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‘Urgency, Excitement and a Reason to Read’: Crafting Engaging Headlines

In a famous New Yorker cartoon, a woman publisher sits behind a desk addressing Charles Dickens and his manuscript, and cheerfully advises: “But think of the SEO if the title actually named the two cities.”
Titles and headlines. In a recent virtual editorial session we held, Mike Andronico, editor in chief of Tom’s Guide, a technology publication/website for Future Plc, posited on the attention they feel must be paid to headlines. “For a news story the most important thing to me is that it has a great headline that people are going to want to click on and read. So we do a lot of headline workshopping. We use our Slack to brainstorm ideas.
“Honestly that’s one thing I pay close attention to,” Andronico continued. “I really enjoy that brainstorming process. It doesn’t always take super-long. Sometimes we’ll just share three ideas, the staff will pick their favorite and we’ll go from there. But I think it’s especially important for those feature stories and those personal stories.”
He said that they recently ran a story from a freelancer who wrote how the Galaxy Watch Active almost saved her life. “We crafted a headline around that. [Overall,] it’s about coming up with the most engaging headline you can while still being honest and not doing what people call click bait. We want to make sure we’re not falsely advertising the story but there are definitely needs for urgency, excitement and a reason to read the story.”
Here are more tips for crafting that perfect headline:
1. Be authentic not distant. Look for ways to make headlines more accessible. Maybe it means knocking out use of terms like “government,” “official,” or “according to,” things that feel distant as opposed to authentic. It’s more about getting to “what are we really trying to say?”
2. Use the curiosity gap. How do we get people to want to read this story without using “what happens next will shock you” but communicating that we actually have really interesting layers to this story. When we notice a gap between what we know and what we want to know, we go looking for that missing piece of information.
3. Numbers don’t lie. “I Went $230,000 Into Debt to Become a Doctor in America”; $230 000 instantly forms a connection to the reader. “I can’t afford that”; “I can afford that”; “I sympathize with you”… It elicits a reaction from the number alone. If you see headlines about connecting with your audience, it puts you in a much better place to get that story shared.
4. Walk the line. Try to straddle the line between setting up the story enough to be interesting, but not enough to give it all away. Imagine you’re sitting next to your reader and telling her a story.
5. Know your audience. As Andronico said, don’t mess with your audience by dishing out click bait solely to create traffic. As one journalist wrote, the key to writing good headlines is understanding your audience well enough to artfully create headlines they know they can trust.
6. Ask a question. A travel company sent me an email with this head today: “What would you like the future of adventure travel to look like?” That’s probably more inviting than “Answer this 10-minute survey.” Another email asked, “Live events are back. What now?” I wanted to know that.
7. Humanize your voice and personalize your message. Use “you” and “your.” “Surprise, we’ve gifted you $10 today,” Goldstar just wrote. “Events Picked Just for You” from Eventbrite. H&M sent this: “You lucked out! 30% off any item.” And the one that always gets me: “You’re invited…”
9. Don’t always obey the rules. I know, after all that… We’re told to keep headlines to around 8 words and 70 characters. But if it takes more words to convey your message and you can have a little fun, then so be it. Or sometimes one or two words might suffice.
10. Use strong claims. Bold can be beautiful. Yahoo: “Did Marilyn Monroe Inspire Spring’s Biggest Shoe Trend?” The virtual DC Jazz Festival today: “Fill Your Tuesday Night With Great Jazz.” Says one expert: “As long as your content can back up the claim, over-the-top is okay.”