Great Headline, Anyone?

“I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie, there is no system, the universe is indifferent.” -Don Draper, Mad Men.

Writing for the web is, as most people know by now, completely different than writing for other mediums. There are things like the structure and length of the paragraph, the use of bullet points, and the sheer amount of content that isn’t quite the same online as a piece you might see in a newspaper. One aspect of writing holds the same level of importance across the board, though, and that is a headline. While a visitor might be indifferent when they reach a site, once they get there it’s up to us to impress. We dazzle with design, and they stay a minute longer to poke around a bit. Then they start actually reading the content, and that’s where we want to hook them.

Headline writing is something we feel we’re not too shabby at, and something that we embrace to set us aside from our competition. Witty, sleek, edgy and sometimes funny headers can be seen on the sites we generate content for, giving the site a personality all its own. In any event, headlines are what allows a visitor to scan the web page for the information they’re looking for- they’re what either draws that visitor in or pushes them away.

The Pundits.

There are a lot of people out there who swear they have fool-proof formulas for writing stellar headlines. We’re not going to pretend to know all the answers, but here’s our take on the issue: Short and sweet. Identify a problem, then tell the reader how you’re going to solve it. Be original. Put those three things together and chances are you’ll end up with a great headline that serves its purpose and grabs attention at the same time.

While working on a project recently, we came up with a way to cross reference a few methods to come up with even more original lines. We’re giving away our secrets, but that’s okay, because a great headline is great to read no matter who wrote it. We looked up well known phrases, picked a key word in the phrase and plugged it into this rhyming site to see if we could create a new phrase that strikes the same chord as the original, but with our custom theme seeping through. Still keeping it short and simple, and solving a problem.

Another method is to take a well known phrase and break it down into shorter, more succinct thoughts. For example:

Phrase: Get your foot in the door.
Headline: Your foot. Their door.

This references a way to set a meeting that is usually very difficult to get. It’s specific, implies a very real problem, and lets the reader know that information in the following paragraph(s) will tell them how to get their foot in the door.

What else is out there?

Even though “how-to” and “list” headlines are all the rage these days, www.copyblogger.com has some other ideas to mix it up a bit. Some of their better bits include “Have a (blank) You Can Be Proud Of,” and “Who Else Wants (blank)?”. Although these headlines might be seen more often in a sales-copy setting, and as basic as they are, they still seem to grab attention.

Read the entire article here: http://www.copyblogger.com/10-sure-fire-headline-formulas-that-work/

Appeal to the reader. What’s in it for them? People generally don’t read online content for the hell of it. They (understandably) want something out of it. They want answers, inspiration, something.

A Top 10 List from www.notrain-nogain.org:
• Write in the present tense. Use active verbs.
• Put the key words of the story in the main head.
• Get the most important story element in the headline. Headlines should tell readers what happened and why the news is important to readers.
• Avoid puns.
• Be accurate.
• Be interesting and inviting. Headlines should be an advertisement for the story, but they should never be so cute that they fail to instantly tell the news.
• Be creative. Headlines can and should creatively convey a mood or emotion when appropriate, but they must always tell the news in clear and direct fashion.
• Don’t pirate the lead of the story or give away the ending. Stealing the lead means repeating it almost verbatim. You do want to make sure the headline matches the tone of the story.
• Rarely (almost never) use short, verb-less labels as main heads for news stories. They fail to tell the news.
• Avoid headlinese. Make headlines conversational.

There’s a great article on www.instigatorblog.com about how few people write headlines for google or digg, but even fewer write headlines for people. The piece talks about how a headline channels the insane amount of content out there to your target audience. Worth a quick read!

Read it here: http://www.instigatorblog.com/the-best-headlines-are-not-just-written-for-search-engines-or-digg/2007/03/28/

A lot of people say that once you’ve got a great headline, the body copy will fall into place. We think it’s important to spend a lot of time on those few words that introduce your body copy. Hopefully with the right resources and tools in your hands, you’ll generate something that will break the streak of indifference Don Draper is so sure exists out there…

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