In a webinar from Poynter's News University, an online journalism training resource, Andy Bechtel, professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill, discussed the essentials of headline writing, specifically as the trend to consume content online and via mobile devices continues. I’ve summed up six key takeaways below, and if you’d like to listen to the full webinar, you can do so here.
Think of your headline as an invitation
A headline offers an opportunity to draw your reader in. It’s just as important to include the key details in your headline as you would any invitation—have you outlined the who, what, where and when? A headline also offers the ability to convey news and information. If your headline doesn’t give some kind of an idea as to what your story is about, it’s likely the reader will quickly move on.
Align the tone with that of your publication or blog
Tone is important. It offers insight into your own personality as well as that of the publication you’re writing for, and it can also reflect emotion. But having a serious, or even melancholy tone for a publication that is more light-hearted or sarcastic will immediately signal to the reader that you don’t understand who you’re writing for.
If your headline asks a question, answer it
You’ve seen them pop up on Facebook and BuzzFeed, and a few years ago, it was a tactic all reporters were using to drive clicks. Today, even publications like Fast Company and the New York Times use them, such as, “Microsoft Wants Autistic Coders. Can It Find Them And Keep Them?” and “Sheryl Sandberg Says, ‘Lean In,’ But Is That Really the Way to Lead?”
There’s nothing wrong with using a question in your headline, but your article must deliver on what your headline promises, and the question needs to be answered. If it’s not, you’ll not only lose readership, but you’ll also lose credibility.
Can your headline stand alone?
Maybe no man is an island, but your headline certainly should be—especially today, when many readers simply copy and paste an article’s headline to Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites without additional information. When writing your headline ask yourself, will this stand alone? Does it still make sense without an accompanying image? Would the reader get a general idea of what your article or blog post is about by only reading your headline? The answers to these questions should always be a resounding “yes”.
Write for the reader, not SEO
When considering how your headline will play out in search results, the good news is that Google likes headlines and weighs them heavily as useful content. But as you’re searching for the right keywords to use to increase online readership, keep the reader in mind above all else. You can weave as many keywords into your headline as possible, but at the end of the day, it should still benefit and be useful to your reader. You may succeed in initially driving clicks by prioritizing SEO, but if you don’t deliver relevant content, your popularity won’t last and readers will know to steer clear of your website.
Learn by trial and error
There’s no one solution when writing headlines. There’s the “listicle” that lets the reader you’re going to list out a series of steps or tips and tricks within your article. There’s the question, which we covered above, and there’s the “How,” “Why”, and “What” headlines. For example, we could have titled this blog post, “How to write a great headline for digital audiences” or “Do you know the essentials of headline writing?” Don’t be afraid to try them all to see what resonates the most with your readers. There is always room for trial and error!