Last updated 10/03/2016
They can make or break your post, email or web page. Imagine creating some cracking content, the best you’ve written yet then sitting back and waiting for it to be read, shared and commented on. And zilch happens. Tumbleweeds blow across your screen. Your article fizzles out joining thousands of other articles doomed to spend eternity floating unread and unloved in the ether…
Slightly dramatic, I know. But in reality if your headline doesn’t sparkle and grab attention then chances are it won’t be read by many people. So here’s my first secret – don’t even think about writing a great piece then sticking a bland headline on at the end. A generic or sub-standard headline just won’t do your writing justice.
What’s the point of your headline?
Ultimately, the point of your headline is to get the next line read according to Joe Sugarman, legendary direct mail innovator. And that’s it.
Headlines are on average, read by 8 out of 10 people. Only 2 out of 10 go on to read the rest of your information. So a good headline is vital. If your headline doesn’t encourage your reader to continue to read the rest of what you have to say, then your headline isn’t doing its job and as we’ve already noted, your words will soon be missing in action with all that other content in the black hole of the internet.
Great headlines are the key to getting people to read your message
A powerful headline will capture attention, generate interest or curiosity and influence the reader to look further at the artwork or body of your message. People are busy and are bombarded with more information than they can possibly handle. Here’s a sobering statistic for anyone looking to get their message across:
In 2013 social media users consumed an average of 285 pieces of content per day with up to 1,000 clickable links being offered. That’s a huge amount!
The headline therefore, is a key element to your content and vital to its success. Only a compelling headline will cut through the avalanche of information and grab readers’ attention. Ann Handley in her book Everybody Writes goes so far as to say that writers should spend as much time on the headline as on the writing.
The headline is not the metaphorical cherry on top… the icing on the cake, or finishing flourish. It tells the audience what you are going to deliver, and how you are going to deliver it, and why they should keep reading.
5 tips for creating a great headline
Think about where your headline is being used
If writing online, use keywords to help your search engine ranking, though write for humans first and foremost or your wording may sound strange! Also keep your headline under 70 characters if possible. Writing for print? Use long headlines freely, they work just as well as short ones
Make a promise
Your headline should be offering some kind of reward for reading on. Whether this is in the form of useful tips, entertainment or otherwise, you need to give an indication of how your reader will benefit from taking the time to read your words. Make sure you deliver on that promise!
Numbers immediately hook the reader’s interest. Using the numeric form e.g. ‘5’ over its written form ‘five’ also works better online and appears to drive more traffic. Numbers are good as they promise something specific that you can deliver on. It also helps to make your information more organised, allowing for easier reading – a bonus to your busy reader. Equally, lists work well as they give a quantifiable return on time invested to read the material.
The curiosity gap
This is the gap between what people know and what they want or need to know and used well is a particularly powerful technique. Humans are curious creatures – take Pandora’s Box for example. Or Lot’s wife who knew that turning back would result in her death, but she just couldn’t quell that curiosity. Creating a curious headline can provide a helpful trigger to your reader – think ‘8 surprising ways to keep your toddler entertained on rainy days’. These ways do need to be something new though or you risk disappointing your reader.
Which leads us on to the much discussed trend in stretching the curiosity gap to its limits…
Avoid being click-bait
Buzzfeed and Upworthy have made their businesses successful by using irresistible, weird headlines – think of the headline that finishes ‘you won’t believe what happens next’ or ‘you won’t believe what he found’. Yeah, you know the ones. They take the curiosity gap to the extreme. These curiosity-arousing headlines make us want to know what they found or what happens next, just like when we read a story and want to know the ending. But the problem is they erode your audience’s trust in you. The headlines are misleading and don’t deliver on their promise; how often do you really find out something amazing from these stories?
If you want to build a relationship with your audience, I suggest you avoid these link-bait type headlines.
So with these tips in your tool box, go forth and create – just remember to respect your headline (oh and test out a few to see how they work on different platforms).