A headline can make or break a story. Nowadays, it’s not enough to get readers to click on an article or a review. We want them to read it, share it and, in many cases, go on to purchase a product. The elements of an effective headline have changed dramatically over the past few years, and headline style will continue to evolve. For now, however, there are a few strategies that metrics show are effective in getting people to read and share content. Here are a few do’s and don’ts of writing an engaging headline:
- Keep it conversational. How would you say it to someone aloud? Stephen Hawking Says Aliens Will Destroy Humanity is more conversational than Warnings of Aliens’ Destruction, Devastation from Top Scientist, for example. Try to adhere closely to true sentence structure, and use familiar, uncomplicated words.
- Use you to connect with the reader when the topic applies to a wide audience. Why You Should Update Windows Immediately is better than Security Experts Warn of Vulnerabilities in Windows. Readers care what’s in it for them.
- Evoke emotion (could be positive or negative). People tend to share stories that evoke an emotional response. A study by native-advertising group Sharethrough and Nielsen Neuro found that certain words increase emotional engagement. They divided this list of “context words” into four groups: insight, time, space and motion. Many of us use these words instinctively because we know they make headlines sound intriguing or clickable, but if you’re looking for ideas, check out the list of effective words here.
- Use why and how. Dig deeper than the original story. This is especially important in “news spins,” where we’re writing about an angle of a story that’s been reported widely elsewhere. For example, if there is an Ebola outbreak in the U.S., many news outlets will be reporting it. We want to go further to say “how the outbreak originated and spread,” or “how to protect yourself from Ebola,” for instance.
- Write in active voice. Usually, it’s more powerful than passive voice. Giant Asteroid Obliterates Alien World is stronger than Alien World Found to Have Been Obliterated by Asteroid.
- Use keywords that are essential for the story (e.g., The Samsung Galaxy S8 Is the Best Phone We Tested), but don’t overdo it (Samsung Galaxy S8 Cellphone Is the Best Phone and Smartphone, Especially Compared to the iPhone).
- Don’t resort to clickbait. You’ll never guess what percentage of clickbait headlines are effective — the answer will amaze you! Clickbait is so 2008. Most people see through it, and even Facebook is penalizing publishers who write clickbait headlines. Plus, getting someone to click on a story (especially if they quickly close out of it) doesn’t really help us reach our goals of improving engagement and building audience.
- Don’t think shorter is necessarily better. Shorter often means clearer, so tight headlines can be effective. Sometimes, however, more words are necessary to convey a full idea. Longer headlines also drive more engagement. In fact, the Sharethrough analysis found that headlines drive the most engagement when they are 21 to 28 words!
- Don’t feel obligated to omit small words. Removing words such as the, a and is makes headlines less conversational and less sharable. Space isn’t as much of a consideration online as it is in print.
- Don’t use headlinese. Would you say it while chatting with a friend? If not, then you probably shouldn’t write it in a headline. Keep it conversational.
- Don’t overuse clichés and puns. Although creativity has its place, puns can be unclear and may confuse search engines. Focusing too much on clever wording also may cause you to leave out important information or muddle the message.