8 headline tips to make your articles irresistible

Brittany Binowski | Senior Web Producer, Deseret News National, DDM | @binowski | June 1, 2015

Want to get more people to click on your articles? Write better headlines. Then, write 25 more.

After all, a headline can be the single greatest factor in attracting people to click on your website.

Eli Pariser, CEO and co-founder of Upworthy, one of the fastest growing media companies of 2012, told Business Insider that “a good headline can be the difference between 1,000 people and 1,000,000 people reading something.”

“You can have the best piece of content and make the best point ever, but if no one looks at it, the article is a waste,” Pariser told Business Insider. “A headline is all about getting the article in front of people."

It’s not just about getting your article in front of people; it’s also about getting people to click on your article over the millions of others on the Internet once it’s in front of them.

To Tom Curley, president and CEO of The Associated Press, the Internet has fundamentally changed the way readers interact with content. No longer do media organizations and their executives hold all the power, deciding what readers want to read and when; the readers also have power by choosing what to click on and what not to.

“All those readers and viewers we've been losing in other media are being engaged as never before in this new media world. But there's a big difference now,” Curley told members of the Online News Association at a conference in 2004. “The users are deciding what the point of their engagement will be — what application, what device, what time, what place.”

Audiences no longer sit passively listening to whatever comes on the radio or reading whatever paper happens to befall their front doorstep, even though they may like to indulge themselves from time to time, Curley said. Audiences now have the liberty to toggle effortlessly from one medium and one article to the next in a click of a button.

“That's a huge shift in the ‘balance of power’ in our world, from the content providers to the content consumers,” Curley said. “‘Appointment-driven’ news consumption is quickly giving way to ‘on-demand’ news consumption.”

And we can’t help but benefit from this new change. After all, our industry’s survival is betting on it.

So what can we do to keep our readers engaged?

Unfortunately, I, as senior web producer of the Deseret News National, can’t tell you. Online audiences are more diverse and fragmented than they have ever been and reader feedback isn't always the most reliable.

But, I can help you find the strategies to, at least, make your headlines better. Here are eight tips to help you determine what’s most relevant and interesting to your audience.

1. Write more headlines

Writing one headline for an article is good, but writing 25 headlines is better. It’s easy to settle on the first idea that comes to mind, but many times, the first idea isn’t always the best one. Getting in the practice of brainstorming multiple headlines for one article helps writers hone in on the most important and interesting parts of the content, which may not always be obvious at first glance.

On my team, as at Upworthy, each writer brainstorms a list of 25 headlines for each article they write. Once their article is complete, we discuss the headlines together in person and choose the one or two from the list that we believe is best for our audience, their personal interests and the things we believe they should be interested in.

2. Look at more headlines

To write better headlines, it’s important to know what you and your team believe makes a powerful headline.

On my team, each writer keeps a “scratch file” of the most interesting or impactful headlines they find online from their favorite outlets, then references them throughout their daily routine to get ideas for their own headlines. During weekly team meetings, we examine some of these headlines we’ve found online throughout the week, or some of our favorite headlines from our site, and discuss what we liked about them or what could make them better.

Here are a few favorites from my scratch file:

The scary new Facebook game that’s worrying parents

China Makes Everything. Why Can't It Create Anything?

The End of Men

What to Do When It’s Time to Pay for All That Knowledge

3. Keep headlines short

At the National, a majority of our traffic comes from mobile devices, with screens much smaller than a desktop display. If a headline is too long on a mobile device, it cannot be seen in its entirety on the screen. We’re constantly checking the site on our mobile devices to make sure everything appears properly, so it won’t overwhelm our mobile readers.

Shorter headlines also make for better tweets, which have a 140 character limit, and more compelling headlines on Google News — if you’re lucky enough to appear on the service — which often truncates headlines after 70 characters.

4. Don’t give everything away up front

It’s easy to cram all the details of an article into a headline, but it’s not always the most clickable.

In the days of print, when many readers had fewer sources for getting their news, putting all the crucial details up front may have been important, and even necessary, in times of emergency. But in the digital age, where similar information can be found on multiple outlets, and feature stories do just as well as breaking news, creating a sense of mystery can be just enough to entice your readers to click.

It can also help make complex topics, where an overabundance of information can bog down the reader, easier to digest.

5. Experiment with how, why, and when

Stumped on your headline? Try starting it with words such as “how,” “why,” or “when” to narrow your focus.

At the National, we do our best to write articles with actionable and practical advice for families. Words such as “how,” “why” or “when” help communicate the bottom line of the article to our readers, and the one or two important points they can take away from the article after having read it quickly and concisely. That way, readers know fully what to expect before engaging with the content.

6. Play to passion points

If there’s an issue or topic you know your audience is passionate about, don’t be afraid to write about it, and lead with it in the headline.

At the National, we know our audience unites around certain topics — such as baby names, relationship advice and domestic abuse. When writing headlines about similar topics, we make sure to mention those keywords that get our audience talking — and sharing — on social media.

But the topics your audience is interested in may not be immediately apparent. Make sure to study your site trends on analytics dashboards such as Google Analytics or Chartbeat to determine which issues your users care about the most. Then, get started writing.

7. Test your headlines

Torn between two headlines? Test them.

Tools like Chartbeat allow you to test two headlines at once, serving up one group of users one headline and a second group of users another until enough data has been gathered. After a certain amount of time has passed, the tool will then notify you as to which headline performed better.

If you don’t have the budget to subscribe to software that provides these services, try testing alternate headlines on Twitter and Facebook — or manually switching headlines every few hours and repromoting them online.

8. Don’t be afraid to break the rules — sometimes

Not every headline should be the same, and sometimes certain articles and projects call for different angles and approaches. Follow the spirit of the content and do what you believe will serve the article best, even if it means breaking a few of the guidelines listed above. Headlines that are different from the rest on your site stand out and alert the reader to new or unusual information they may not have otherwise noticed.

At the National, we’re constantly evaluating and re-evaluating our strategy, trying to find new ways to engage, surprise and delight our readers. To do this, we sometimes abandon strategies or ideologies we once held in favor of others we believe are more relevant or more supportive of our cause. Don’t be afraid to do the same as your strategy evolves or as newer information comes to light.

Sometimes the best ideas are the ones no one has thought of — yet. And the National is continuously in search of the best ways to connect with our audiences and engage with readers in a way that is authentic.