Tips for Crafting Headlines

Headlines are one of the elements that convince readers to click on a story and read. They should be catchy and interesting, but also as relevant and descriptive as possible.

Other important documents:

  • How to Write for GV Best practices for writing and reporting a GV story.
  • Style Guide Information about GV stylistic standards.
  • Posting Guide Technical information about creating posts including text formatting styles and instructions for dealing with images and video.

What's the best way to write headline? Follow these tips.

Headlines should be about the news, not about the conversation

We should think of headlines as an invitation to potential readers to read the story. Successful headlines will communicate the unique or the unusual (the news) aspect of the story, lure readers into the story, and reflect the tone of the story as well as of the organization.

Everything on Global Voices is about citizen media conversations, so it makes sense that the headline should simply address news that the conversation is about. Otherwise we end up with many headlines that have: Netizens Respond, Opinions from Bloggers, Blogosphere is Divided on, etc. One day, we could end up with “Tweeps Debate Netizen Response to Blogosphere!”

Think of headlines as an island

In digital media like Global Voices, headlines have to be effective on their own, especially when a large portion of our content is shared on social media. We can't think of headlines as part of a package – the words themselves carry the sole responsibility of luring readers.

Ask yourself: What is the primary question addressed by the story? Is it a who, what, when, where, why, or a how? Focus on that element in your headline. Is it a profile of a person? That’s a who story. Or is it breaking news? That’s probably a what story. If it’s an explainer or backgrounder then that’s probably a why or how story.

You might find this article, World’s Best Headlines, helpful.

Write headlines with high share-ability

The rise of social media has opened the door to headlines beyond the straight news headline that normally requires a subject and a verb. Straight news headlines are still useful, but this means that we have more options!

Question headlines are a great way to lure readers and have high share-ability, but we have to make sure that we answer the question (if it has an answer, that is). If the answer to the question isn't known or available, we have to make sure to explore the issue thoroughly to avoid pulling a bait-and-switch on readers.

How, What and Why headlines are also an effective headline for web (e.g. “What Lincoln Said the Night Before the Gettysburg Address”).

Title headlines, once the sole domain of magazines, are highly share-able options, as well (e.g. “The Complete Guide to Brushing Your Teeth at Work”).

Headlines should grab readers in a second or two

You want to capture the reader’s attention as early as possible. Research shows that most online readers scan, paying special attention to keywords and the first two words in headlines, before deciding to click.

Always make sure the first two words are strong in the headline. Don’t waste it on an empty word like the or a. Go for a keyword (usually a noun) that describes the subject of your story (Hacker, Earthquake, Peace, Gunpoint, Slavery.) Headlines that don’t grab readers with their first two words: “Debates Emerge in London 2012 Empty Seats Controversy” or “Global: A Tool for Online Education”

Use visual or emotional language

Studies show that videos eliciting a strong emotional reaction are twice as likely to be shared. If you want your post to be shared on social media sites, make your headline visual, make it emotional.

Consider these headlines:

  • Unaware, China's Handan City Consumed Toxic Water for Days
  • Historic ‘Tanka’ Poem Rises from Japan's Nuclear Ashes
  • Iran: A Crime on YouTube, an Execution in Public
  • Tiptoeing Tradition, Cuba Welcomes the New Year
  • India: Standing Neck Deep in Water to Protest

Avoid click bait

Headlines that oversell the story in a sensationalist manner or promise something that isn't delivered in the story might garner a high number of clicks in the beginning, but as readers wise up to the game, we run the risk of driving them away for good. We should be able to look at the headline and point to a specific point in the story from which it is derived.

That doesn't mean we can't tease the story in the headline. Teasing the story in the headline by leaving out some information (e.g. “You'll Never Guess Which World Leader Has Started Blogging”) can be an effective way to lure readers, just as long as we deliver what the headline promises.

Think about SEO when writing headlines

We should use likely search terms in our headlines and, if possible, near the front of the headline. If you're not sure about one search term over the other, check Google Trends.

Proper nouns (full names, cities, etc.) are almost always better for SEO, but we must keep our global audience in mind. For example, instead of “Italy: Netizens Debate AltaRomAltaRoma”, it might work better to use “Rome’s Fashion Week AltaRomAltaRoma Fails to Impress” to make sure that we don't alienate readers who don't know what AltaRomAltaRoma is.

Writing SEO-friendly headlines can sometimes mean compromising on style guides. A good example of this is same-sex marriage vs. gay marriage. While same-sex marriage is more inclusive and a good style choice for the body of a story, it won't garner as much traffic as “gay marriage”, which is a more common search term.

Additional Resources

Write several headlines before you decide on one

It may sound over the top, but you'll be amazed at what you can come up with! Start off by trying to work with keywords. Come up with five. Then add some emotion in. Can you feel it? Make the next headline visual. Can you see it? Maybe you can hear it? Try something funny for the one after. Then think of the most “epic” headline possible. What stands out about this headline? Keep it and work your way backwards. Add some emotion in, something you can see, or something you can hear. Now sit back and look at your list, a winner is going to jump out at you!

Watch this slideshare from Upworthy for more tips on to how to make your headline irresistibly share-able.