When I worked as a business journalist, I used to have an editor who wouldn’t let me begin working on a story idea until I had first pitched an eye-catching headline to accompany the finished piece.
Initially, I found this idea counter-productive, and quite frankly, infuriating. After all, how could I know what the headline of a story was going to be before I had done the interviews and the research necessary to write my piece?
Over time, though, I began to see the error of my ways. If the body of a story is the product you offer to the masses, the headline — along with the thumbnail image you use — is the packaging that tells people what’s inside and gets them excited to open it.
Today, the headline is an integral part of my process for developing story ideas, as I know that I can’t serve readers properly unless I have begun by first asking myself what would make them choose my story from the endless stream of social media and content recommendation links. But I also know that great headlines can be a challenge to develop, especially when you’re testing multiple iterations and are looking to engage audiences on many different sites and platforms across the web.
With this in mind, here are five tips to help you craft the perfect headline:
If possible, make a numbered list
While it might feel like a cliché at this point, there’s a reason listicles are still popular on the web several years after they came into vogue: they work.
By using a headline like, “5 Email Tips To Make You More Productive At Work,” you give potential readers a very clear idea of what’s in your story and build a bit of intrigue as to its contents. Someone coming across your listicle in a content recommendation might think, “I’d love to be more efficient with my inbox, and I’m curious to know what these specific tips are.”
A listicle also gives busy internet users an approximation of how much time it will take to read your article and promises them that they can save time by skimming the sub-heads for the most important information.
As Taboola senior content strategist Inbar Yagur put it in a recent presentation, “People like to be in control of their experience, and they want to know what’s going to happen post-click.”
If a listicle is unavailable, try a how-to
If you can teach people to do something that helps them accomplish an important personal goal, chances are a straightforward, “How To” headline will get the job done.
For instance, one of my former bosses has had great success writing posts with headlines that promise people the best answers to the most stressful job interview questions (“Get paid”).
One post, “Here’s How To Answer The Dreaded ‘What’s Your Greatest Weakness’ Interview Question,” has more than 245,000 pageviews, evidence that people don’t need any sort of hard sell if you can teach them something they desperately want to learn.
Mix something very specific with something fairly vague
In my opinion, the toughest part of headline writing is finding a way to give readers a taste of what the article is about without giving away so much information that they no longer feel compelled to click through to the story.
A good way to walk this tightrope is to offer up one or two very specific details, while intentionally leaving an air of mystery to another part of the headline.
For instance, one of the best performing stories I ever wrote was entitled, “An Incredible New Guinness Ad Breaks The Industry Stereotype.”
People who came across this link in their social media feeds were able to gather a good deal of information about what was inside: They knew that the story would contain an advertisement from a specific, recognizable beer brand that would somehow break the mold of what had come before it.
What they didn’t know — and what was left to their imagination — was which industry stereotype was being broken and how exactly Guinness managed to go against the grain.
This combination of the known and the unknown drove clicks, and once the content inside delivered on the headline’s promise (it really was an incredible ad), people shared it with their friends on Facebook.
Use celebrities when possible, but don’t over-promise
People feel passionately about their favorite stars, and including someone famous in your headline is a great way to get people’s attention.
However, if your story is only tangentially related to the celebrity in question (i.e. if we tried to work Drake into the title of this post because he has a song called “Headlines”), people will feel cheated and bounce from your page fairly quickly. As a result, it’s important to think carefully about whether your celebrity’s fans will feel satisfied after reading your post.
Finally, as Yagur explains in her presentation, you can use celebrities who are specific to your industry as a way of attracting a relevant, niche audience.
Indeed, most of my friends probably couldn’t pick investor Barbara Corcoran out of a lineup, but to the people who watch her on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” everything she says
A/B test everything
Even the most brilliant viral wizard is going to write some posts that don’t perform as well as they would have expected. There have been plenty times I’ve written headlines that I thought would do killer traffic, only to be severely disappointed, and other times when I’ve stumbled upon a surprise hit.
By a/b testing your headlines, you can make sure that people are actually clicking on the titles you’ve written and staying on the page after they do so. Once you see how real, live users respond to different headlines, you can then increase click-through rate and time spent on the site by swapping in the title that is working best.
Now that you know the secrets to crafting an irresistible headline, it’s time to go out there and get writing.
Remember, if it at first you don’t succeed, you can always try tweaking your headline and republishing it on your website and social channels. By combining our tips with a rigorous test-and-learn approach, you’ll be well on your way to maximizing the performance of your content.
Interested in learning more about how your team can engage audiences around the web through content? Contact one of Taboola’s strategists today.