It may just be a few words, but the headline is the most important part of your blog post or article. After all, it’s the first thing potential readers see and more often than not the ONLY thing they read–according to data, 80 percent of users never make it past the headline. That disconcerting stat makes for high-stakes when you consider you have just a glance to communicate the who, what, where, and why of your story.
While there are always exceptions for creativity, there are certain tried-and-true “rules” for crafting headlines that clearly communicate why a reader should click and share your article or video. Here are nine tips for writing headlines that not only do your content justice, but perform on the web.
1. Before you do anything, write your headline. Then write at least three more versions.
The number one mistake I’ve made over the course of ten years of writing for the web is trying to write an article before I have an idea of what the headline will be. For starters, a title is a gut-check for whether the article is even worth writing. You can save yourself a ton of time (and wild goose chases) if you start with the headline because it will guide your research and writing.
Headlines also require just as much editing and rewriting as anything in your article. Sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy, which regularly tinker with and test multiple headlines prove just how important this step is for online success. In an ideal world, we’d be able to A/B test multiple headlines for each article and learn from the results. But even if you don’t have an analytics team at your disposal, the simple practice of writing several versions and running them by friends will help you remix until you find one that’s clear, concise, and compelling.
Alternatives for this story might be: X Tips for Writing Better Headlines, How to Write Headlines that Get Clicks, X Ways to Craft Headlines that Perform on the Web, X Rules for Writing Headlines That Get Clicks, X Rules for Click-able Headlines, X Headline Writing Rules Everyone Needs to Know. While I’m just making an educated guess, I felt the version I went with satisfied the next eight rules the best and included keywords to help boost SEO.
2. Think of your readers as alien toddlers.
All too often, headlines appear written for the writer who has the benefit of already knowing and understanding the material, instead of the reader who is likely scanning content in a never-ending newsfeed.
A simple way to avoid writing anything too opaque or confusing is to think of your readers as alien toddlers: They know absolutely nothing about your world and they have attention spans only slightly greater than a flies.
That doesn’t mean you’re insulting their intelligence, but this silly exercise can mean the difference between writing an obscure title that assumes the reader knows what you’re talking about and writing a headline that conveys what the user will read and why they should care.
3. Say it straight.
While cliff-hanger titles and elements of mystery have their upsides, data suggests that explicit headlines have the highest conversion rates. Readers want to know what they’re going to read before they commit to jumping out of their all-too-enticing newsfeeds, waiting for the content to load, clicking out of ads, and declining to sign up for newsletters or offers. Remember: readers are toddlers–they’re impatient. As such, don’t make your readers guess what the story is about. Headlines should be descriptive, informative, and as simple as possible. Leave the clever turns of phrases for the body of the article or for the sharing copy to add a bit of personality.
For example, this Page, “5 Best Ways to Speed Up Your Recovery” does a great job of clearly and succinctly naming the article with keyword terms, numbers, and a value statement. The body of the content also delivers: each panel discusses a way to recover from an intense workout.
4. Use numbers to set up lists.
Numbers provide quantifiable value and specificity, telling your reader in just a few characters what they’re going to get. “9 Ways to Write Better Headlines” is more enticing than “How to Write Better Headlines,” despite largely saying the same thing, because it shows the reader they’ll read a list–and web readers LOVE lists.
5. Choose simple keywords over complicated synonyms.
Jargon in general alienates your audience, but there’s a more tactical reason for eschewing trading big words for simpler synonyms: it’s not how people search for content on the web. You don’t need to be a SEO (search engine optimization) expert to win this one–all you need to do is think about the words you’d type into Google to find your article and try to use those words in your headline. Beware, though–Google is getting increasingly clever about keyword padding. Make sure that above all you’re writing like a human, not a machine.
6. Keep it short and sweet.
Readers tend to scan headlines the same way they scan articles, meaning the first word and the last word are the most important. Also keep in mind that Facebook truncates long headlines around the 65 character mark, often burying your title’s punchline. Instead of sweating character counts and word limits, make sure each word is pulling its weight. Editing, especially small groups of texts like headlines, is tricky and takes multiple reads with breaks in between. That’s why I always start with a few headlines, write the story, then return to the headlines to make edits. Guaranteed once you take a break, you’ll see where you can make adjustments when you return.
7. Turn your headline into a graphic.
Text alone no longer cuts it. In order to stand out on the web, it seems writers and marketers also need to be photographers and designers in order to have a shot at getting their work noticed. Compelling images and appealing typography can go a long way in making your words sing and garnering clicks–especially on social media channels. Instead of keeping your opening image and headline separate, consider overlaying the image with words so that your headline becomes boosted by something eye-catching. This tactic also gives you room to use the creative phrase or clever turn of words on the image, while letting your URL and headline do the heavy SEO lifting. This strategy works great for visual platforms such as blogs, Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook. And when you use Spark Post, it requires absolutely no actual design skill.
8. Deliver on your headline’s promise
A sure-fire way of losing readers and worse yet–diminishing trust in your brand–is over-promising and under-delivering. Your headline is a promise or indication of what follows, so it should be accurate as well as enticing. If after you’ve written the piece, the body of the content doesn’t address your headline, then it’s time to re-think one or the other. It’s tempting to drum up clicks with superlative terms and or click-bait phrases, but ultimately that tactic damages your authority. Like the little girl who cried wolf, you don’t want to be the writer or marketer that cries “life-changing” or “unbelievable” when the content is only mildly interesting.
9. Make sure your headline answers the “so what?”
A sufficient headline tells the reader what they’re going to get in a concise way, while a great headline shows readers why they should care. Often accomplishing the “so what” of a title is as simple as adding a qualitative adjective before a noun, piggy-backing on a timely event, or creating a sense of urgency. For example, this article could have been titled 9 Rules for Writing Headlines, but in this rendition, it’s less clear why anyone should read it. Adding “that Get Clicks” shows the reader they could improve on something.