Point-first headlines: Maximizing engagement and SEO results

Headlines are online everywhere – in email subject lines, blog titles, social media posts, meta descriptions and page titles. They powerfully attract a reader’s initial attention and are likely to determine if the reader will continue to read the rest of the content. So what type of online headlines are the most effective? Point-first online headlines produce best results. A point-first headline begins with the main point you are trying to make to the reader. The headline frames the rest of the reader experience in reading the piece.

Write point-first headlines for best results

Based on his firm’s research, Daniel Burstein of MarketingSherpa concluded that point-first headlines are the most effective online headlines when they offer something more valuable than the perception of its cost. It’s as simple as saying “Get…,” “Here’s…,” or “Win…”, as you can see in the the point-first headline examples below. All of them got better responses than the point-last headline examples. (The lowest-rating point-first headline had virtually the same result as the highest point-last headline.)

Burstein gives examples of the most effective headline sentences –  point-first and point-last:

Point-first headlines

  • Get paid to take FREE surveys
  • Here’s Your First Survey, and an invitation to join our research community
  • Get Paid to fill out online survey
  • Get Rewarded for your opinion
  • Surveys – Quick, Easy and FREE
  • Win Cash & Prizes for online surveys

Point-last headlines

  • Set up your FREE account today and Start Earning Money!
  • You’re invited to join the [Company Name] community and to Earn Rewards For Your Opinions
  • Join the [Company Name] community and Have Your Opinions Count
  • Take online surveys from home and Win Cash & Prizes

Point-middle headlines are not as effective

  • Example: Sign up today and get paid to take free surveys

The reader’s glance tends to comprehend more from the start and finish of a headline, rather than the middle point. This means readers tend to overlook the middle point in the point-middle headline. Therefore, point-middle headlines are significantly less effective than point-first or point-last headlines.

Although the word “free” is generally considered to trigger spam filters, it is still powerful in marketing. When you say  the word in the context of “Free trial…” or “Free access…” or similar, it is highly valuable, and it still works, according to Burstein.

Image, above right: The main offer page in a marketing promotion. The main part of the image is shown as it would appear on a desktop screen, and the smartphone view is shown in the narrow column on the right of the page.

Don’t write exactly 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 also includes search engines in your audience, 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.

Kim Mateus from Mequoda Publishing Network 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.”

Two key principles for creating a headline

Burstein also strongly maintains in the same article that there are two primary principles to remember when crafting a headline:

  1. All marketing messages must be centered primarily on the interests of the customer. Therefore, emphasize what the reader gets rather than what they must do.
  2. The goal of a headline is similar to the goal of the opening scene of a movie – to hold the reader’s attention and get them to continue into the first paragraph. Therefore, use a “point-first” structure, ie place the value at the front of the headline.

The point-first strategy also applies to SEO

The point-first headline paves the way for a strong SEO ranking because it means you are summarizing the theme of the piece in just a few words. What’s more, they are literally the first words a person reads – great focus! This means you have effectively created your keyphrase for the piece. The keyphrase is the search term that you want a page or post to rank for most in Google searches. The keyphrase is ideally about three words, but is often longer to make sense. It is more specific than just a single keyword, and leads to better SEO results. When people search for that phrase, they should find you. An example is the headline, “How to get the best timing for successful media pitches.” A suitable keyphrase could be “best timing for successful media pitches” or “best timing for media pitches” or “best media pitch timing.”

Long-tail keywords or keyphrases

On the other hand, long-tail keywords and keyphrases are also valuable. Long-tail keywords are longer and more specific keyword phrases that visitors are more likely to use when they’re closer to a point-of-purchase or when they’re using voice search. They’re a little bit counter-intuitive, at first, but they can be hugely valuable if you know how to use them. Long-tail keyphrases get less search traffic, but will usually have a higher conversion value, as they are more specific. What’s more: placing long-tail keyphrases at the start of your headlines makes them even more effective. Marieke van de Rakt from Yoast says:

It’s much easier to rank for long-tail keywords than for more common keywords because fewer websites compete for high rankings in the result pages of Google. The longer (and more specific) your search terms are, the easier it is to rank for the term. Because of the vastness of the internet, it is easier to find your audience for your particular niche. Focusing on a group of long-tail keywords can result in a great deal of traffic altogether.

She gives an example of a customer search in which a long-tail keyphrase applies:

Let’s say I’m looking for a new board game to have some family fun with my kids. I start my search with the term [board games]. After some searching, I quickly discover that I want a board game that’s both suitable for kids and has an educational element to it. My search continues, but now I use the terms [educational board games for kids]. Or when I know I’ll be in Amsterdam this week [where she lives], I could even make it a local search term: [where to buy educational board games for kids in Amsterdam]. These are both long-tail keywords. Using these keywords, I will find new results that more closely resemble my search intent. The chances of me buying a board game have largely increased by this more specific search.

Point-first headlines by McKinsey

International business management firm McKinsey uses many point-first headlines for its volumes of articles, which it publishes daily in its website as well as in its daily newsletters. Recent McKinsey article headline examples:

  • Looking beyond the pandemic: Could the world economy gain more than it lost to COVID-19?
  • Doing vs being: Practical lessons on building an agile culture
  • Agility in the time of COVID-19: Changing your operating model in an age of turbulence
  • Lean management or agile? The right answer may be both
  • An operating model for the next normal: Lessons from agile organizations in the crisis
  • The resilience imperative: Succeeding in uncertain times
Similar to the journalist’s inverted pyramid

Writing a point-first headline is similar to using the inverted pyramid structure in news writing. Writing a story this way firstly involves putting the most newsworthy point or two in the headline. The rest of the most newsworthy info goes into the first paragraph, so the “5Ws” and “H” are answered up front. (However, this longstanding, widespread model always seems to ignore the all-important second “H” – “How much?” The second “H” is often the most important element of a news story! But that’s another story, so to speak.)

This writing style gets to the point quickly and supports all types of readers. Even those who have the time or inclination to read only a single paragraph, or even single sentence will still know what the story is about. The inverted pyramid also helps editors when they need to cut a piece at a certain length to fit a publication. In the old newspaper days, editors could safely cut a story from the bottom up to any point to fit into available space.

Digressing a little: Personally, I think the triangle should be shown in the usual way, ie not upside down. In terms of space usage, key points in the headline and lead para are written tightly at the top of the story, which suits web readers, and all the following information is used to fill out the story, so the bulk of the words are below the headline and lead para. But, so be it.

In marketing, “most newsworthy” translates to “main point of value to the customer.”

Inverted triangle image: Wikimedia Commons

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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