“Extra, extra! Read all about it!” shrieks an eager eyed, grubby faced Victorian paperboy, clutching a freshly pressed newspaper on a dismal, smoke-filled London street corner.  

Image courtesy: http://theredundantpaperboy.wordpress.com/tag/redundant-paperboy/

This was how papers were originally sold to the masses. Sales of newspapers depended upon a child’s lung capacity – and of course a juicy headline.

For as long as there has been media, through the ages of censorship, educational reforms and technological advances, a headline has always been the key ingredient to secure engagement and sales.

I’m going to tell you why they continue to be THE most important factor for content that gets you conversions. And how to write headlines that get shared.

Why have headlines always been important?

A headline encapsulates a story. It’s at the top of the page, or emboldened on the cover of a magazine to pique yours and my interest. Formatted like a textual teaser, the short line of copy stands between a consumer’s cash and your information.

But you got to make it snappy. Humans have always been busy. We’re skim readers, and we’ll never change. If a headline doesn’t sum up a story in less than 10 words then the proceeding words are going to go unseen – and they could be the greatest words ever written. Think of what a travesty that would be! Worse still, you’ve wasted your time, you haven’t made a sale and that isn’t good business sense.

But even with the rise of social media, the proliferation of browsing devices and the overall immediacy and accessibility of media, you shouldn’t neglect the power a headline wields in selling a story.

In rapidly technologically evolving times, the headline should still be a top priority, even more so now in the age of social media, as you need to stand head and shoulders above the sea of dross. So I’m going to help you make the most of your online headlines.

Why should headlines online be even more powerful?

Well, we’re still trying to achieve the same things. But people buy and convert in different ways. There isn’t the simple exchange of hand-held printed media anymore, there’s the internet, and even the way that we use the World Wide Web has developed in such a way that was unimaginable in the digital dark ages.

Social sharing

The internet has become enslaved by a culture of sharers. This isn’t a criticism, I hold my hands up, I share too – a lot in fact – but only something that’s worthy of a share.

Social media users have notoriously short attention spans, so if it isn’t snappy, witty or useful I’m not going to share something with my followers.

Algorithm bots

We’re not only targeting those human sharers, we need to schmooze algorithm bots. Finding the delicate balance between an enticing headline that’s littered with targeted keywords can be tricky, but overall very rewarding if it gets picked up frequently in search.

Thirdly, a well optimized headline can attract visitors for years to come, which is a long time in the digital industry.

This statistic sums up your audiences attitudes to headlines, so take note:

“On average, 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest”*Brian Clark, Copyblogger

So if you keep in mind these following tips when crafting your headlines, you should see the biggest return on YOUR content marketing efforts.

#1 SEO

Relevance – Put yourself in the position of a search engine spider: how does a spider retrieve results for a search query – it reads the headline elements to determine the context of your piece to get the most relevant results for a searcher. So, bear in mind the overriding context of your piece and make sure your headline summarises that.

Keywords – One of my top tips for crafting a headline for a search is to take keywords out of the text that could formulate a potential search query by a consumer and put them into the headline.

This may mean that a witty title will go out of the window, but first and foremost you want to be discoverable. Incorporating keywords that are likely to be typed into a search engine could spell the difference between the long tail success of a piece of content, or the words going unread. People generally use Google to look for solutions so write your headline in the style of an answer to a typical problem.

For example, I want to find out different ways of building links to my content that will yield the most traffic, so I type into Google: “best traffic driving link building methods”, and low and behold, my colleague’s article appears at number 1:

It does exactly what it says on the tin, so I’m more likely to click it.

Pro tips- I practice unique, relevant and engaging titles when updating Twitter, writing EBay item titles and Instagram picture titles. We all update statuses for attention, so use your skills that are already there.

Sometimes, I’ll even run a search through the Adwords keyword tool, or into Google itself to see how well my topic ranks as well as social shares.

#2 Social Media

Social Media has become an increasingly key audience. However, just as readers skim newspaper headlines, so do users on social networks to see if something is worth sharing.

Analyse your headline in shareable terms – is it unique and engaging? Will people want to share it via their own profile? If you think about the psychology of sharing, people will only share something that makes them look good.

If your headline is original, it may get noticed and shared a lot via social networks or other popular article based sites like reddit, BuzzFeed, Sick Chirpse  and you’ll see a surge in traffic to your website.

Also, a lot of likes and shares equates to a lot of referring traffic. Nowadays you can get a lot of referral traffic via social media promotion.

Can I stress how much of a quick traffic win social shares are! Google takes weeks to crawl a site, think of the immediate gains from social.

#3 Word Count

I’m guilty of putting a few lengthy titles out into the ether. They look terrible as URLs so make sure you shorten the URL before you publish a piece. Constructing an acceptable URL in line with best practice SEO can help you shorten a headline too.

Again, consider social networks: mainly the Twitter character constraint. Make sure the most appealing, engaging words can fit in that small box – If you want a re-tweet, it needs to convey a strong message within the limit and take into consideration the obligatory “RT @”yourusername” if you want exposure.

I want to share my colleague James’ recent article about how to spot if you’ve been hit by Penguin 2.0

The headline is pretty self-explanatory and rather humorous to pique my friends’ interests – who know nothing about Google algorithmic penalties –  to click on and read.

However, generally when I re-tweet an article, I like to help a brother out and tweet @ them, so if I put in @JLNewhouse87, that’s another 12 less characters that I’ve got to promote the article. Imagine if James had stuck with his original title “That burning red slap on your face, yes, that’s from Google’s latest algorithm update”. There wouldn’t be any room left to credit him!

Also, think back to traditional media – social media readers also scan headlines, they scroll through thousands upon thousands of Tweets and +1s – you need to make your headline separate your content from the rest in as small a space as possible.

#4 A standalone headline

Again, to reference social media optimization, if you think about the articles, pictures and videos that are shared, a headline for each item is viewed in isolation. So, in terms of social media, does the headline make sense on its own? Does it capture the context of the piece?

When editing, ask yourself: Is it strong enough on its own? Is it a compelling summary that will hook a reader? Does it spring forth from the vast quantities of other headlines vying for our attention?

Pro tip: Keep a “working” title in mind, but write a title last, or pick from a list of ten.

#5 Imagery

As the cliché goes “a picture says a thousand words” and for your online headline, you really need it to. Think about the stacks of shared articles in a feed, the accompanying thumbnail can help a headline stand out from the rest so choose images wisely; images that convey a message and bolster your headline.

Below shows a screen grab from my very own Facebook newsfeed of shared articles on Monday 10 June, 2013:

As you can see, the differing subject matter will mean that some imagery will be more dramatic and thus engaging for certain headlines (namely the top article) but some rather rhetorical headlines are made more exciting with a picture, so don’t under estimate the power of pictures to equally grab your audience firmly by the eyeballs.

#6 Discussion

Nowadays, readers expect to be able to be participate. From the Guardian online to an illustrator’s design blog, they all have comment functionality to encourage open dialogue.

If it suits the content – write a headline that encourages debate – it will open up the lines of communication. The easier it is for someone to get involved with your content – and headlines encourage this initially – the more air time a piece will receive.

Take a look at these discursive headlines:

Image courtesy: www.guardian.co.uk

This article is from the Guardian Online and look how many comments it’s generated. It’s a political subject, and one that continues to be a hot topic, so it is complementary on this ocassion to title the content with a question.

Below is a screen grab from a-n.co.uk’s news section. A quote has been included from Peter Heslip, Director of Visual Arts at the Arts Council, England, as if to provoke readers to comment upon whether they agree or disagree:

image courtesy: http://new.a-n.co.uk/news

The value of art in times of recession is a contentious issue. A headline including personal insight from a senior figure is going to be hard-hitting, so consider the boundaries of debate when writing your headlines.

Need help writing your headlines?

And these are the areas that you should consider when writing a headline for today’s audiences. I’ll be writing another post about awesome headline styles that hook readers everytime.

I must credit Nick Usborne and his remarkably common sense approaches iterated in his ebook “Killer Headlines for Web Content” of which I took a great deal of inspiration. Please read the full version of the book for more ideas!

But in the meantime if you need help with your website’s copy, or require my copywriting skills to make sure your headlines are grabbing people by the eyeballs, get in touch today!