How to write great headlines

writing thoughts The three principles of writing headlines I mentioned in my last post were target the reader, show a benefit, and be specific. For targeting the reader, focus on relevant keywords in your headlines. Mostly you’ll do this naturally, but some writers can’t resist that pun. But resist you must, because your fast-trigger web reader doesn’t have time for confusion.

You’ll notice the title of this post is fairly straightforward. It’s not too snazzy, but it gets the point across quickly. On the web, it’s more important to be clear, or clear enough to not confuse the reader with an obscure play on words.

Print journalists traditionally love the clever headline, but they were losing readers online. Check out this article on eConsultancy called The Journalist’s Guide to SEO for a good explanation.  Explanatory headlines work best on the web, and keep in mind that most marketing or news content ends up online eventually.

1. Gain attention with one or more keywords that are relevant to the reader and to the subject of the copy.

It’s not just for search engine optimization. Clearly written, relevant headlines make readers pay attention. That’s not to say you can’t be creative, but make sure at least one relevant keyword is in the headline.

2. Sustain attention by promising a benefit, either explicitly stated in the headline or by pointing to the copy.

A benefit stated in the headline whets the reader’s appetite as to what they stand to gain to read further. That’s why “tips” articles work so well.

A famous headline that illustrates a subtle benefit using curiosity is Do You Make These Mistakes in English? Curiosity headlines can be risky because they are by nature vague.

You also risk losing your reader if you ask a question that could have a “no” answer; if the answer is no, the reader will not read any further. But in the question above, you don’t know the answer until you read the copy. The benefit is subtle, but implies that you’ll be smarter once you find out what these mistakes are.

3. Headlines should not be too long or too short; eight words or less is usually best.

While there is no hard and fast rule for the length of headlines, studies of the most effective advertising headlines showed the average length is eight words or less. Whether you’re selling or telling, how do you make a headline longer or shorter so that it’s just right?

If you have written a targeted, benefit-oriented headline that is simple and direct, you can try adding more specificity to it. Numbers, statistics, and descriptive adjectives can be used to add specificity. For example, in my headline, the words “how to” are the benefit, because they promise useful information. My keyword is “headlines” and my specificity word is “great.”

You can read about the use of short headlines in this article by CopyBlogger. Author Brian Clark points out that tweeting is a lot like writing headlines, packing a lot of attention-getting power in a short statement. That’s why it’s useful to study advertising headlines, many of which have been tested over time. A headline is like an ad for your copy.

Most people write the headline first, but consider your first headline a working title. If you’re writing about an evergreen topic like this one, you can do what I did. Put a half dozen versions of your headline into the Google Keyword Tool search engine and see which one is most popular. Always review your headline after you finish writing. You can usually improve it.

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