Headlines are the most important part of any written content. Advertising legend David Ogilvy pointed this out decades ago, and his words are still quoted. Ogilvy said in his classic book Confessions of an Advertising Man in 1963:
“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.”
But Ogilvy’s often-quoted comment related only to advertising – and he died in 1999, before the internet really got going. So how well does his observation stand the test of time in our digital era?
Eye-tracking studies show that 80% of people only scan on-screen text rather than read it fully, and so the headline remains the key part of the text – and Ogilvy’s comment does stand up to scrutiny. Therefore, you need to pay special attention to your headlines. (Although these days visual images are very important in digital media.)
Don’t write the same headline for both a print article and digital page
A printed article title or headline is what you write for your readers, while an online page title or headline should be written mainly for search engines so people can find it via Google, etc. Google and Facebook algorithms don’t respond well to wit, irony, humor, or style. They are very literal. But they are a fact of life, so we need to cater for online as well as offline reading.
For instance, The New Yorker published a witty print article headline referring to the changing times, but a different online title was used:
Article title: “Changing Times”
Page title: “Jill Abramson, New York Times’ First Woman Executive Editor”
This was a classic play on words – “Times” being an abbreviation for the New York Times, and also “changing times” is a pun referring to a common saying and the title of a 1964 Bob Dylan song, “The times they are a-changing.”
Similarly, Slate Magazine published an article titled “Deliverance,” which was the title of a movie and also a pun on mail delivery. Their online page headline was a literal treatment:
Article title: “Deliverance”
Page title: “US Postal Service: Will It Survive?”
Many articles have been written about headlines used in news media and publications, but a different technique is required for digital media, including the production of microcontent.
Headlines as microcontent
Microcontent, which largely comprises keywords and key phrases, conveys messages concisely. Typical microcontent can be page titles, headlines, taglines, email subject lines, summaries, hints, tips and explainers. Microcontent often stands alone, for example in tweets, RSS feeds and search engine results as short text pieces or phrases; or it can be the lead, as in the headline of an article.
Microcontent can have a big impact in digital media, where readers quickly scan the words and will move away if not interested. In fact, many people form opinions and share content they have never actually read; they have just quickly scanned the headline and made a quick decision from there. Proof of this is in the findings of some 2016 research by computer scientists who found 59% of links shared on Twitter had never actually been clicked by the sender (page 5 of the very academically tech article).
Three tips for using headlines as microcontent
Microcontent needs to deliver good information, maintain readers’ interest and provide value. It summarizes the content it is connected to, and is written in user-friendly words, with no clickbait component.
1. Maximize the perceived user benefits
Andy Crestodina from Orbit Media says every time readers see a digital headline, they do a split-second cost-benefit calculation:
“It doesn’t matter if they’re in an inbox, a social stream or a search results page. The psychology is the same. Is this thing worth two seconds of my time?”
The headline’s job is to answer this question. And so Crestodina recommends:
- Take as many words as you need to make the case that their click is worth it.
- Be specific (“This is why…,” “This is how…,” “The reason is…”).
- If it’s not emotional, it had better be useful (“…work for you,” “…x simple tips…,” and “…you should use…,” etc).
“You need to maximize the perceived benefit of the click for the user. That’s the game we’re all playing: we only click when the likely benefits exceed the cost of two seconds of our attention!”
2. People relate to online headlines that create value
Online headlines that convey specific information create greater interest than general headings. Example:
Too general: “New treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)”
Better: “Post Traumatic Health Disorder (PTSD) healed by pets” [as discovered by your client or firm]
This second headline is better because it focuses upfront on the condition in question (which is more important to a reader than focusing on pets), it raises reader curiosity, and better suits reader scanning. Although the passive voice is used in this headline instead of the more desirable active voice, the sin of breaking this journalistic rule is not as important as focusing on the object at the start, especially by search engines.
3. Ensure your headline works out of context
Hoa Loranger and Jakob Nielsen of NN Group say online headlines are often published out of context in news feeds, social media, blogs, etc. Therefore, it is essential for headline text to make sense on its own when there is no further content visible without clicking on a link. Even though users can click on the headline to reach the full story, they are unlikely to chase down every headline that has no attached text.
An example of a poorly conceived theme is the JetBlue airline promo, above. The headline was a play on the words of a song title: “What’s old is new again.” But this headline gave no idea about the story within the available space. Readers had to click on the full article to find out that the headline was about bringing back some retro imagery (“RetroJet livery”) to launch their seasonal jet service from New York to Palm Springs in 2016.
No magic formula for writing a top online headline
In 2017, BuzzSumo analyzed over 100 million online headlines to better answer the question, “What makes a headline successful?” Their analysis related mainly to words that generated the most and least engagement on Facebook and Twitter, along with many other variables.
The biggest conclusion was “there is no magic formula for creating a viral or popular headline.” Even if your headline does not have a catchy trigger, a number or a promise – it can still be effective, especially if you include the right keywords for the right reader.
Social media headlines
Kim Mateus from the Mequoda Publishing Network has written a helpful article in 2021 – “The 14 most clickable [types of] social media headlines.” Worth reading. She says:
The types of titles you write for social media are not always the exact same as what you use on your site. How many times have you tweaked the subject line on an email newsletter to increase open rates, even though the featured article title was a little different? That’s fine, we like to keep our headlines sacred for SEO purposes, but in social media we have a lot of flexibility to try things out.
So for example, let’s say you are a food publication and you’re writing an article about ghee. Here are just a few ways you could take an article and transform the headline for a place like Twitter.
- How-to: How To Make Ghee in Five Easy Steps
- Benefit: Improve Digestion by Substituting Ghee for Olive Oil in the Kitchen
- List: 10 Delicious Cake Recipes Using Rich Golden Ghee Instead of Butter
- Tips: 10 Tips for Using Ghee in Any Meal
- Reasons: 10 Reasons to Throw Out Your Olive Oil and Replace it with Ghee
Write email subject lines to maximize your message within the available space
I received the following four emails on the same day. Readers of Fremantle Chiropractic’s email below may only have the vaguest idea of what the subject line is about. The sender may have thought this was a good teaser, but it is likely to cause a quick delete because it smells of puffery (how likely will a chiropractor clinic have “BIG news”??). Also, the pre-header text (“View this email…”) was completely wasted:
A better subject line by the Content Marketing Institute, below. “Best” creates good results on Google, but again, the pre-header text (“View message”) is not used effectively:
Better still: both Pew lines, referring to data, create interest:
HubSpot are creating interest with their listicle of 21 examples – “Best” is always a crowd puller. And it is supplemented by the “weekly roundup,” which promises other goodies:
Avoid relying too often on formulae that conform with headline analyzers
The findings from the above analysis and research are valuable – as is the feedback from digital headline analyzers, which are discussed in my article, . But ensure you don’t just use the tips in a mechanical way, as an invariable formula. Don’t use the same words (eg “best”) in every headline or your work will start looking very mechanical and your creative spirit will drop away. Try to think more deeply about the (perhaps unique) benefits you can offer your target audience, who will be thinking subconsciously or otherwise: “What’s In It For Me?” Also think what the benefits may suggest creatively for your headlines and content. If you can, test your headlines with your specific target audience before you use them in the marketplace.