The Art and Science of Headlines

29 January 2019

Blog Business Communications Content Consulting Marketing Communications Service Thought leadership content

Panchalee Thakur

I had three choices for a headline for this post.

One that would go with what I truly wanted this post to be about, which is The Joy of Getting the Right Headline.

The second was to base it on suggestions to increase the number of views and likes for the article with online marketing guidelines such as a list post on 5 Tips on How to Write an Awesome Headline.

I chose the third option that was a blend of old rules of headline writing and some new learnings.

In other words, a headline that conveyed the essence of the article and contained the right combination of words to improve its performance on online searches.

How the Internet is re-writing headline rules

When I started out as a journalist two decades ago in a mainstream newspaper, a good headline was one that was accurate, highlighted the main point or the unique angle that the writer was exploring, and fitted into the space provided for the article in the layout. A smart headline, or a pun or two were welcome, unless it carried the risk of being offensive or insensitive.

Now the humble headline has become a commodity that is used to trade an idea, a business on the Internet or in social media. It stands on its own right as a marketable entity, analysed and rated for its business value.

The headline has slipped out of the control of the copy desk (the thankless yet powerful job of sub-editors in late night shifts in a newspaper office) and has moved to the realm of digital marketers who are using data on the ‘success and failure rate’ of headlines to recommend tips on blog marketing or article marketing.

I have done my part at the copy desk; now I’m re-learning and looking at the new tricks of the headline game in article writing with keen interest. Below are some of my thoughts (or rant, if you will) on Internet headline trends.

Headline Trend No. 1: Hyperbole, superlatives, adjectives to stand out in the crowd

The smartest way to say ‘I’m smart’ is not to say ‘I’m smart’ but to demonstrate that you are indeed smart. We all know that. But somehow we forget that rule when it comes to headlines. Instead of using hyperbole in the headline, how about some facts to substantiate a bold statement?

Let the reader be the judge of the usefulness of a product based on the facts you present. These facts could be the results of an objective study (which of course was not conducted by you), what your clients say about your product or insights that you provide in the article.

For example, instead of saying a face cream is a ‘must-have’ skin firming product for Asian women, do you have a study that shows its effect on the Asian skin? If you do, use that for a headline. The ‘must-have’ or any equivalent of that makes your headline too salesy, and is hence not trustworthy. The second option makes a bold claim through hard data which makes it more compelling.

Headline Trend No. 2: Odd numbered lists

Oddly enough, almost every list that you find on the Internet starts with ‘3’ or ‘5’; I’ve also seen ‘317’. The trend started a few years ago after Internet marketers discovered that readers were more likely to believe a list with an odd number because it seemed more casual and less forceful. But that was then. Now that a communication expert has only five tips for success and not six, or a travel site has only seven great destinations to recommend and not 10, I’m tempted to think that the writer decides on the number first and then works backwards to get the tips in order. Or the writer leaves out a point because it does not fit into the formula.

Headline Trend No. 3: Quick fixes in the form of how-to posts

There is no doubt in my mind that how-to posts have their place on the Internet. The Internet is after all our primary go-to place for quick solutions and answers that someone else has already tried out. However, with scores of ‘how to’ posts under every conceivable topic in this world, can you be sure your ‘how to’ post is not getting lost in the crowd? I also find that ‘how to’ headlines limit the writer’s creativity and confines him/her to express even the deepest insights in an extremely basic way.

Headline Trend No. 4: Posing a question

Question headlines are attention grabbing; studies show how a question in the headline plays on the reader’s curiosity and leads the reader to click. It holds the promise of an answer, which is a good way to engage your reader. Question headlines, however, have limited usage; it should lend itself well to the topic and cannot be used a tactic for any write-up. I must admit that I also have a bias against question headlines. Every time I am tempted to pose a question in the headline, I see the face of my former chief sub-editor who would scoff at it as the lazy way out.

Headline rules I live by

The purpose of the post

If the sole purpose of your post is to attract as much attention and traffic to the site, and take it viral, you need to closely follow current headline trends and sustain your spot high up on searches. Feel free to use headlines with shock value (see Buzzfeed), or headlines that satisfy the reader’s ‘curiosity gap’ (the ones you find in Upworthy) or headlines that promise something exclusive and specific (ViralNova uses it extensively by inserting ‘this’ in their headlines).

However, if your post is in a niche area where you have established your subject matter expertise, your primary concern is the right use of keywords to optimise your content for online searches. By this, you have narrowed down the search field but with a clear indication of the subject in the headline with the right keywords, your article will attract readers who will drive business for you, not just traffic.

There is no one formula for all

Sorry to break the bad news but do not rely too much on gimmicks such as the right headline formula. I tried rating my headlines for this article in different headline sites and the results were confusing. In one site, the headline got a top rating and in the other, it barely scraped through.

In your search for the right balance of words from a set of recommended words and phrases, you are in danger of missing the message that you need to give out in the first place.

The best formula is the one that you make for yourself. Pick keywords for your niche from the latest Google search data on global usage and for your country; find out the trending words in Google auto complete in the search bar; and devise your own list. This list will always be a work in progress list that you will need to modify to include new trends.

Writers are still relevant

And now the good news, at least for writers, is that machines have not replaced writers – not yet. Even after the keywords are in place, the target audience is identified and the area of focus effectively whittled down to that audience, headline writing is still a creative function. The data around making headlines more effective is a useful accompaniment but it does not make the dish.

Trying to manipulate online search mechanisms by finding the right mix of words for a headline can be counter productive if the article does not deliver what it promises. How often has it happened that you click through but find that the copy fails in the first couple of paragraphs? Chances are that you will not trust that site again.

If you use your headline as an emotional bait for your reader, make sure you have enough food for thought once the page opens up to engage the reader and make him/her come back each time.

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