1. Your headline should run no more than six to eight words, so make sure you pick the right ones.(Headlines with eight words perform best. These received a 21 percent higher click through rate than average. *Outbrain.)
2. Your headline should be accurate.
3. No puns. “Newspaper puns are inherently unclear, rely on an assumed knowledge of the subject, often require photos and subheads for context, and, 99 times out of 100, are not as clever and unique as the writer believes,” Gessler maintains.
4. First words are critical: Front load. You have nanoseconds to grab your reader. Put the most important words in your headline up front.
There’s a great metaphor for web headlines from Susan Steade, online news producer at Bay Area News Group: “Business up front, party in the back.” In other words, nail your critical keywords right out of the gate, then have some fun.
Believe it or not, these are two headlines applied at different points to the same story.
• “7 months later, a gift to mom”
• “Man charged with murder of aspiring chef in Logan Square”
I’m sure you can guess which one made more readers click. The “gift,” incidentally, was the mother’s relief that a suspect had been charged in her son’s death.
5. Have an active voice.
6. Use proper nouns (names, teams, location). Having a well-known byline as the first words may be effective. Having a well-known name in your headline equally so.
This, referring to popular Tribune local columnist John Kass:
• “Kass: Pepper and egg a sandwich for all seasons”
• “Michael Jackson dead”
7. Be focused and literal. Pique a reader’s curiosity, but don’t bait and switch. For a story on the high price of limes and its impact on U.S. restaurants:
• “Mexican restaurants in U.S. squeezed by surging lime prices”
• “Price of limes soars; citrus cabal declares war on Taco Bell”
9. Ask a critical question (with context). For example:
• “When can I see the lunar eclipse in Chicago?”
• “Can you find the right DIY supplies– even major tools — without heading to the hardware store?”
• “Quinn and Rahm: Why can’t they just get along?”
10. Quotes work. “There is nothing more important than clarity,” Gessler says. “NOTHING. Straight headlines aren’t dull, they are elegant and effective. … The headline has to promote the most-engaging element, whether that’s a number, quote, fact, thought, topic, opinion, etc.”
HOW HEADLINES FOR WEB AND PRINT ARE DIFFERENT
In print, page presentation, images and accompanying text can increase a headline’s impact. Words like “BIG CRASH” make sense in bold above a photo of car accident. Print headlines have presence and can be great for getting people to notice stories. Here’s some characteristics of print headlines:
- Photos or images lend context. Printed headlines often have images and supporting text to support them and make the stories relevant to readers. A two-word headline has little chance of making sense without a big photo summing up the story.
- Text size can help headlines make impact. When print readers see huge bold text above the fold, they know that the story is likely an important read. Big text will likely draw the read in.
- Subheads make extra push to readers. How many times have you read a headline and then moved directly to the subhead? Readers want more context. Subheads explain to readers what the story is about when the headline often times only contains a couple words.
- Print headlines show up in one place. Print headlines on the front of the newspaper don’t show up again on the inside sections. Local news section headlines are not promo’d again in the business section. Headlines in printed publications have limited presence.
- Print headlines don’t change. Once it hits the dead tree, you can’t recall the day’s papers and change your stories’ headlines.
On the web, headlines take on the role of telling the entire story in limited words.
Let’s revisit the “Big Crash” headline that we saw in print. Do those words make sense on the web without other text or images to put it in context? If a reader see only those words on a page of search results, does the reader think about plummeting stock markets or a nasty hit during a hockey game?
Without putting those headline words in context, a reader can’t know what the story is about. It’s imperative that web headlines tell the story. Here’s some characteristics of headlines on the web:
- Web headlines appear in many places on a site. Web headlines can be syndicated with RSS to show up on many places throughout a site. For example, if a site wants to promote local news stories in the business sections, they can run an RSS feed of news headlines on a sidebar, which creates better chance of cross-section readership.
- Web headlines pop up on external sites. Through RSS, headlines can be syndicated on Google News, other news sites, blogs, wherever. This is great news because the more places your RSS feed appears, the more chances for increased readership you get.
- Web headlines don’t always appear with other content. Web headlines can’t depend on images or subheads to get readers to click them. Web headlines must be enticing enough to generate clicks.
- Web headlines can’t depend on text size for impact. Because headlines can be syndicated through feeds and often must fit in styles on different pages, it’s nearly impossible to depend on a headline’s size to grab attention of a reader. If size can’t do it, what can?
- Web headlines must get the point across. If your news sites’ headlines can appear anywhere on the web and without supporting content, it’s incredibly important to be able to convey the point of the story with just text.
- Your headline won’t necessarily be the headline people use.Believe it. Web users often share your stories on social media sites and write their own headlines for your content. The better headline you write, the less likely web users will have to edit your headlines to make them relevant to social media sites.
- You can change web headlines! If a headline you wrote for the morning’s story doesn’t seem to say the right thing about the story, you can change it any time. On the web, you can edit any content in real time, including your headlines.