How To Write Great Headlines 18 November, 2006 — Stuart Brown
Or, to put it another way: 'Awesome Top 5 ways to get Dugg and billions of subscribers!!'
Whether you're a blogger, a journalist or social bookmarker, writing a great headline is a must if you want to capture your reader's interest. Faced with an ever increasing wave of blogs, RSS subscriptions, and links, the headline is more important now than it ever has been.
So how do you engage your readers? How do you get your RSS subscribers to click the link in their feedreader? There's no definitive way to maximize your exposure, but there are certainly a few ways that have proven popular. Follow these tips, and you might just be able to conjure up some interest.
Mention keywords & hot trends
People love to read stories about topics they're interested in. Some trends endure longer than others, whilst some are short lived - but if you're writing about a hot topic, be sure to drop in those keywords to whet your reader's appetite.
So what defines such a hot topic? Well, at the time of writing, the next-gen console wars are raging,so anything with 'PS3', or (especially) 'Wii' in the headline will garner a good amount of attention. 'Web 2.0' and 'AJAX' are strong keywords amongst the web design crowd, and current events (including but not limited to politics/icians, war, celebrities et al.) also prove popular.
Bad headline : 'Qatar TV Channel aquires new hardware'
Good headline : 'Al Jazeera International chooses Apple Technology'
Quite a polarized example, perhaps - but if you're writing about a topic that will gain interest of its own accord - in the above example, both the term 'Apple' and 'Al Jazeera' will get clicks, although for altogether different reasons.
Best tip, ever: Use superlatives
This point is perhaps particularly relevant to social bookmarking sites, but the use of a superlative is a good way to get clicks on your headline. In fact, it's probably the BEST way.
Bad headline: 'Send large files to your friends'
Good headline: 'The easiest way to send Super Large Files'
Not just files. Super Large Files. Not just a way. The easiest way.
If you want to hype up your headline somewhat, then there's no cruder way than to bung in a superlative or two. It does look cheap, some people don't like it - but others do. Your mileage may vary, depending on your readership.
So if you must, use the words 'best ever' or 'worst' or 'longest' or 'coolest' in your headline. It might just do the job.
Summarise it all in one sentence
If your article isn't about the Nintendo Wii, or you can't justifiably refer to it as the 'best ever', then your best shot might be to blurt out everything in a few short words.
This sort of headline works great for science or technology findings - give away the result of the article in one short sentence and you might just pique the reader's interest enough to click through and read the whole article.
Bad headline: 'Scientists conduct cell transplant experiments'
Good headline: 'Scientists grow human ear on back of a mouse'
It's not sensational, it's not necessarily riding on the influence of a few keywords, but it is info-dense, and is far more likely to attract clicks than a less informative headline.
Pose a question (or an opinion dressed as a question)
In some circumstances, you may not want to give away the conclusion of a given article - indeed, the article may be of a speculative nature in itself. In this case a leading question can make a great headline.
Contentious or opinion pieces can be written with leading questions, preparing the reader for a discursive essay - indeed, the lead-in question itself can be loaded or controversial.
Bad headline: 'Zune not much better than the iPod'
Good headline: 'Is the Zune any better than the iPod?'
In this particular case, revealing the result of the review could lessen the effect (unlike research, studies, as per point 3) - but a loaded question can essentially contain the same information whilst leaving the opinion to the article itself.
Such a loaded question is likely to rile fanboys into response, as well - if it's an inflammatory piece you're after, then a loaded question in the headline is the way to go.
Use lists to gain interests
Finally, and perhaps the most tawdry of all, is the blogger's fallback - the numbered list.
Although it's a cheap shot, lists can be a popular addition to social bookmarking - whether it's a 'Top 100 films of all time' or 'Top 10 HTML tags', you'll be sure to gain some quick interest for those looking for a bite-sized read. If nothing else, you'll leave them wondering what attained #1.
You do run the risk of being dismissed as 'blogspam' if you overuse this technique - and already the method is dwindling in popularity due to overuse. However, used subtly, and with new, interesting content, the list or run-down can be a great no-brainer for both the content and the headline.
Bad headline: 'Great films released this year'
Good headline: 'The Top 10 films of 2006'
'Top 10s' are particularly popular, least of all because they present easily-skimmable information that can be digested in a short few minutes, and they embody an opinion by ranking things in a particular order.
Listing specifics, as with the year '2006' in the example above, adds further to the headline by giving it a sense of 'officialness', were it needed.
The humble bullet-pointed list can be misused as somewhat of a crutch, but there's no denying the fact that they can get some serious exposure.
Which summarises this list of sorts-5 different techniques that can better align a headline to gain more attention. Some are crafty, others overused and tired, but all can be used in specific situations to garner more clicks.
Punching up your headlines can help in a number of ways - RSS subscribers will generally judge a blog post by the headline, only stopping by to read if you grab their attention - the same applies for organic traffic. Popularity on Digg, Reddit, and other social bookmarking sites can be attained far easier with the right headlines - if you can successfully get a hook in the first sentence of your article, then you'll have a much better chance of getting them to read the whole shebang.
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