What makes a great headline?

30 June 2016
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Research shows that eight out of ten people will read an eye catching headline, but only two out of the ten will read the rest of the article. So anyone who’s trying to write a persuasive piece of copy should spend half their time creating the perfect headline to grab the reader’s attention.

A headline needs to be short and sweet. It has to catch the eye, and a long sentence can’t do that; and, of course, after just 65 characters web searches will cut off the rest. So keep it tight.

The perfect headline is just six words. When people scan headlines they take in the first word and the last three and if there is less to read then there is a higher chance of retaining attention.

The questioning headline is always a favourite. “Planning to take a cruise?” is effective because it directly engages the reader. A personal conversation directed at you.

Use interesting adjectives to attract the eye; ‘beautiful’, ‘bitter’ ‘edible’, ‘meaningless’, ‘gorgeous’, ‘adorable’, ‘breakable’, ‘homeless.’ All appeared as adjectives in the newspaper headlines I read this morning. They add spice to an otherwise worthy, but boring headline.

Use negative wording as well. That taps into our insecurities. Headlines containing ‘stop’, ‘no’ and ‘without’ are shared far more widely than routine sentences.

People like big numbers too. “92m miles to the sun” or “99 things to do in London”.

If you personalise a headline it attracts reader curiosity, but be careful, use it sparingly otherwise this trick will drop in effectiveness.

So for example, a typical Buzzfeed headline might be “20 ways to get the best out of your holiday. Number 9 is a must!”

Try this formula: A trigger word or number + adjective + keyword + promise.

“How to wash the dog” becomes “15 great ways to clean your dog in the garage”. Or, “How to sell your car” becomes “How to sell your car in less than a day”.

Why do headlines fail?

The clearest reason is that the headline doesn’t match the article or isn’t very specific. For example “What we know”.

Also beware of headlines with alternate meanings – “Eats shoots and leaves”

Humour, of course, can draw the eye and attention. “Fire Service pours cold water on budget expectations.” But be careful.

Or even a single word which can encapsulate a myriad of points. ‘Brexecuted’ being my favourite today. A further twist in the UKs Brexit saga.

Looking a little further back, ‘Gotcha’ appeared on a first edition of the Sun on 4th May 1982 and it still resonates. A 34-year-old headline and we still remember it today.  That’s what you call success!

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