Valuable tips to help you write compelling headlines

Valuable tips to help you write compelling headlines

Rosie Hayes

Rosie Hayes
20th December 2017

In the headlong, reckless pursuit of clicks on articles, blog and email titles can be reduced to clickbaity nonsense. But this reductive form of language, even when it seemingly complies with common trends, can deviate from its underlying goal. Due to the short-attention span of all people interacting with online sources, the need for concise, pithy text has created a fear of flexibility resulting in many titles not corresponding with their subsequent content, or simply existing to drive traffic whilst its supporting material offers nothing of value.

In these instances, readers are subjected to confusion in a game of content competing for clicks, or mislead due to the disparity between headline and content. With the former, it doesn’t matter if the reader is confused; in fact, it doesn’t matter if there is no content beyond the title because the intention was to get the reader to a certain page. In contrast, the latter types of headline simply don’t parallel the supporting copy, and headlines based on previous codifications will lend themselves to irrelevancy. If you’re reading this, chances are your material exists to offer something of value, and your concern is that your current headlines don’t function as effectively as they should.

It’s good that you’re here. Being driven to align your headlines as powerful descriptors with valuable copy is a good sign that you hold a mutual concern for your standards and your readers.

The aforementioned goal, which should be the goal of all headline writers, is to exemplify and manifest the spirit of the article as a whole. Think of it as an enticing foundational prop that can succinctly summarise the point of the content, without being tautological.

Here are some of my top tips for writing better headlines:

Write the headline before writing the supporting content

This can have a fantastic focusing effect, even if the initial title you create is only a working title. If you craft your copy after writing your headline, it can help you tremendously to stick to this topic and avoid a discursive, tangential rambling that goes all over the place. I highly recommend this option, especially to non-professional writers.

Write the headline after writing the supporting content

I sometimes play around with titles after having written the content, so as to fine-tune them and make sure that they’re as relevant as possible. If you find that your content is more niche than first expected, your title should reflect that, so you can apply pliancy to your phrasing.

Funnel down

Think about the essence of the content and what it’s actual function is. It should be clear once you have your content what the piece is about, who it is aimed at, and what readers will get from reading it. The term ‘get’ doesn’t have to be tangible, your piece could be intending to inform, inspire, teach, show, illustrate, and more, so the keyword here is purpose. By thinking about your audience and their needs and interests, this may also elucidate further vocabulary that will personalise your headlines, making them more interesting and relevant to them. Being specific is great in headlines, asserting precisely what you want to convey, and will allow you to appeal to the right audience whilst having a unique offering.

Once you have thought about this, you can begin to extract words that are applicable for your title, and shuffle these around as necessary.

Optimise your headline

Last but not least, Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) will most likely be a concern for you when writing online. Try to work in any relevant search terms without them sounding awkward or out of place. If you need more help with SEO search terms, see this previous article and video on optimising blog content here:

There’s no need to craft a headline that follows a specific SEO pattern and ends up sounding like ‘You should all do XX number of things to get better XX, together, right now!’. Audiences simply won’t fall for these listicle tactics anymore, and will ask ‘why?’. Numbers and lists aren’t bad, but the structure of a headline, especially if it appears as a mess of buzzwords, will implicitly reveal itself as an audacious scam to drive page views. Use SEO keywords only where applicable and relevant.

Good headline examples:

‘Guardian and Observer charity appeal hits £250,000 in five days’

Why this works: It states the company, what it’s doing (an appeal), and what it has achieved financially so far. The ‘five days’ adds a short space of time without being numerical clickbait, instead enforcing the impact of the appeal. It states what the article is about without telling all, leaving the reader wondering about how the appeal has achieved such a feat, and what the appeal is for.

‘Patagonia Lawsuit Against Trump Ratchets Up Growing Trend Of CEO Activism’

Why this works: It states that CEO activism is a trend that is both present and growing, something that the audience may not be familiar with. It uses a famous name and a timely legal action without being irritating.

‘What Your Innovation Process Should Look Like’

Why this works: It’s authoritative without sounding outlandish. It promises that the writers know the best and most effective process of innovation, and as such implies you’ll learn something useful from reading the article.

‘Presenting facts as ‘consensus’ bridges conservative-liberal divide over climate change’

Why this works: It implies that expert research or data can impact people across the political spectrum on a still debated issue, leaving the reader interested to know how this works in practice.

‘Learn how to achieve top-performing ad campaigns on YouTube’

Why this works: It states precisely how it will aid the reader in achieving their aim of making successful ad campaigns on a certain platform.

Bad headline examples:

‘Stop Wasting Away Your Workday With These Productivity Tools and Techniques’

Why it doesn’t work: It’s literally encouraging readers to continue procrastinating by reading this article, but beyond that, the structure seems backwards.

How it could be improved: ‘Use these productivity tools to stop wasting away your workday’

Either way it’s not a great headline, and I’m not fond of the phrasing, but the latter is at least clearer.

‘On Trial’

Why it doesn’t work: What? Who? Why? This doesn’t tell anyone anything. I appreciate a sense of mystery, but come on.

How it could be improved: By identifying key journalistic points relevant to the story, even as little as who the individual is, and why they’re on trial.

To sum up, there is no single formula for writing effective headlines, and I actively encourage you to formulate your own wild mesh of words to sit atop your content. What’s the best strategy/strategies you use for writing inspiring headlines and titles? Let me know in the comments. I hope you enjoyed this article and found it useful.

Got questions about headlines or content writing? Leave a comment, or use the hashtag #asktheukdomain on social media.