More important than you might think – What’s in a Headline?

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Meh.

That’s the general gist of what it’s like seeing the countless number of articles that we do on a daily basis, right? How many articles have you scrolled past just this just last week and out of those, how many did you actually click on?

Well, if the great advertising cat David Ogilvy is to be trusted, then that’s one in every five articles. And that was prior to the advent of the internet and social media so it’s definitely a lot more by now.

The real problem, of course, is the clutter we are faced with whenever we engage with media, in any form. The second we turn on the television or flick on the smartphone we are bombarded with constant advertising that has so eroded our attention spans that we are probably close to rivalling that of the humble goldfish by now. The point is, the headline must act as the hook to land the proverbial fish (which in our case are click-throughs and engagements).

Inevitably, sticking power has become the number one priority in today’s media landscape and it all begins with the first impression – the headline. So whether you’re running a social media campaign, trying to promote a featured article you’ve just written or you are a Nigerian prince seeking a financial partner for a lucrative and possibly slightly-illegitimate deal, here are a few tips and tricks on how to get the most out of your next headline and land that fish.

Challies_ClickBait-01

Clickbait

A special mention (and a word of warning) must be first given to those of you seeking to increase your click-throughs via headlines that for want of a better description are ‘Buzzfeed-esque.’

It’s certainly tempting to look at the success of sites like Buzzfeed who churn out content faster than McDonald’s happy meals. Congruently, the reason these kinds of headlines appeal to a wide audience is because they appeal to the lowest common denominator.

We’ve all seen them; short and superfluous headlines that often appeal to readers on a base emotional level or the ever so common ‘listicle’ (for example: “10 Hilarious gifs of Cats Falling Over That Will Melt Your Heart!!”)

Ha. Funny.

Basically, while it might seem like a good idea to begin with, the end result is that quality will always trump quantity. Why pump out tens of hastily put-together articles when you can take the time and effort to seriously (or not, depending on your audience) lay out your ideas and opinions in a well-researched and well-crafted article. Doing so will make your article a resource for people who will come back to and share it in the future – especially if it’s evergreen content, but that’s another story.

How you position yourself and your brand is also vital in this respect; do you want to position yourself as a serious thought-leader in your industry or do you want to opt for a more colloquial, natural reach? Either way, how you frame your content (ie. your headlines) will drastically affect how people view and interact with your brand.

Numbers & Specificity

No doubt you, the suave, tech-savvy reader that you are have noticed a disproportionate amount of articles these days like to list things, from the best burger joints in town to the top tech trends of the year. One of the reasons so many headlines of articles these days begin with or incorporate numbers is because basic human behaviour dictates its effectiveness on us.

(While this sounds like an irrelevant and badly timed segue, bear with me.)

Basically, people don’t much care for uncertainty in their lives. If you haven’t already noticed, us humans like to exert as much control as possible over ourselves and our surroundings – everything from bus timetables to set prices on a menu and even the names we assign each other. Essentially, this is an exercise in making things as efficient as possible.

What does this all have to do with headlines having numbers in them you ask, slightly perplexed?

Well, the short answer is people like to know what they’re getting into. By clicking on your article they are taking a risk – will the knowledge they gain from your post be worth the time and effort they sacrificed to read it? By throwing a number in your headline you’re providing the audience with a concrete promise of what exactly is in the article itself and what they can glean from it, including roughly how much time they’ll have to put aside to read it. This obviously then eliminates some of the risk associated with clicking on the article which to many people is an attractive proposition.

While you might think being general and open-ended in your headline might garner a wider degree of attention it does come at the sacrifice of specificity.

A quick exercise if you will, which of these two headlines sounds better?

  • ‘10 Ways you can improve your online marketing.’
  • ’Google Analytics and SEO 101: 10 Ways to drastically improve your digital marketing.’

If you picked the second headline then congratulations, you’re part of the 99% of other people who chose it; the headline propositions the reader with a specific statement featuring exactly what they stand to gain and how long their time investment will be. This format also lets you be deliberate in your choice of content, building the rapport of your brand and educating instead of painting broad brushstrokes that only scratch the surface of your topic area.

Adjectives

This one is pretty self-explanatory and follows on from the previous message about specificity. Headlines are about standing out and what better way to do that than use interesting and to-the-point language that people don’t see often. By doing this you’re challenging them (and more specifically their attention) which will only serve to pique their immediate interest which is exactly what a good headline should do.

That said, it goes without saying to not alienate your audience with frivolously verbose headlines that only estrange your readers (get my point?) from the what you really wanted to say because this serves to not only confuse them but obviously causes them to ignore your article/headline. All of which is bad.

The bottom line is, you don’t need to impress people with big fancy words but rather words that firstly steal their attention and then secondly clearly give the audience a real reason to stop their fingers from scrolling past and actually clicking on your headline. Don’t be afraid to even bend the rules a bit when it comes to crafting your headline. Whether it be grammar or words, throwing a new spin on things is a sure-fire way to garner the kind of positive attention you want, though it must, of course, be done in good taste which can be a tricky thing to balance.

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Questions/Curiosity

Just how old is the oldest tree in the world?

That got your attention. Keep reading for the answer.

Another classic technique of attracting the right kind of attention is the humble question. You’re probably reading this now thinking you just want to know what the answer is but what you’ve just stumbled upon is the very human response of wanting to know what you don’t already know. It’s the reason we’ve sent probes into the vast nothingness of space and why for some inexplicable reason people engage in competitions to determine who among them can eat the most hotdogs within an allotted time period. While I will leave it up to you to work out which of those activities is the more productive of the two, the basic instinct is the same.

Using a question in your headline can be a way of challenging your audience by confronting them with something that they don’t know and this is doubly as effective when you position the issue as having an attached importance (urgency) or a topic that directly affects your reader.

It also pays to be aware of Betteridge’s very serious and not funny at all law of headlines: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” Take it with a grain of salt.

Oh, and the answer is 5066 years old (According to the most venerable of sources, Wikipedia).

Instructions

People are inherently lazy. As previously discussed we all want to gain as much as we can with as little effort as possible. Whether you like it or not, our time (see: attention) is becoming an even more sought after commodity than ever, especially with the advent of the smartphone and internet.

That said, instructions can be the perfect way to go to deliver a direct, no ‘fluff’ headline. Overly simplistic by nature, they feature aforementioned characteristics like using specific numbers and simple, easy to follow language (hopefully) that detail tasks to anyone who should be able to replicate those steps. Before deciding instructions are right for article though take into account what kind of content you are delivering; instructions work best when your topic or message is objectively straightforward or intuitive and not complex material that is implicitly subjective by nature.

And that’s it. We’ll be the first to admit a good headline isn’t easy to create but at the same time it doesn’t have to be hard. Using the points above as a guide and by spending a little more time and effort than you usually would your next headline can make all the difference by being that juicy bit of bait on the end of a well placed line.

Happy Fishing.

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