Whether you're drafting a 50-word email or crafting a 500-word blog, the most important part of your writing comes first. That's right: the subject line or headline.
The late advertising legend David Ogilvy knew this decades ago, when he famously said, "On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. It follows that unless your headline sells your product, you have wasted 90 percent of your money."
And headlines/subject lines are even more important today:
- 47% of recipients decide whether to open an email based solely on the subject line.
- Effective headlines increase readership by up to 73%.
After all, the headline is the first thing audience members notice. Headlines grab people's attention and promise the solution to a problem. At their very best, headlines address the most important question of all, "What's in it for me?"
So how do you write headlines and subject lines that reach their potential? Here are 11 ways:
1. Focus on the needs of your audience. First figure out:
- What are audience members interested in?
- What do they need to know?
And then decide: How can you write a headline that will solve a problem or answer the audience's burning question?
2. Write the headline before you write anything else. I agree with Brian Clark at Copyblogger, who writes, "Your headline is a promise to readers. Its job is to clearly communicate the benefit you'll deliver to the reader" in return for his or her valuable time. "Promises tend to be made before being fulfilled," adds Mr. Clark. "Writing your content first puts you in the position of having to reverse-engineer your promise."
3. Learn from the best. Consumer magazines (whether in print or online) are the best source of inspiration for pay-attention-to-me headlines. For example, check out Better Homes and Gardens or Cosmopolitan. And marketers are masters at grab-you-by-the-wallet subject lines. Digital Marketer compiled this list of 101 best subject lines in 2018.
4. Emphasize key words. Sure, if you're writing online content, you need to optimize for search engines. But, just as importantly, you want to choose the words that people are interested in. I learned a long time ago that if I wrote "compensation" in a subject line, employees were not going to pay attention. But if I choose "pay" or "money," employees will open the email.
5. Be witty and clear. Just because you need to include key words doesn't mean you have to be boring, advises writing guru Ann Wylie. For example, she suggests combining a literal kicker (a short copy line usually set off by a colon) with a clever headline like this: "Witty headlines: Black and white and dead all over." Or a clever kicker with a literal headline, like this from The Guardian: "High Hitler: How Nazi drug abuse steered the course of history."
6. Communicate the outcome. What will audience members accomplish by reading your content? Better Homes and Gardens makes sure that outcome is emphasized in headlines like "Max Out Your Bath's Storage Potential" and "Smart Solutions for Awkward Items."
7. Be as specific as possible. There's no time for vague concepts. Great how-to headlines are specific: "5 Easy Steps to Organize ANYTHING" and "9 Better-Than-Bought Storage Baskets."
6. Pose a question. Phrasing headlines in the form of a question will not only help you win at Jeopardy, it also appeals to readers. For example: "How much would you spend for peace of mind?"
8. Tell "how to." Although humans don't like rules, we do like instructions, guidelines and directions. We're happy to accept guidance if it helps us accomplish something that matters. That's why "how to" is such a powerful phrase. And it's why a key way to get your audience's attention is to provide a "recipe:" helpful advice that makes at least one aspect of their lives easier. For example: "Reduce your energy costs by 14 percent."
9. Use short, snappy language. You only have a few seconds to get your point across, so choose punchy, action-oriented words. Here's a recent example from Cosmopolitan: "Is your workout making you fat?"
10. Express your voice. Cosmopolitan headlines, for example, are clearly written by a person, with a strong point of view. They're authentic. They make a connection with the reader. An example: "If you're this sign, you're probably gonna be famous."
11. Appeal to people's emotions. Don't be afraid to show that you care.
Examples: "Opening of new Michigan plant brings hope to those hardest hit by recession" or "Florida employees rebuild homes in wake of disaster."
Want to learn more about how to write compelling headlines? Download this free guide.