half will share an article after reading just the headline – so let’s hope you get it right.

Forbes goes on to say, “In a read article, headlines are one of the most powerful contributors to performance, and in a non-read article, it’s the only contributor to performance. As a result, headlines have become almost like articles in and of themselves.”

A headline needs to convey a lot in a little space. It must be catchy, state the theme or thesis of your piece, and make people want to read more.

“Your heading (headline, title) is the single most important thing you write on the Web,” says Gerry McGovern in his book Killer Web Content.

So, why is a headline often an afterthought? Something thrown together in a scramble when you get ready to post a piece?

Today, let’s take a little time to give headline writing the attention that it warrants.

What is a headline?

A headline is the window into the content as a whole. Whether you’re writing for print or web, marketing or journalism or advertising, you need to create some form of headline.

Traditionally, a headline is what is used at the start of journalistic articles and blogs. Whether we realize it or not, we write headlines nearly every day … in the form of email subject lines. Those nifty marketing taglines and campaign copy are also a form of headlines.

How long should a headline be?

The rule of thumb I swear by is: three to ten words per headline (though I aim for somewhere in the middle as much as possible). A five-to-seven word headline is my sweet spot.

In some cases, you need to be especially cautious of the word count – especially when you’re writing for the web or email. You want to be sure character count limitations don’t truncate your copy. Try to keep your email subject lines to 50 characters or under. As for web search results, depending on your browser and search engine, a headline may truncate at roughly 70 characters.

Remember, you may be able to offload some of those words into a sub-headline, too. If your design allows the luxury of using a subhead, take full advantage to add more content and context.

Characteristics of an effective headline

Headlines, as we know, need to be succinct, savvy, and snappy. A former boss used to strive to make sure all of her copy was “clear, concise, and correct.” Add “compelling” to that list and that’s a pretty apt way of describing the needs of a quality headline, too.

Headlines should be pithy and attention-grabbing

Your headline’s primary function is to draw the eye. To hook the reader, intriguing them enough so they read on. It may be witty, punny, or startling. So long as it is gripping and accurate, unleash your creativity.

Headlines convey factual information

What is your story about? What is the news angle – why you are writing this story now? Answer those questions, preferably in plain English, for a newsy headline. Be truthful, too. No one likes clickbait.

Employ keywords and SEO practices in your headline

Keywords are the business-appropriate or topically appropriate words that you’ve carefully woven throughout your story. They’re the stuff our skimmers are looking for when they scan an article. Keywords are also related to inciting action – a read – by using phrases that evoke the kinds of articles people love. For example, words like “Tips” or “How-To” can garner you a lot of reads.

Today we’re armed with new data that we never previously had – we know what words we want our customers to search for and also what they’re actually searching for. It’s a waste not to use them. If you’ve done your writing job well, your keywords should line up to the SEO words and phrases that are germane to your topic. If not, use your favorite SEO tool to search for the words and phrases that your readers are looking for that relate to your topic … and then weave them in.

Remember, too, that search engines weight headlines heavily. In web design, headlines receive H1 tags, which inform search engines what your page is about and help it show up in relevant results. The higher the tag and weighting, the better the chance you’ll be well ranked. Subheads get an H2 tag – only slightly lower in hierarchy – and can help reinforce what your page or article is about. That’s all the more reason to use the right keywords in your headlines and subheads.

But after you’ve done your research and written your SEO-friendly headline, read it to make sure that it reads well and makes sense, as well as engages. Don’t just string a bunch of keywords together and slap it on the page. Check to make sure it uses “human speak.”

How to write an effective headline

Using all of the above knowledge, you can craft your headlines effectively and expertly. Before you start, though, here are a few more tips and tactics to consider:

  • What’s your call to action (CTA), your raison d’etre? Usually CTAs go at the end of a post, but what if you stuck the call to action at the start? It sure would help you unveil the point – and intended action – of your piece.
  • Try brainstorming a list of keywords that you want or need to include. As a writer, this may be one of my favorite tricks. I love free associating and making lists, and my desk is full of notebooks with scribbles of words related to the project at hand. Pull out your thesaurus or other creativity-inducing tool and then get loose and clever.
  • It isn’t all about words, either. Try doing some quick math calculations with data from your story and create a headline that utilizes a number or percentage. For example, instead of saying “Most companies say marketing automation is worth the price,” attach a hard and fast data point – like “79% of users say marketing automation is worth it.” Depending on your medium and audience, you may be able to integrate emojis, too. They’re part of our modern language, after all. (But, if you decide to go this route, use the technique sparingly to avoid overkill.)
  • Test your headline. Have others read it, read it aloud, and even throw the headline into layout to make sure it fits. If you’ve got the bandwidth, organize an A/B test to see how well headlines perform. Less official but still effective, you can manually spot check to see which of your headlines get the most traffic, and look for similarities found in your best (or worst) performers.

If you’re still looking for more inspiration, read these great headline-writing tips from marketing guru Neil Patel.

When do you write the headline – and who writes it?

Some people swear by writing a headline first, so you can orient yourself to your story and stay on track. Others save the task for last.

Likewise, some say only the author should write the headline, while others insist that an unbiased writer (often a copyeditor) should pen the headline.

Honestly, I don’t follow a hard-and-fast rule. If you’re the sole author of your piece, carve out time and care to pen your headline, but otherwise write it at the cadence that works for you. Otherwise, if you’re part of a team with an assigned writer for headlines, stick to your company’s policy and workflow process.

Final checks

  • Beware of abbreviations and acronyms. If there’s any chance (and there is) that your shortcuts could be misconstrued, err on the side of caution and spell them out.
  • Can you condense wordage and space with a simple grammatical trick, like a dash or a colon? Try it out. But don’t make this so rote that it becomes a formula.
  • Can you – and should you – use punctuation for emphasis? If you wish to employ an exclamation point, for example, consider what message it sends your audience. Remember, there’s a subtle difference between attempted excitement and screaming unprofessionalism. (Aside: There’s an entire Seinfeld gag dedicated to the overuse of exclamation points that may be worth watching.)
  • Pay attention to the order of your words. This is a good principle for any writing, but it’s especially important in constructing headlines, where your words will show up in a bold font and a large point size.
  • See how your words work within the layout – both to check that they all fit, and also to make sure you’re not unintentionally making a gaffe or implication in the way your words interplay with any photos and art.

On a lighter note: the good, the bad, and the ugly headlines

To close this out, let’s look at some examples. The American Copy Editors Society runs a headline contest, which you can enter or peruse for inspiration.

In addition, if you need a giggle, take a break and search for “bad headlines” on the web. In fact, there are entire Tumblr blogs and Reddit threads dedicated to collecting poorly written headlines – some of which made me laugh out loud while working on this post.

What are your tips? I’d love to hear how you write effective headlines. Share one of your favorites in the comments.

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