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9 Things About Writing Headlines Your Teacher Wouldn’t Tell You

You know when you write a great blog post, or have great copy for an ad, but you just can’t seem to find the right way to capture its essence? You rack your brain trying to come up with something creative and funny for the title or headline that will resonate with your target audience, making them want to read more. But it just doesn’t come to you. You fear you’ll be dreaming about what to name that piece of writing all night, and you still won’t have an answer in the morning.

Well, fear those sleepless nights no longer (at least as far as headlines are concerned). Portent’s Content Idea Generator can help even the least creative writer get motivated, and have a whimsical title. For instance, I wanted to give our blog readers an idea of why headlines and titles are the most important part of your blog post, post on Facebook, landing page or any other channel you use to engage your audience with marketing. However, I was having a little writer’s block, or lack of motivation, of my own. So I turned to the Portent generator for help. I typed in “writing headlines” and here is what I got:

This has whim, mystery and logic that would have taken me a lot longer than the Portent algorithm, but I liked it and went with it. So, with no further ado, here are the nine things about writing headlines your teachers (or professors) wouldn’t tell you, in no particular order:

  1. You need to include keywords.

    If Google doesn’t rank you, people won’t find it. A catchy headline may turn heads, but if you’re writing content for a specific audience that is searching for your topic, unfortunately catchy doesn’t rank, unless the search includes “catchy.”

  2. Headlines with numbers are annoying as heck, but it works, so use them.

    It definitely irked me to use “9” in this headline, not only because it goes against the AP Style beaten into my head in journalism school, but it’s plain annoying. Do I or anybody else really have the authority to say that these are the absolute nine best strategies for writing a headline? Absolutely not. We have all seen top three, five, 10, 20 lists, and we click on them because it is human nature to rank things. And then people like to disagree and say, “Well I think the number one reason orchids are hard plants to maintain is _____________.”  These types of numbers and lists are arbitrary, but they’re appealing to the human eye. Even better, use a different number, like 37 (greatest number in the world by the way).

  3. Clever, cheesy, alliterative and pun-filled headlines only work on the right audience.

    Just because you and your grandma like a headline, it does not mean it’s good. Sense of humor and personality partially account for whether an audience reads further. If you want your audience to read your content, you need to write a headline that speaks to that persona type.

  4.  Size matters.

    Big, bold typeface and fonts grab your attention, but there’s a fine line between “this looks like an interesting read” and “that hurts my eyeballs and I’m not reading this out of principle.” Make sure you use an appropriate size, whether you’re posting digitally or in print. Okay, your teacher probably did teach you that one, but she didn’t phrase her subheading quite the same.   

  5. Going through your creative “process” will waste a lot of time.

    Some people have the ability to churn out light bulb ideas in a matter of minutes. They hear an idea, have a loose plan within an hour and a great headline soon thereafter that their coworkers think is genius (but secretly resent). Some aren’t so lucky. Members of the latter group have developed processes and think time and strategies so they can come close to that person who has the natural talent of rattling light bulb ideas.

    I’m not knocking those methods, but they come at a price of time, and when you have 50 deadlines on your plate, time is not a luxury you have to write headlines. Plus, if you’re posting digitally and you don’t get traffic, you can always change the title if a better idea comes along. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned that my perfectionist college and high school self would slap my sarcastic real-world self in the face for is the 80/20 rule (derived from Pareto’s Principle):  80 percent of your time and energy should be spent on the 20 percent of the work that’s really important.

  6.  Make it snappy.

    A headline should be short and sweet. At first glance you want your reader to know what the article is about, but you don’t want it to be a mouthful. You also want to write a headline that can be shared with social media networks, which means you have less than 140 characters for a comment, headline and link. A long headline can end up confusing customers or turning them away. Here’s an example of a press release turned article in which the headline was never changed:

    “New Evidence Links BP to the Controversial Elimination of Protected Wild Mustangs From Federally Mandated Land in Several Western US States”

    That’s a lot to absorb in a glance, and definitely longer than 140 characters. I also already know what the whole article is about, why take the time to read it?

  7. Slang is okay to use in headlines.

    This statement is a total lie, and hopefully no teacher ever said it was okay, unless the content in your article is entirely dedicated to defining a slang term. I could go on a tirade about slang, spelling and grammar, but John Green does a much better job in 38 Common Spelling and Grammar Errors. (I really wish he had done 37 though.) Just don’t do it. It makes you look like an idiot.

  8. Relevance is more important than cleverness.

    If somebody came across “Kittens Kill with Hummingbird,” he may pass it along because it’s a funny title. But let’s say this headline is the title of an article about the Google Hummingbird update and its effects on SEO strategy. It also happens to have a line or two in the article about the fact that kitten videos will continue to rank high despite the update. The relevant point is lost on the reader. Not to mention the article will have a much harder time getting ranked when people actually want to know more about the Google Hummingbird update.

  9. Mystery and intrigue almost always pique interest.

    If you already have a solid foundation of followers and aren’t relying on people searching for your headline topic, headlines with mystery and intrigue that naturally make the reader want more are great. Take for example the latter portion of this posts headline, “…your teacher wouldn’t tell you.” The mystery in that:  why wouldn’t my teacher tell me if it can help me write a great headline? Hopefully it worked and you read every sentence of this post with glee.

Now that you have made it through all nine elements of writing a headline that I deemed important enough to place on the list, let me know if you agree, which one(s) you think are most important, and what else you would have added.


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