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Headline writing is undoubtedly the most important writing skill in PR and marketing. It’s not a bad skill for journalists either.

headline writing tips

David Ogilvy once said five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy. Because people are exposed to so many headlines each day in online news, email and social media, captivating headlines are probably even more important today than in the past. Sometimes, the change of a single word in an email subject line or a content marketing piece can dramatically increase click-through rates.

Some copywriters spend hours or days writing a blog post, content marketing piece or white paper, and then spend less than a minute thinking about the headline. Some experts now recommend writers spend half as much time on the headline as they do on body copy. Other experts suggest writing the attention-grabbing headline before writing the body copy – and then make sure the content lives up to the headline.

The Fantastic 4 U’s

In their Definitive Guide to Copywriting, Neil Patel and Joseph Putnam say outstanding headlines have four attributes, although writers can rarely achieve all four at once. Their four u’s are:

Unique. Customers have heard the standard sales pitches many times before. If you want to be noticed, you need to show how you are different. That may require personality and taking risks.

Ultra-specific. Readers must have enough information to decide if they are interested. Specific is preferable to clever yet vague.

Urgency. You cannot always convey a sense of urgency, but the rule works well when you can.

Useful. Conveying a benefit, what some call a value proposition, is one of the most important rules, yet companies break the rule frequently in an effort to be cute.

Proven Headline Writing Techniques

Successful marketers rely on various proven techniques to prompt readers to read an article or open an email. The following is an amalgamation of successful headline-writing techniques recommended by some the most successful web content writers. While they often agree on headline writing techniques, some tend to have a favorite style.

Start with a number. Listicles are scan-friendly and popular. A number next to text tends to attract the human eye. Follow a number with a word like reasons, ways, tips or secrets.

Breed distrust. Readers are eager to learn how they are being cheated or deceived. Examples include “What your __ won’t Tell You” or “5 Lies Your __ Tells You.”

Use strong words. Violent or ominous words can attract readers. Those words include kill, fear, dark, bleeding and war. Other powerful words are smart, surprising, history, hacks, big/huge and shocking.

Ask a question. Asking readers a question draws them in, and the punctuation mark can catch their attention. Examples provided by WordStream include “Think You Know SEO? Quiz Yourself and Find Out!” or “Do You Want to Build a Snowman? Read This Guide First.”

Be free. Forget what you learned in school. You don’t have to be informative, objective or even grammatically correct.

Seek superlatives. Use words like most, best or worst. Some call these headlines click-bait, but the strategy has worked for many marketers. Strive to deliver the supporting content.

Telegraph emotion. Readers like being told what they’re going to feel. Upworthy likes this strategy. An example is: “Finally, Pictures of Gorgeous Women that Make You Feel Better about Yourself Instead of Worse”

In most instances, the ideal headline for any given story or promotion blends more than one of the techniques to achieve its desired effect.

Know Your Audience

Marketing experts Kim Albee and Margaret Johnson at Genoo LLC explained their views of common headline-writing techniques for marketing and their pros and cons in a recent webinar. The first step and probably most important step in writing a successful marketing headline is to identify concerns and problems of your target audience, they said. What are their primary motivators? What keeps them up at night? The better you know your audience, the better your headlines. Find the top five things that concern your audience, they recommended.

Appealing to curiosity is a common technique. Tell people enough to get them interested but not so much that they don’t need to click. Upworthy prefers this technique as in “You’ll Never BELIEVE Who Taylor Swift Is Dating Now.” The headlines are best when specific yet vague. “Did Google’s Latest Update do this to Your Website” is a superb example of the technique – but difficult to migrate to a marketing environment. While the arousing curiosity technique can be successful in marketing, when done ineptly it fails miserably. The reader is too perplexed to bother opening the email or clicking on the ad.

The offer is another popular headline style in marketing but is overused and often poorly done, Albee and Johnson said. Too often, the marketer focuses on the company instead of the consumer’s needs and wants.

The urgency and scarcity headline – that typically cites limited supplies or tout time deadlines — can be effective but backfires if overused. That’s why experts advise employing the technique infrequently and combining it with other strategies.

Another popular technique is appealing to the readers’ self-interest by promising to improve their lives or job performance. “New Techniques for Writing Enticing Headlines” is an example, grin.

News is another double-edged sword. A common mistake is to announce news about the company. The proper method is to cite a well-known news event, state how it affects the customer and how the company’s product or service can help the customer. IT security firms employed the technique successfully by citing the Target data breach (and other breaches).

Bottom Line: Writing enticing headlines is crucial to attract attention and prompt click-throughs on marketing and PR materials. Applying proven headline-writing strategies can produce improved returns on your PR and marketing efforts.

Can you write a better headline than ours for this article? Use comments section below.

This article was originally published on the CyberAlert blog.