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How to write headlines that work

The importance of strong headline writing was well known long before the worldwide web was even a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, but the internet – and the rise in digital content marketing – has required headline writers to refine their art further still.

No matter how strong the content of an article, the headline is the clarion call that attracts readers in the first place. Where an article can build interest, the headline has to trigger an instant response. Whether that is through shock, titillation, intrigue or the promise of an answer to your number one problem, the headline needs to reach out and grab the reader’s attention.

But don’t neglect the content

Nothing does this more overtly than the ‘clickbait’ headlines that promise to show you amazing pictures, reveal incredible secrets or tell you astonishing stories… but when you take the bait, the content never quite lives up to the hype. In this respect, the clickbait headline fails, because not only must it grab the reader’s attention, it must also provide an accurate representation of the story. If it doesn’t, the reader will quickly click away, wary of visiting that particular site again.

Studies have shown that about seven out of 10 readers never make it past the headline. So your content has to be interesting with the headline reflecting that. It is the subject matter that pulls readers in  and keeps them there.

Tease don’t tell

While a good headline gives a clear indication of what the story is about, it shouldn’t give the game away. Give readers the juice in the headline and they won’t stop to read the article – not good for traction nor for SEO.

A study by Conductor found that traffic can vary by as much as 500% based on how a headline is written. For example, ‘number’ headlines (‘5 of the best spices to cook with’ or ‘10 tips for better sleep’) tend to get the most clicks, followed by ‘reader addressing’ (including the words ‘you’ or ‘your’) and ‘how to’ headlines. But don’t just stick to these three types. Look at the headlines that are gaining traction in your market and learn from them. When it comes to content marketing, readers are hooked primarily by the promise of advice and solutions.

Writing great headlines for SEO

The digital age has brought a change in the way we find the articles we read. We don’t browse the internet in the way we browse through a newspaper or magazine. We now rely on search engines which produce results according to relevance, authority, richness of content, etc. Whereas a newspaper headline puts new ideas in your head, a digital headline needs to second guess what’s already in your mind. In fact, it’s not guesswork; there are analytical tools that will tell you exactly the sort of thoughts potential readers of your article have.

This may sound frighteningly technical but really it is based on common sense – more and more so, in fact, as search engines become increasingly sophisticated. So if you write an article about, say, digital marketing in the UAE, you can use one of various free tools to search for popular keywords and search terms around that subject and use them to create a search engine optimised (SEO) headline.

Focus too much on keywords, however, and there is a danger you will write robotic headlines that leave readers cold and don’t get clicked. The search engines will pick up on this and your article will disappear into the abyss of cyberspace. To a large extent, SEO is self-fulfilling. The more a link gets clicked, the higher it will rise in the rankings. So make those headlines compelling.

Headline writer’s art revealed!

The perfect online headline blends SEO seamlessly with the traditional properties of a great print headline. My advice would be to get the fundamentals right first, then try to add SEO where you can. A tool like CoSchedule Headline Analyzer can be useful in this respect.

There is, and always has been, an art to writing headlines. If there is one golden rule it is ‘think of the reader’. A headline that makes you laugh but promises nothing is no use. So think about the solution that your article provides, then consider the question that may be asked by readers. Then write your headline to reflect those questions.


Posted inContent Marketing Posted on
written by

Alex Ionides Managing Director, Silx

Alex Ionides is Managing Director of Silx, a Dubai-based digital marketing agency. Previously, Alex was General Manager of the Dubai office of global PR company Hill+Knowlton Strategies, and Managing Director of Munich-based marketing agency Threeview. He grew up in Vancouver, Canada, receiving a Bachelor of Applied Science in Mass Communication from Simon Fraser University. In addition to his career in marketing, Alex worked for many years as a journalist in the Middle East. He has lived and worked in Hong Kong, the US, and Egypt, and now divides his time between Munich and Dubai.
Contact: alex@silxdigital.com