How To Nail The Perfect Headline – Every Time

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How To Nail The Perfect Headline – Every Time
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The power of the headline is as strong as ever: as I walked into the supermarket, my periphery vision picked up the words: BACK, SACK, CRACK.

It was The Sun’s front-page coverage of David Moyes’ dismissal as manager of Manchester United, and the sub editors had crafted a three-tier headline solely, it seemed, to crowbar in the following triple whammy:

Moyes: I was stabbed in the… BACK
7.40am: He’s summoned for… SACK
Share probe as Utd start to… CRACK

Nothing subtle about it, certainly crude – I wouldn’t have been particularly comfortable being the guy who signed that off – but definitely eye-catching: sitting there on the display stand, it was the only newspaper I paid any attention to. In fact, I walked over to it to read more, drawn in by the extreme close-up of Moyes’ pained face alongside ‘Back, Sack, Crack’.

“What further indignity has been foisted on the dethroned Manchester United coach now?” I thought. Was this some kind of awful, peculiarly twisted, leaving party, the opposite to an initiation ceremony? Hadn’t United’s under-performing players hurt Moyes enough, without having to dispense this manner of humiliation?

Of course, it was nothing of the sort. It was only a headline. But it had grabbed my attention, piqued my curiosity, drawn me in sufficiently enough to investigate further. It didn’t result in its ultimate goal, a conversion to sale, but that said more about my reading preferences than the pull of the headline. Like so many consumers of media in 2014, I only occasionally buy a printed version of a newspaper, and never The Sun.

Whatever my opinion on the product, it didn’t stop me acknowledging the ‘quality’ of the headline. Yes, it used low-grade language but did a top-class job. Weeks on, as I write this in the middle of June, it’s still drifting around in my consciousness. Proof of its impact. If that had been a headline to an online article, would I have clicked on it and read the piece? Absolutely; no doubt about it.

In the earlier part of my journalistic career, when it was all about putting words on paper, and making them shout as loudly as possible in order to be ‘heard’ from a packed, groaning newsstand, creating headlines was one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. I worked in football magazines then, and while the final decision was ultimately the editor’s, it was open season when it came to headlines, and particularly on the cover. We’d bat suggestions around the office, trying to be as catchy and clever as possible: there wasn’t a lot of science to it. We usually just went with what felt right, what sounded good – and what made us laugh.

But what might have been snappy and smart, and amusing to the staff working on the title, wasn’t perhaps the same as effectively reaching out to the target reader and hauling them over to the magazine. It’s too easy to lose sight of the primary objective of headlines if the writer becomes obsessed with puns.

Conceiving headlines for the online world is a different beast. Or is it? I’d argue essentially not. Creating and producing quality content draws on many, if not all, of the same skills as traditional journalism, and the marketplace is just as crowded: not the packed shelves of a high street newsagent or supermarket, but the infinite galaxy of Google.

When I first started writing online content – typically websites which acted as the digital versions of the print magazines I worked on – I was dismayed when web developers would change the headlines I created to bald statements: ‘David Beckham Interview’, for example. For me, this took away all creative journalism skill and although I understood it was to maximise SEO keywording, it still felt uninspiring and bland.

Online content has evolved since then, thankfully, with the onus on well-crafted, readable material. Although the writer should still include the keywords which pack the biggest punch – you would never omit his name if you had interviewed David Beckham – to stand out from the rest of the competition, the headline has to work.

In this case, type exactly that phrase – ‘David Beckham Interview’ – into Google, and see what comes up on the opening page. I did. The first few, in order of appearance, were:
David Beckham Retirement Interview with Gary Neville
David Beckham interview: Becks gushes about wife Victoria
BBC Sport – David Beckham – watch the full interview
David Beckham interview: ‘I feel this pang of regret…’
Interview – Beckham by Beckham
David Beckham Interview – Esquire

Take your pick. One of these stands out hugely to me. The Daily Mail’s David Beckham interview: ‘I feel this pang of regret…’ is begging to be read. It combines the vital elements, the fact that it has an interview with one of the world’s most famous sportsmen, with a teasing quote from the subject. A pang of regret? A pang of regret about what? Click!

I used the same approach when researching this piece, and it’s always a worthwhile exercise, whether you’re struggling for a headline, or simply looking to get a finer grasp of what is effective, and what is popular.

So: I typed ‘headline writing tips’ into the search engine and, while loathe to criticise any article which achieves page one on Google, there were certainly some which leapt out more than others. There were some solid staples on there: Writing Effective Headlines; Writing Great Headlines in Journalism; How to Write Effective Headlines; 16 Resources For Writing Great Headlines.

I didn’t click on any of them. Instead, I read:

5 Easy Tricks to Write Catchy Headlines
How to Write Magnetic Headlines
10 bitchin’ tips for writing irresistible headlines

The trigger words which flicked my switch are easy enough to spot – Easy, Catchy, Magnetic, Irresistible. Yes, and bitchin’ – not a word I’ve spoken or written (until now) but it amused me, so I assumed the author was witty, and I wanted to read more.

Now, the content on the articles I didn’t access might be superbly insightful and brilliantly presented, but I’ll never know, and this is the harsh truth that any writer, copy writer, editor must be aware of now. On the opening page of How to Write Magnetic Headlines, the excellent ebook from copyblogger.com, come the words which should cause many a writer to break into a sweat:

Your headline is the first, and perhaps only, impression you make on a prospective reader.

Without a compelling promise that turns a browser of your content into a reader of your content, the rest of your words may as well not even exist. So, from a copywriting and content marketing standpoint, writing great headlines is a critical skill.

On average, 8 out of 10 people will read your headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest.

The challenge is evident. The trick is to convince those other six people to follow the headline, and read the majority of your work.

So, how do you do that? Here are a few ideas:

Numbers
Numbers have long been used in headlines because they work. The 100 Greatest Films of All Time; 101 money saving tips; the 10 cities you must visit in 2014. Any number is usable, and sometimes the most random works because it stands out: 99 awesome cocktail recipes; 57 ways to get a six-pack. Numbers in a headline suggest good value to the content – ‘there are 99 different cocktail recipes? Wow!’

How….
Which can be adapted to How To, as well. This is almost too easy. After all, think of all the individuals who browse the internet, looking for answers and solutions to common problems – an article with a ‘How to…’ headline is like drawing a moth to a flame. So: Carpet Cleaning Tips is out – How to get any stain out of your carpet is in. ‘How’ headlines educate and inform.

… Why
Commonly used when asking a question, instead use ‘why’ to make an authoritative statement headline. This might carry more than a hint of controversy, too. If I were writing a piece on shopping for a new laptop, for example, and believed the best option was a MacBook, instead of What Computer Should I Buy? I’d be inclined to go with: Why you should never buy a PC again.

Powerful adjectives
Go hard or go home in the world of the headline writer. Strong adjectives win, every time – words which dominate the screen: incredible, outrageous, astonishing, essential, awesome, revealed. Going back to my headline writing research, I found an article by Jeff Bercovici of Forbes titled: These Five Astonishing Headline Writing Secrets Will Make You Cry, Or At Least Click. Were they astonishing? No (though they were very good). But I clicked, and read his work.

Teasers
Creating curiosity with a headline guarantees further investigation. If not searching for specific information, browsers are mooching around, looking for something worth reading. Any suggestion of secrets, tricks or mystery acts as a great hook: The Secret to the Perfect Body or Revealed: Cheryl’s Ideal Partner. 

Ask a question
Even better, make it controversial. A question headline really opens the floor for people to comment and if you’re a blogger, this can be particularly effective.

For example, after watching Leo Messi struggling to make an impact in Argentina’s opening match of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, against Bosnia & Herzegovina, if I wanted to grab attention, drive some traffic to my blog, and draw comment, I’d mix a question with a controversial statement. Something that I know is sure to fire people up a little:

Messi: is he the world’s most overrated footballer?

The fact Messi scored a wonderful goal in the second half makes it even more tempting, for I’d know his name would be trending. Messi Wonder Goal Seals Argentina Win captures the story of the match neatly enough, but it’s a standard headline at best, and lazy at worst. It doesn’t inspire, and it doesn’t stand out above the online noise.

While the first headline is a little mischievous, it’s been created to pique interest. If I had actually written a piece on that subject, the content would cover the huge expectations that Messi carries on his shoulders, and how any slight dip in form, even for 45 minutes, can trigger a wave of negative reaction.

Time
We’re all time poor, struggling to squeeze in our weekly obligations with work, home and family, and then trying to find a bit of leisure time on top. Anything which hints at getting a task done, in uber-quick speed, appeals. And this can work depending on the job to hand: Delicious Recipes in Ten Minutes; Create your Dream Bedroom in 24 hours.

Trending topics
This is a great way of making what might just be considered a stock article into a fresh, topical piece of content. A great recent example is this blog on Hubspot – essentially a multiple choice quiz to determine an individual’s management style, it’s been given a modern makeover by being titled Which Game of Thrones Leader Are You? Linking the article to the current most popular TV show: a subtle stroke of genius.

Create winning combinations
Even better than using one of the suggestions above, you can blend two or three to create seriously impactful headlines. Examples include:
Revealed – the 25 best-kept holiday destination secrets
101 delicious recipes you can whip up in less than ten minutes
10 guaranteed ways to sell your house this weekend
Why The Sopranos is TV’s greatest ever show
6 reasons why David Cameron will be remembered as the UK’s best ever Prime Minister

I’ll conclude by handing over to David Moth, Deputy Editor of Econsultancy, and the author of 10 bitchin’ tips for writing irresistible headlines. His opening gambit summarises the challenge of the headline perfectly:

Can you see what I did there? A headline needs to grab the reader’s attention and make it impossible for them to resist finding out more.

If this post had been titled ‘How to write a headline’ then it’s more likely you would have ignored it, but now here you are, reading my bitchin’ tips.

By the way, the working title of this blog piece was Headline Writing for Conversion. Be honest: would that headline have enticed you to read on?

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