Jan 20, 2012
Dear Gracie: How to Write Catchy Headlines
Each week, Dear Gracie answers questions from ProfNet Connect readers with advice from our network of nearly 50,000 ProfNet experts. Has there been a question burning in your mind lately, something you’ve been wondering that none of your friends can answer? Please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m PR agent, but I also freelance on the side, so I write press releases and articles regularly. I want to know how important headlines are to readers. What types of headlines generate the most interest? Are headlines different in print vs. online? Are puns a good idea? Can you go overboard trying to make a headline catchy?
Dear Heady Headliner,
Nine experts from the ProfNet community offer their insight on headlines:
So Much Pun in Pictures: Contextualizing Headlines
Understand your limitations, says Marie Lang, editorial assistant for Rochester Insitute of Technology’s University News Services and editor of News & Events Daily, the online campus newsletter. “Print newspaper headlines are bound by columns and lines, but may have accompanying artwork or photos to play off of,” she says. “Online headlines are bound by SEO guidelines, character limits and a lack of accompanying visual aids.”
“If there is an image next to your headline, play off of what is happening in the photo,” says Lang.
“Overall presentation is enhanced when the headline picks up on the photo or illustration,” agrees Joseph McClain, director of research communications at The College of William & Mary. He provides this picture as an example:
The grasping crab in the photo actually dictated the “Seize the Bay!” headline, explains McClain. If the photo had been different, the headline wouldn’t have worked.
Punline Headlines: Writing for the Web
Kathryn Clark, media relations coordinator at Creighton University in Nebraska, notes that she frequently uses puns or clever words for headlines and story ideas — but on Facebook, she finds that the number of clicks on her article goes up when she’s “to the point.”
Always use an SEO keyword in every title, unless it compromises the catchiness of the title, says Joan Barrett, owner of The Content Factory.
“The most important words should be early in the headline,” says Lang. Ask yourself: If I were looking for this story online, what would I search for?
Barrett notes that “Top 10″ and numbered lists are generally the most popular, so try taking that angle whenever possible.
Kristina Jaramillo, a LinkedIn marketing expert and owner of GetLinkedInHelp.com, adds that revealing results in the headline can be effective too. For example, “See How This LinkedIn Marketing Expert Helped a Top Internet Marketer Increase Website Traffic by 33 Percent.”
She also says that providing a reason why someone should read your article will pique interest, for example: “Client Admits Losing $5 Million Due to Poor Workplace Communication Mistakes: Could You Be Making the Same Mistakes?“
And finally, consider using the power of media, says Jaramillo. For instance: “Negotiation Expert Featured on Fox Business Helps Companies Win Multi-Million Dollar Contracts.”
Add Some Punch: Using Word Play
“Brevity is the soul of wit,” says Nancy Juetten, author of “Bye-Bye Boring Bio” and the Authentic Visibility ezine. “Headlines should be brief, descriptive and compelling.” The goal is to turn heads and invite readership, she says.
“Eye-catching headlines are usually short and snappy,” agrees Lang. Use strong, descriptive verbs; and try alliteration, consonance and assonance, she says. “Grab your thesaurus and let it do some of the work for you.”
Lang provides an example: Compare “Bills Beat Broncos” to “Bills Trample Broncos.” The first headline lets the reader know the Bills won the game; the second example lets the readers know the Bills won the game by a landslide, with some added imagery of the victorious team running over the losers.
Sometimes taglines and phrases that are instantly identifiable to readers, albeit with a twist, are very effective, counters Zipporah Dvash, vice president of public affairs and development at SUNY Downstate Medical Center – University Hospital of Brooklyn at Long Island College Hospital.
For example, Dvash reported on a story a few years ago about a hospital physician in her community (Brooklyn) who was mugged and required plastic surgery. Although he could have gone to a ritzy Manhattan hospital, he asked a colleague at his hospital to do it. When Dvash wrote up the press release, she played to her readers’ sense of Brooklyn boosterism, plus the their knowledge of Las Vegas promo ads, and ran it with the headline: “What Happens in Brooklyn, Stays in Brooklyn.” Her press release was picked up by all six local newspapers.
Similarly, when Shel Horowitz — copywriter, marketing consultant and author of “Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green: Winning Strategies to Improve Your Profits and Your Planet” — wrote a press release about a new book on electronic privacy, he titled it with, “It’s 10 O’Clock — Do You Know Where Your Credit History Is?“
“I liked it because it did not say ‘Electronic Privacy Expert Releases New Book,’ or anything else that was boring and expected,” explains Horowitz.
By taking an old, familiar meme, and reinventing it in a completely new context, the headline was much more interesting, he explains.
But be creative and original, says Lang. “Don’t rely on overused clichés.” For example, using “‘Tis the Season” in your headline around the holidays is probably boring to readers.
Funny Phrases (Comical or Strange?): Ambiguity in Headlines
Although it is essential to choose a headline for your article that reflects what it is actually about, ambiguity in headlines is a tried-and-true trick of the trade.
Dwight Bachman, public relations officer for Eastern Connecticut State University, shares this example: The former president of Eastern Connecticut State University, Dr. David G. Carter, used to (and still does) speak to inmates at the prison in Brooklyn, Conn., to encourage them to read more.
When Bachman wrote up a press release about Carter’s visits with inmates, he ran it with this ambiguous headline, “Eastern President David Carter Going to Jail!”
It’s ambiguous because while the headline was truthful (Carter was in fact visiting inmates), it can simultaneously be interpreted as Carter being sent to jail — which is a much more jarring statement.
Bachman got calls from several editors, with responses like, “You sure got my attention!” because they initially thought they had a scandal to report on.
In the end, several reporters did end up writing articles on Carter’s outreach efforts, and it made the front pages of several newspapers. So even though the headline didn’t guarantee story coverage, it got people to pay attention.
Inkcouragement: Thinking up Headlines
“Don’t beat yourself up if a gorgeous headline isn’t the first thing that pops into your head,” says Lang. “Sometimes they do, but for the rest of the time, grab a pen and paper or open a fresh Word document and just start writing or typing.”
“Start with your keywords, what the story is about, or what you want to emphasize,” Lang continues. “Write it all down, even the headlines you think are no good. Maybe that no-good headline becomes a great one when you substitute a word here or add a word there.”
If your headline is destined for the Web, then also try searching for your keywords to see what comes up, says Lang.
And remember: “No matter how good you think a headline is, it’s worthless if no one understands it,” says Lang. So if you think up a creative headline, and you’re not sure if it works, play it safe and ask for a second opinion.
Very Punny: Final Tip
Juetten recommends checking out the Advanced Marketing Institute’s “Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer.” It’s a free tool that allows you to enter your headline into an analysis engine to find out its emotional marketing value. (Neat!)
However, she notes that sometimes a headline won’t earn a great score, but you’ll know in your gut that it’s a good one. “It’s ultimately a judgment call when push comes to shove,” she says. “For those who want to get known and get paid, it is the measuring of results and ongoing testing that are important to optimizing results.”
Written by Grace Lavigne, editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.