Killer headline tips to make stories, tweets, emails irresistible

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If you don’t invest your time to write headlines that aggressively market your content, readers will not invest their time to read what you have to offer—no matter how compelling it is.

“We have to start thinking about actively selling our content, whether that is a story, or whether it is an email or newsletter,” said Mark Ragan, CEO of Ragan Communications. “We have to think of ourselves as marketers every step of the way.”

The headline is the key selling point.

That’s not only true for headlines on stories, but also for subject lines on email and teasers promoting content inside your publication, said Ragan and two other headline-writing experts, Andrew Lennie, senior producer at WGN-TV in Chicago, and Jim Ylisela, president of Duff Media Partners. They presented a lively seminar in this Ragan Training session, Rope ’em in: How to write irresistible headlines in the age of social media.

Bad headlines abound across America

Stronger headlines are needed to “close the gap between what we like to consume, what draws us into a story or into a piece of content, and what we’re producing in corporate America, which is generally pretty bad,” Ragan said.

Why do most headlines suck? He said bad headlines are:

  • Mind-numbingly boring
  • Not selling the benefits, the “What’s in it for me?”
  • Filled with jargon and acronyms
  • Too conservative
  • Not informative, not fun

This is excerpted from a Ragan Training video titled Rope ’em in: How to write irresistible headlines in the age of social media.

Ragan said editors at many general-circulation magazines write great headlines that grab readers’ attention. He showed examples from Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Men’s Fitness, Cosmo Girl, Diet & Exercise, Child, Psychology Today, and Inc.

“You know exactly what they’re trying to sell you,” he said. “We’ve got to work on doing that.”

Connecting with your audience

On a Cosmo Girl cover, for example, he highlighted headlines that would connect with the target audience, teenage girls:

  • “257 Spring Beauty & Fashion Tricks; plus “4 Fun Moves To A Hotter Body”
  • “He Got Us a Hotel Room; What to do When He Wants To Go Too Far.”

“These people know their audience,” he said.

The same goes for the business magazine Inc. An example of a cover headline, “How To Strike A Great Deal; The 8 Rules For Taking Money From Investors,” shows that its editors understand their audience and how headlines can engage those readers.

“We generally have to be human about our headlines,” said Ragan, who urged conferees to remember this simple test: If your headline wouldn’t move you to open the magazine or click on a link, rewrite it. If the subject line wouldn’t move you to click open an email, rewrite it.

“If it doesn’t meet that test for you, it is very unlikely it will meet that test for other people,” he said.

Lists, Q&A’s connect with readers

Readers love lists. Headlines or subject lines that promise a list can drive readership, Ylisela said.

“Our brains crave that kind of organization,” he said. “I know what to expect, and I know when I’m at the end.”

Ragan offered this: “A list has all of these mental ramifications for people. They can almost see it in their heads. All I have to do is scan this, and I get my money’s worth.”

Headlines that promote question-and-answer content will entice people to turn the page or click through to the story. The headline tells them that “we’ve got the solution,” Ragan said.

“You have to close that chasm between all of the headlines that we know are perfect for the audience and what we produce,” he said.

Be specific, ask questions, offer inside info

Lennie offered five tips for writing smarter, more engaging headlines:

  • Make it seem like people are learning some cool, inside information
  • Be specific
  • Promise something useful
  • Write for your friends, not your fans
  • Ask a question that the user feels compelled to know the answer to

In posting story links on Facebook or other social media, Lennie said that adding photos or memes can drive traffic to your site. The images connect with readers in a big way.

“You really have to get down to specifics,” Ragan agreed. “What is it about your product or your service that you can make vivid, concrete, and specific in a colorful way, using humor if you can. Use anything to jolt people up in their chairs.”

Ylisela had four tips of his own:

  • Know your audience
  • Pick the right format-news headline vs. feature headline
  • Layer your content online
  • Do the unexpected

“You have to know what people are going to respond to,” he said. “What are the triggers, what are the key words?” Those words should be worked into the headlines, “so I’m speaking directly to them.”

Adopting a “newsstand mentality” will also help generate headlines that are “screaming for your attention, competing with everything else around,” Ylisela said.

The three headline experts encouraged attendees to collaborate with colleagues on writing headlines. It is one of the few times that writing by committee may actually yield a better product. You might even try the National Enquirer format, then tone it down as needed, they said.

“Sometimes you have to do the unexpected to get people’s attention,” Ylisela said.

Ragan said there are several things that headline writers can learn from Twitter. Good headline writing:

  • Thrives on brevity
  • Demands strong verbs
  • Omits needless words
  • Forces you to think, “What am I sharing?”
  • Hones your skills at Refrigerator Journalism (readers clip and save the item)
  • Creates voice

To increase the chances that your emails will become must-read items for colleagues and friends, the experts said the same advice applies—be specific, be brief, get to the point.

Don’t write “Daily alert” or “Today’s news” in the subject line. They said to try this subject-line format: “5 facts about our new CEO” or “Our dress code: The debate goes on.” With space for only a few words, highlight a newsy item and make those words count. 

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