Hey You, Pay Attention!: How to Write a Headline That Really Packs a Punch

How to write good viral headlines

Ip Man, the legendary martial artist and teacher of Bruce Lee, said “Don’t recite mantra. Hit your target.”

A good web headline hits its target. Whether you call it conversion, click-through or meeting a goal, the target in writing a headline is the same: To appeal to a human being. Readers, being human, all want the same basic things — to avoid boredom, frustration, disappointment, embarrassment, and work. The good news for writers is that those things are never going to change. Here’s how you can make your web headlines stand out.

Always Remember: Your Reader is Powerful

Online readers are the most empowered readers around. They won’t tolerate their time being wasted. Since online content is usually free, readers have no reason to stay with content that isn’t giving them what they want, and fast. The moment they start to feel bored, confused, or annoyed, they can click away from you, possibly forever. That’s why it’s critical that you put yourself in the reader’s shoes when you are writing online content. This goes double for a headline, which is the first thing to be judged (and, if judged to be inferior, the only thing that your readers will see).

Know Your Audience and Write Accordingly

While there are some rules of thumb for writing headlines, first you have to know who your target reader is, and write to that person. Is he interested in fashion and celebrity gossip? Then your headlines can be light and slangy (“Brangelina Head Down Under for Epic Australian Circus”). Is she a no-nonsense professional in a serious field? Don’t annoy her by getting cute – stick with straightforward headlines (“Researchers Find Causal Link Between Caffeine Intake and Memory”). In general, it’s a good idea to keep the headlines as interesting as possible without sacrificing clarity and professionalism.

Methods for Crafting a Good Headline

Headline structures can vary greatly, and there is no magic formula for perfection beyond ensuring your spelling and grammar are correct. Here are just a few ideas for writing a headline that will capturing the hearts and minds of your readers, and get them clicking on your post.

1) Just Tell the Whole Story

Example: A Soldier Went Overseas to Fight, Never Dreaming he Would Adopt an Orphaned Girl

This type of headline is very effective. Its strength is in giving away the whole story up front. On a deep level, the reader will appreciate being trusted with it right out of the gate. You are showing confidence that this story is worth going deeper to get the details, and your reader will probably agree with you.

2) Move From General to Specific

Example: California Dreaming: How to Plan Your Perfect Napa Valley Vineyard Tour

This is a tried-and-tested classic headline structure.  Its beauty is that the first half can be pretty impressionistic, because the second half will drive the subject home. In this example, “California Dreaming” taps into the power of a highly recognizable phrase and song title. You draw the reader in and give them a hint – this will be something about California, and it will be something pleasant. The second half confirms this hint, giving the reader both a feeling of satisfaction and more specific information.

3) Paint with Words

Example: A Polar Bear in the Cathedral

This method is pretty tricky, so don’t try it at home unless you know that you can pull it off. It will only work if your reader is creative and not easily frightened. Also, you need strong words to work with. In this example, the writer was talking about a piece of music based on the composer’s visit to the Arctic, which premiered in a massive cathedral. Rather than write a headline about a “new choral work premiering this November” (boring), she grabbed her readers with the most powerful words at her disposal: polar bear and cathedral.

4) Lead with Love

Example:  Stylish Vancouver Oyster Bars you will Love

This is pretty straightforward. People are interested in the idea there is something out there that they might love. The industries of food, art and film criticism are  built on this fact. Love feels good, no matter what form it takes, and we all want a piece of it. Boldly make a claim that the readers will “love” something, and chances are they will investigate to find out if you’re right.

5) Cash in on Shock Value

Example: Small-Town Mayor Caught in Bizarre Love Triangle

Humans love to be shocked. If you have an article about anything shocking, make sure your headline conveys this up front.  Don’t bury shocking content deep in the piece – put in the front window. There’s a reason it’s called shock value – it’s valuable.

6) Make Time for a Rhyme

 Example: Flirty Shirtsleeves: A Gentleman’s Guide to Spring Fashion

Rhyming is powerful – witness centuries of poetry and decades of pop music, ad jingles and Dr. Seuss. Why? Because rhyme is extremely memorable, and it asserts a subconscious claim that whatever rhymes must be true. Tap into this power by including rhyme in the headline.

7) The Almighty List Post

Example: Nine Early Signs Your Date is a Dud

The strength of the list post – and the headline that announces it – is that nice, concrete number. The reader knows exactly how many fragments there will be to read, giving them a handle on how much attention will be expected of them. The very fact that they know the article’s length going in will often spur them to read – whether the list has four items or 78.

The ability to write a good headline for the web is critical. Unlike with print media, where the eye of the reader might scan down into the article and keep them reading, online headlines often appear all on their own. The reader must often decide purely from the headline alone whether to click through to the article. After you’ve nailed down your technique with a few of these structural ideas, put away the mantras and just hit your target. After all, they’re only human.

Nathan Prescott

Author Nathan Prescott

Technologist, Search Experience Optimizer, Internet Marketer and Conversion Ninja with experience in Finance, Consulting and Media Buying.

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