The headline is what will determine whether you’ll get the click that brings you money. But how do you maximize readers without turning your title into formula-driven clickbait?
If you’re writing for the web, the headline is the most important part of your writing. They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but with billions of books out there competing for your attention, we need a way to discriminate somehow. Thus, the headline becomes chief among the factors we use to determine whether we’re going to click on a link and read on or discard it completely. It’s been reported that 8 out of 10 people will read a headline, but only 2 out of 10 will read on. With stakes that high, this part of writing deserves your utmost attention.
What is a Headline on the Web?
A headline, in simple terms, is a descriptor of the text that it precedes. Headlines follow rules and patterns, and the standards get more lax as you go from newspapers that contain serious journalism, to magazines, to the yellow press, and so on. All the way down on that list are web headlines, which are themselves stratified: serious journalism on top, Internet chum on the bottom. And since revenue online is click-dependent, clicks themselves become capital, and click-getting starts to rely on formula and code. Clickbait is born.
If you’ve been online for at least a few years, you’ve noticed headline trends and formulas already, and you’re intimately familiar with clickbait. Classic newspaper headlines are conveyed through a special grammatical style that’s engineered for brevity and objectivity (“Oregon Protesters Urged to Leave After Ammon Bundy Arrest“, “California: Brown Seeks Changes in Sentencing Laws” ), but this kind of style doesn’t work for non-news content. The #6 most popular post on Buzzfeed this week is entitled “John Krasinski Talking About How Much He Loves Emily Blunt Will Destroy You“. The newspaper headline for this article is “Man Loves Wife”, but this would inevitably get lost in the sea of “X unexpected ways to do Y”, so a promise is made: click here and you will be moved by how John Krasinski talks about loving his wife.
A headline is a promise of what’s going to happen when consuming the content. Everyone on the web reads first and foremost for the purpose of utility, and a headline should communicate what the reader will gain from reading the post. A perfect example of the “promise” is “23 Pictures That Will Make You Say ‘Huh.’“. When you click that link, you’re making a kind of a deal with the resource: you wrote this listicle, and I’m going to scroll through it and close it after maybe five pictures if they don’t make me say “huh”. That’s the thing about web headlines: it’s risky, but you can bounce checks here.
Use More Than One Headline
Follow any news outlet’s Twitter page, and you’ll see this in action. After an item is posted to their website, they’ll post tweets with links to it with different text attached to maximize RTs and clicks. The URL headline will often differ by a few words from the headline on the page, and the page title will sometimes be worded differently altogether, all to build SEO.
Then there are the subheaders – the third most important part of your article, right behind the main image. The subheads are what gets read most of the time: our eyes will scan the article quickly, we get the gist of what it is, and decide whether we want to invest our time reading something. If not, then tab gets closed. All this can be done in seconds, and readers are so accustomed to web content being useless garbage that they do it automatically. You probably did that with this article without even thinking about it.
Since you have the ability to use a few different headlines at the same time, you should use this to your advantage. Tinker with what work for the type of content you do and fit your headlines to the medium they’re in. For example, more emotionally charged headlines work for Twitter and Facebook, and shorter, less wordy one will work better for email.
What Your Headline Must Accomplish
You have one goal for your headline: describe the content accurately, in a way that will get the first sentence or lede read, and the rest perused. Again, you can use hyperbole and be misleading to a degree, but this is risky: if the article you’re promoting doesn’t meet the promise you’ve made more than a little bit, at best, the page is getting closed with the reader being disappointed. At worst, the page is getting closed, and the name of your site is logged into the reader’s brain as a substance-free content farm, and you’ll never get a second chance.
Your headline should convey how the article will affect a potential reader. If it’s a list of tools that can be used for productivity, then the title is “X Productivity-Boosting Tools You Haven’t Tried Before”. Including a number is a promise that it will only take a certain amount of time to take the information in, and the part about not trying these apps before is a way to convey utility and newness.
Try conveying a sense of urgency to pique interest. Not all headlines can be worded like this, but for the ones that can, it works beautifully: “The Illusory Correlation: A Common Mental Error That Leads to Misguided Thinking“. It’s impossible to read that headline and not think, “What if I make this error all the time? Better read what this is about”. The adjective “common” is used with precision, too. It strikes the hypochondria and insecurity part of your brain and works like a WebMd diagnosis. You’ve only read 12 words, and you’re already under the impression that the way you think is faulty, but the good news is the solution to this is right in front of you: just read that article and find out how to avoid errors in the way you think.
Problem-solution headlines work well, too. In some cases, they will be phrased as a question and an answer to it, like “Feeling Stuck? Here Are 9 Real Reasons You’re Not Getting Promoted“. Sometimes, the question the article answers is obvious without asking it, like “8 Reasons You Are Not Getting Ahead at Work“. This is part of the promise that’s discussed above: you’re going to find out why you’re not getting a promotion. Nevermind that the reason might be individual, these nine reasons are real. Modifiers, by the way, are a very quick way to lose trust. Compare “I love you” to “I really love you” and “I honestly, really, truly love you, I swear on my life”. One is fine, but you’ll hit a point of diminishing returns after that.
To get good at writing headlines, just observe them. See what’s popular, what’s trendy and what works best for the medium it’s in. Adjust for content type and quality: the title of a hot take should be a strongly worded statement, and the title for a news item about a study should only be as sensationalized as you’re comfortable with. Always be descriptive and non-deceptive, appeal to the reader’s need for useful information.
And most importantly, adjust to your audience. Some things that work for one demographic won’t work for another, and your goal should be to know what makes your audience tick.