How to write web headlines that appeal to news website readers

by Shawn Smith on April 3, 2008

Flickr photo by Joe Shlabotnik

Super cool image by Joe Shlabotnik

Welcome to the second post in a series about headline writing for web content producers. This series will cover some best practices for writing web headlines for your readers, search engines and social media.

HEADLINE WRITING FOR PEOPLE

When writing for people on your news site, focus on your regular readers and RSS subscribers. These can be people who normally come to your web site to read stories or people who are subscribed to your feeds.

CNN.com often does a great job of writing headlines for their “Latest News” section. Check this one out: “Cattle vs. cops battle ends in gunfire” – How exciting! I definitely clicked on that headline. It’s provocative and tells me what the story is about. Here’s a list of tips to write good headlines for regular readers.

  • Be clear and concise. A reader should be able to understand exactly what the story is about and what it pertains to from the headline alone. (Good: Lansing lawmakers to vote on business tax for small businesses; Bad: State lawmakers eye business bill (What state? What business bill?)
  • Be interesting, not mysterious! Interesting doesn’t mean making readers guess what a story is about. A web reader won’t often click into a story to figure out what your headline means. That’s a waste of their time. Being interesting does mean telling people exactly what the story is about and highlighting the most tantalizing details of the story.
  • Show the benefits of reading the story. If your story is a guide or a tutorial, tell readers about it. For example, if you are promoting a story about a family who hosts large gatherings, and within the story the family shares their tips for how to host a great party and minimize hassles, what do you think people care about? If you guessed the tips, you’re right! Tell your readers in the headline what they will get out of reading your article: “How to host awesome dinner parties and cut the hassle”

ANOTHER EFFECTIVE TECHNIQUE

Brian Clark of Copyblogger has written at length about writing effective headlines. Although not all of his suggestions can be applied in most situations on a news site, here’s a few I think you could try out:

  • Ask Questions. Asking readers questions in a headline can perk their interest to read a story. I’d reserve this mostly for feature stories, but I have used it for news and business stories as well. The great thing about using questions is it can get readers to immediately start thinking about responding in the comments of your story.

What do you think? Do you have any other suggestions for writing headlines that appeal to human readers?