A compelling headline is crucial for the success of all written content, from articles and blogs to research reports and white papers. Not only will it attract a reader’s attention, but it sets expectations for the content that follows and convinces them to keep reading.

In an era where social media is the main source of online news for more than a third of Australians, tabloid and lifestyle news sites have nailed the art of writing successful headlines.

Consider the following headlines:

  • ““Absolute trainwreck.” The five most uncomfortable moments on last night’s Q&A” (Mamamia)
  • “Multitasking is bad, and you really shouldn’t do it” (BuzzFeed)
  • “She didn’t see it coming: psychic arrested for $800,000 fraud” (The Guardian).

Curious to read more? We were too.

The challenge for businesses is how to borrow from these sites in a way that’s appropriate for your brand, values and risk appetite – and that doesn’t veer into sensationalist, vapid content.

To help you find a happy medium between intriguing and inappropriate when writing headlines, we’ve identified eight secrets of successful tabloid headlines you can safely use without crossing any lines.

1.     The devil is in the detail

A common mistake people make when writing headlines is not being specific enough. A headline like ‘Cyber security challenges businesses’ tells us that the story is about cyber security but not much else. Readers are left asking, ‘What type of businesses does this affect? How does it challenge them? Why should I read this article?’. Or – worse – they won’t bother asking and just move on to another article with a more enticing heading.

You may think a headline that focuses on the big picture will appeal to more readers, but it can have the opposite effect. When writing a headline, you need to zero in on exactly what it is you’re writing about and who you’re writing it for. If your story is about governance challenges relating to cyber security, spell that out in the heading. If you have a specific audience in mind, write the headline with them in mind. You may even want to consider incorporating your reader’s job description or title into the heading if you’re writing for a niche audience. A headline such as The Digital Transformation People’s “The 3 Cyber Security Governance Challenges Of The CIO” ticks both boxes.

2.     Bland is boring

Compare the three headlines below. The first belongs to a news story. The second and third to ‘sponsored content’ contributed by a business. Which one is more dynamic?

Screenshot of Financial Review headlines.

Businesses often err on the side of caution when it comes to writing headlines because they don’t want to risk alienating or offending anyone.

The fact is that bold and controversial statements attract attention, so don’t be shy about including them in a headline. For example, “T-Mobile CEO: Porn Could Kill Shared Data Plans” (PC Mag). Highlighting a quote or statistic in your story is also a good place to start, such as First 5000’s “28% of spending in key IT segments will shift to the cloud by 2022”.

Including a number in headlines is another tried-and-tested strategy. Numbers appeal to people’s love of lists and signpost the scope of the content. If you’re pressed for time, IBM’s headline, “Building a hybrid cloud: 3 ways dynamic cloud powers innovation”, for example, will seem more digestible than ‘Building a hybrid cloud: How dynamic cloud powers innovation’.

Just be careful not to over-promise with your headline – content that doesn’t deliver can damage your credibility with readers.

3.     Negative headlines perform better

The expression ‘bad news sells’ isn’t just true of newspapers. It’s also true in business writing. In one Canadian study, researchers found that participants were more likely to read negative stories (for example, those about corruption, crime and hypocrisy). This was despite participants saying they prefer to read positive stories.

This so-called ‘negativity bias’ doesn’t mean you should focus exclusively on the negative aspects of your topic, but you may want to think creatively about the spin you put on headlines.

Think ‘The cyber security loopholes putting your data at risk’ rather than ‘How to improve your data management’.

4.     Curiosity drives clicks

Headlines need to clearly convey what’s in your article but not reveal too much or readers may decide they don’t need to read the story at all.

Aim to provide enough information to make a reader curious, but not enough to answer their questions. Think “5 cloud computing trends to prepare for in 2018” (Network World).

5.     Clever headlines can backfire

Clever headlines can be memorable, like the iconic headline from the 1980s, “Headless body in topless bar” (New York Post). But they can also fall flat or be misunderstood. Tabloid editors know this, but they will often choose a pun over prudence anyway.

If a person needs to read a headline more than once to understand it, there’s a good chance they won’t bother reading the article that goes with it. Instead, keep your language simple, avoid hard-to-understand words and use punctuation where it’s needed. Use lively, active verbs such as ‘create’ and ‘grow’ and motivating adjectives to add excitement.

6.     A sense of urgency drives action

You may have come across the acronym FOMO. It stands for ‘fear of missing out’ and it is a key driver of human behaviour, particularly among millennials. Phrases commonly found in marketing communications, such as ‘one day only’, ‘24 hours left’ and ‘last chance to win’, all tap into this fear.

Adding time parameters to headlines will prompt a sense of urgency in readers. Think “Marketers: Are you ready for Canada’s July 1 spam law?” (VentureBeat).

7.     Readers want to know what’s in it for them

It doesn’t matter how interesting or well written your report or blog is – no-one will read it unless you give them a good reason to.

Try putting yourself in the reader’s shoes and asking, ‘Is this article useful to me? What am I going to get out of it?’.

Headlines like “Employee Productivity: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need” (Hubstaff) and “How claiming for depreciation boosts property cash flow” (Capital Claims Tax Depreciation) demonstrate a clear benefit to the reader.

8.     Keywords are key to SEO

Headlines play a fundamental role in search engine optimisation (SEO) – the strategies employed to ensure an article achieves a high ranking in online search results.

When writing headlines, think about what readers would search for if they were looking for your piece online and try to include that keyword or phrase in your headline. Target keywords with a higher search volume to maximise your chances of your piece appearing in a search. Just be aware that keywords with a very high search volume will also attract more competition.

Online tools such as Moz’s Keyword Explorer and Google Ads Keyword Planner make it easy to search for relevant keywords and assess their popularity.

Google Ads Keyword Planner interface.

Once you’ve decided on a keyword, type it in to your search engine and check out the stories that rank highly. What headlines did they use? How can you improve on yours?

If you’re struggling …

You may find it useful to quickly jot down a whole heap of headings, rather than spending hours agonising over ‘the one’. Most of them will be terrible but hopefully it will help you come up with some strong possibilities. Once you have a shortlist, ask a colleague for a second opinion or your team to vote before you make a final decision.

When you’ve invested time and money in producing great content, a compelling headline is your best shot of ensuring it reaches the audience it deserves.

If you’d like our help, check out our writing services or contact us.

Read more

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