One of my teammates, Katrina, once likened a headline to a bikini. It doesn't take a lot of space, it covers the basics, and when done right, it grabs everyone's attention without revealing too much.
Why such a strong focus on such a small part of the article? You could have the most meaningful piece of content--which you've created for your company's website or a publication--but if no one clicks on it, no one will read it. A good story deserves an amazing headline, so it's always worth the effort.
One editor I work with recommends that you spend half of the time you spend writing your piece just on the headline. And write at least 25 options. Having tried this (it's painful), I will admit she has a point. I often get to the best headlines after option 9.
Make it clickable (not clickbait)
We all love to hate those spammy articles on the web that lure people into clicking but never actually deliver on promises made. You see the real problem with clickbait isn't the catchy headline. It's the fact that the article stokes your curiousity but then breaks your trust.
You can avoid accidental clickbait by always starting with your headline. This is an excellent way of focusing your piece and making sure it delivers on the central promise of the headline.
Write it for humans (not just SEO)
SEO is incredibly important, of course, but you have to admit that headlines that are overloaded with keywords can sound awkward. Analytics from some of the biggest business magazines in the world confirm that good, curiosity-evoking, written-for-humans headlines outperform those simply loaded with keywords. To put it simply, good writing goes viral.
Ask yourself: If someone was looking for this information, what would they type into Google? Does this headline communicate a clear benefit? Is it entertaining? Does it have an emotional hook?
Here are some examples to get you started:
Clear benefit: Want To Boost Your Brain Power And Improve Focus? Try This Inexpensive Hack. (a piece on the link between exercise and brain function)
Entertaining: Japanese Company Adopts Nine Office Cats to Increase Workplace Productivity and Cuteness
Create an emotional hook: The Secret to Happiness? Groundbreaking Study Reveals Counterintuitive Truth. (Happiness is increased by buying experiences instead of things).
Create a curiosity gap
A viral headline is like gorgeous wrapping paper - it enhances anticipation and create excitement. While you may give hints, you don't want to give everything away. Your readers should look at the headline and think, "Hmm... I wonder what's inside. I can't wait to find out."
For example, "This 75-year Harvard Study Found The 1 Secret To Leading A Fulfilling Life" is a stronger and more curiousity-evoking headline than "Harvard Study Reveals That Strong Relationships Are The Secret To Lasting Happiness". With the latter headline, you no longer have to read the piece to satisfy your curiousity.
Don't be too vague
Following from the previous point, being mysterious is excellent, but it can be easy to overdo. Take this for example. "The Best Ice Cream". Meh. It doesn't really tell you much and it didn't leave a gap to pique your interest either.
Now, see what happens when we make it a little more specific.
The 5 Best-selling Artisanal Ice Cream Flavors In New York
Michelin Star Chef Spills His Secret Sauce To Making "Sold Out" Artisanal Ice Cream
7 Professional Food Critics Rate The Best Artisanal Ice Cream Brands (Is Yours On The List?)
You want to give readers enough detail that they know they're interested in the topic and then you want to frame it in such a way that they are driven to learn more.
Make it shareable
Clicks are just the gateway to virality. The real magic lies in writing the piece that motivates people to share widely. Put yourself in your reader's shoes. What type of story spreads like wildfire?
One way is to make it urgent. Take for example a fashion trend or a new movie. If they don't share the news right now, they know it's not going to be relevant. They're thinking about their family and friends. They want something exciting to chat over coffee. If it's already stale, then they might ignore it.
Another way is to speak to a known and common pain point for your target audience. For example, people are naturally drawn to the idea that the negativity in their lives comes from the situation they're in; someone or something "toxic." So you might start riffing with a list like this:
How To Deal With A Toxic Coworker
11 Ways To De-stress From A Toxic Work Environment
5 Signs You Work For A Toxic Boss (And Will Never Get That Promotion)
But it doesn't have to be negative. In fact, there's some evidence that while negative headlines get clicked on more, positive ones get shared more. Like these:
10 Reasons Why Great Leaders Inspire Productivity
7 Ways Being In Love Boosts Your Health
13 Perks Of Listening To Music At Work
What's the best headline you've ever written or come across?