How to write effective, attention-grabbing headlines

Whether you work as a copywriting professional or just dabble in blogging, it can be tough to summarize hundreds or thousands of words into one, short headline.

Here are a few quick and easy tips to take your title or headline from ho-hum to all-star:

Focus on what’s in it for the reader

People in relatively affluent societies are generally motivated by three higher needs: affiliation, aspiration, and identity. Anyone who has had training in sales or writing knows the #1 question a reader or customer is asking themselves is, “What’s in it for me?” People crave for us to solve a problem they have or give them a reason why they should listen to us. Give them that reason upfront to draw them in and leave them on the edge of their seat.

Be specific

What’s the key point of your content? That’s what the headline or title should reflect. According to Ogilvy, 80% of people only read headlines and skip the rest. If that’s the case, it makes sense to be as specific as possible so readers can quickly identify what the content is about and decide whether or not it’s applicable to them.

Balance personality and relevance

Many writers fall into two traps: being too straightforward or too catchy. When you’re too straightforward, it can come across as boring and may not grab the reader’s attention. When you get too creative, you can lose the main point of your content and lose your reader altogether. Instead, try to balance the two by giving the headline enough personality to entice the reader, while still explaining what the article is about.

Stay true to your voice

Your headlines and titles should always align with your brand’s voice or personality. If you work for a large company that is very professional and formal, it probably wouldn’t make sense to say, “Check out our new site, dudes!” On the other hand, if your company’s voice is quirky and casual, it would sound bizarre to say, “Learn how to involve your key stakeholders in developing your strategic vision.” Identify what your company’s verbal style is, and stick to it.

Talk about benefits, not features

Along the same lines, people respond a lot more positively to benefits than to features. No one cares that the iPod has 160GB of storage (although thatis pretty impressive). They care that they can listen to 40,000 songs in a row and never have to delete one again. That’s powerful! When you rely on features, you’re not speaking your customers’ language, and they move on. Features can be duplicated. Your unique benefits and solutions can’t.

Stay away from cliches

Please spare us the pain of another variation of “Lions and tigers and bears – oh my!” in your headline. These kinds of cliches are hard to get away from. They’re easy to remember, you think they make you sound creative, and they’re often the first thing you think of. And that’s why they shouldn’t be used. If cliches were effective, everyone could be a writer. Push past it, and come up with a new way to describe your topic. Your readers will be pleasantly surprised and more likely to read what you have to say.

Breathe new life into tired words

Words like “great,” “helpful,” “awesome,” and “interesting” are ok, but they don’t impress anyone. Give your headline or title some extra oomph by going through each word (aside from prepositions) and brainstorming more vivid or engaging ways to say the same thing. The thesaurus can be your best friend!

Consider SEO, but don’t force it

There’s an ongoing debate in the marketing industry about writing for search engine optimization vs. writing for humans. Forty is a proponent of writing with SEO in mind, while focusing first and foremost on what makes sense to a person. Keywords are important for search engines, but if your headline is confusing or robotic, it’s not going to draw someone in to read your content anyway. When you speak the language of your audience, you’ll naturally get more relevant search traffic. Include a keyword or phrase in your headline if it makes sense, but be sure you’re writing for humans, not robots.

Use an active voice

Using a passive voice can be awkward, vague, or unnecessarily wordy. Tighten your writing, and cut to the chase by using an active voice. Also, eliminate any extraneous words to make the title more succinct.

Build an attention-grabbing arsenal

All readers want to be entertained, to reaffirm their beliefs, to know how they can help, to be confronted, or to be enlightened. They’re drawn in when they think something is meaningful and fascinating. There are lots of headline and title formulas that have been proven to work (how to’s, lists, intriguing questions, etc.). Building up your own toolbox of content and headline prompts may help when you’ve hit writers block. Think about using metaphors (“Social Media Turns Tie Games into Brand Wins” by Jay Baer) or comparing your topic to things people are already familiar with (“10 Things Lady Gaga Can Teach Marketers About Building Community” by Fast Company). Check out our blog on writing prompts for more ideas.

For more help on improving your writing, check out Copyblogger and Copyediting Blog.

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How to write effective, attention-grabbing headlines
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Follow these quick and easy tips to take your title or headline from ho-hum to all-star.
Shaina is our former Communication Director, and we're proud to have her as a Forty alum. Catch up with her current work