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How To Create Winning Headlines - Step by Step

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December 18,2013

By Anita Campbell, Founder of Small Business Trends

We have a saying in my company: a great headline is 50% of the battle when creating content.

That means if you want to get people to actually read your press release, article or blog post, or view your YouTube video or listen to your podcast, you must have a click-worthy title or headline. Without a great title, people are likely to pass your content by.

Most writers and even many marketers will put a great deal of effort into creating a winning piece. It might be an outstanding piece. But it may never get read or viewed. Why? Because for whatever reason -- maybe they run out of time or just don’t know any better -- they treat the title or headline as almost an afterthought. And they don’t pay enough attention to crafting it.

My business is a publishing company, and the more people who read, the more revenue we can earn. So getting people to click and read is crucial to us -- as it is to many other businesses.

But one thing we’ve learned is that just because someone can write, doesn’t mean he or she knows how to create a clickable title. Creating great titles is part art and part science. Let me share a simple formula we use in our company for creating titles. For simplicity I will name it “CAST.” We say we need to “CAST off” the title and go fishing for click throughs.

CAST means:

 

Count: Count the words in your title, and make it between 4 and 9 words.

Now this doesn’t mean you’ll never come up with a fabulous 3-word title or that 10 words will automatically make a terrible title. It’s a general guide. The further outside of that 4 to 9 word range you get, the harder it will be to create a compelling title.

Too few words are bad because you usually can’t convey enough to peak interest by a reader or viewer. Sure, there are some famous 3-word titles such as “The Compleat Angler.” But words help you be specific - and we’ll get to why that’s important in business writing.

Too many words are bad because most people skim rather than read in depth. Long titles intimidate. They are too much effort to take in quickly.

Also, long titles often get cut off and don’t perform as well for you. For example, in today’s world of Twitter, a long title and link may get cut off in the tweet, especially if someone else retweets to share it. Also, if the headline is used as the “meta title” of the Web page it appears on (something automatically done by most content management systems), important words may get cut off in the search engines and cost you search traffic. Search engines limit the meta title field to 70 characters including spaces. For comparison, the title of this article is 46 characters including spaces, but remember it has some very short words in it. Nine words usually fall within 70 characters -- more than that and the headline may get cut off.

 

Act: This means to include a verb whenever possible in your headline or title.

First of all, using a verb creates a sense of action, of dynamism. Action attracts. Anything static seems boring.

A verb also implies that something is happening or has changed -- in other words, it’s news. So for instance, if you are announcing a new product, using a word like “launched” or “debuts” or “introduces” implies that it’s new news. Whereas, a headline that simply includes some nouns such as “XYZ Productivity Software” sounds like a boring advertisement, or worse, a clumsy attempt at SEO keyword optimization. The reader is given no reason to want to read that headline. Having a keyword (i.e., the type of word someone might search for in a search engine) in a headline is good, but you need more than a keyword if you want to get human beings to click and read.

So instead of “XYZ Productivity Software,” you might title it instead: “XYC Launches Productivity Software.” Boring yes (we’ll get to how to fix that in a moment), but at least it now sounds like news.

 

Specify: Have at least one specific word in your headline.

You need words that make your headline stand out and convey somehow that it’s different. So let’s take the headline we have so far and make it more specific.

Instead of “XYZ Launches Productivity Software” which is news but sounds really boring and generic, we can add a word or words to differentiate it from other productivity software out there. Pick out a fact from your news and include it to be more specific. You could say something like “XYZ Launches Productivity Software for Entrepreneurs.” Or, “XYZ Launches Productivity Software for Google Glass.” Or, “XYZ Gets Investment to Launch Productivity Software App.”

While those headlines may not be dazzling, to the right audience they add specificity and make it more likely someone interested in entrepreneurship or Google Glass or venture investments, respectively, will click and read.

But we can do even better.

 

Tease: Add mystery, emotion or something else of interest to tease people to click.

The final step involves adding some other intriguing word or phrase that makes your headline even more specific and gets people to want to click because they can’t resist. It makes us click because we want to know WHY - it invokes our curiosity. Or it elicits a feeling - a bit of emotion that appeals to us as human beings that makes us feel good or worried or sad or excited … or some other emotion.

You have to be accurate (don’t make stuff up just for the sake of a headline), but also interesting.

Let’s take this title: “XYZ Launches Productivity Software for Google Glass.” Let’s change it to the following: “People Line Up 3 Miles for XYZ Productivity Software for Google Glass.” Don’t you want to know what’s so great about that software that people line up for miles?

Or instead of “XYZ Gets Investment to Launch Productivity Software App” you could write, “XYZ Gets Investment by Bezos to Launch Productivity Software App.” Readers and journalists are going to want to know why -- why a billionaire like Jeff Bezos is investing in productivity software.

 

Conclusion

Writing good headlines is not easy.

There are many types of headlines -- not all are about breaking news. But one thing is universal: making a title interesting enough to read it.

Great headlines take time, creativity and effort. Newspapers and media outlets have staff whose main job is to create great titles. That’s how important the media thinks headlines are. We’ve been known to have two people collaborate for 20 or 30 minutes on a single article title. We will discard dozens of titles, until we narrow it down to one we feel is accurate yet interesting and likely to get people to read.

So, CAST off with your headlines, and go fishing for that all-important click through.

 

Anita Campbell is a former technology company executive. She is the founder of Small Business Trends, an online publication with news, tips and resources for small businesses. She is also the co-creator of the Title Generator Tool at Tweak Your Biz.

 

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Google+ profile of By Anita Campbell, Founder of Small Business Trends

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