How to Make Headlines

October 2019

illustration of newspapers and tablet news

Image: iStock

There are numerous ways to make headlines—as in craft a great title to a piece of content marketing in order to grab attention. Just make sure that it’s the kind of attention you want for your article, blog post, white paper, case study, advertisement, and so on.

Here are some tips to create great headlines for a wide variety of deliverables.

The medium influences the message

The first step in creating a compelling headline is to know the type of platform it will appear in. For instance, if you’re writing for the web, SEO keywords will play a major factor in your word choice. If you’re writing headlines for print, you’ll need to be mindful of a word count. When it’s for any item on display (such as a magazine or brochure), main headlines will be pithy and targeting a specific audience. For a technical document, such as a white paper or case study, you want to be sure that the subject is apparent, either in the headline or the deck, which is a short sentence to follow a headline.

Know the topic and the material

Some people prefer to write a headline first and proceed from there, using that headline as guidance for the rest of the writing. Others prefer to wait to see where the copy leads them and then craft a title. Either way, it’s important that the headline match what is in the actual body of work. Sounds like common sense, but you’d be amazed how often a copy editor reads the first two or three paragraphs and creates a headline from that text only, which can be misleading if the piece opens with an anecdote or the text is later reorganized or edited to eliminate the initial copy.

Readers really dislike when they are lured in by a scintillating headline, only to discover the rest of the piece doesn’t live up to the title.

In a pinch, to get the right side of your brain moving, pull out keywords in the main body copy and arrange those words in several different ways, then let those phrases gestate for a while before returning to the copy to see which carries the day.

‘See’ headlines as extensions of imagery

Advertising copywriters are expected to come up with something catchy. These writers also tend to wed their words to associated artwork illustrating the content. It’s one reason you want to be sure you have a cohesive, collaborative creative team dedicated to a project—with all members understanding the goals, personas and branding to avoid going off-message.

Keep it simple and consider lists

There’s a reason many blog posts and ebooks are titled something like “5 Ways to Improve Your Content Marketing ROI.” People love lists, if only because they don’t have to work too hard to comb through material. Content marketers know this, which is why pieces with headlines quantifying the information to follow remain popular. Just be sure the number listed in the headline matches the same number of items in the actual text.

Oh, and don’t overuse the convention or it will lose some appeal.

Experiment to see what works

On a recent client project, the client suggested the following headline for a healthcare IT white paper on cybersecurity: “Improving Information Security in Healthcare.” During several interviews with subject matter experts, however, one phrase kept coming up: Physician’s Hippocratic oath to do no harm. So, I suggested changing the headline to “‘Do No Harm’: Ways to Improve Information Security in Healthcare IT.”

People always claim to hate reading clichés, but they work in headlines, especially if there’s clever word play or a double entendre associated with a coin of phrase. Similarly, asking a question in a headline or deck can improve reader engagement when done well. Just don’t come to rely on each conventions.

As for experimentation, come up with several versions of headlines and run them by stakeholders to see which resonate most. That way you won’t be disappointed if your favorite is panned by the client, whose opinion matters.

Give in to group think

Finally, if you are creatively stuck and need to come up with a clever headline in a hurry, ask for advice. Twirling Tiger Media produces a magazine for a cybersecurity organization, and each issue’s illustrations and photographs are influenced by proposed headlines. We also often come up with better headlines either to fit an art treatment or because the placeholder headline is just not good enough. So share your ideas and be ready to accept others’ suggestions. Together you’ll create headlines that sing and build a growing chorus of satisfied customers.

There you have it: a few simple, common sense bits of advice to write a great headline. There are many other ways to drum up something magical, rather than mundane. Again, just make sure the rest of the content matches a headline in tone, voice and accuracy. Some people have a knack for writing clever titles. Fortunately, it’s a learned skill that any dedicated writer or editor can develop.

Anne Saita