How to write the perfect headline

“On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar” — David Ogilvy

Readers are drawn to your article through a three-stage process: the headline, subtitle and the first paragraph. This is a chain reaction — without a decent headline, they won’t bother reading any further.

Jeff Goins says in his blog: “The title is where the focus should be. You should begin and end every article with the question: ‘Would this make me want to read on?’”

Your headline should either:

1. Make a bold statement

2. Provide a strong and informed opinion

3. Ask an important question

If your article is hard news, your headline should say what it is, i.e. the facts. Avoid using words like “could,” “may,” “might” or “can.” You should be definitive.

Your headline should be informative. It should assume the reader has no knowledge of the subject matter, and should tell the reader exactly what the story is about without having to look any further. For example, “Government raises income tax” is less informative than “UK Government raises income tax”.

So, how do you write the perfect headline?

Use ‘how’, ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘when’

Trigger words are useful for making a clear argument from the outset, such as: “Why canned tuna is better than fresh tuna”.

BuzzFeed uses headlines like this all the time — and while clickbait headlines are generally frowned upon, you can make it work using similar language. People want opinions — not the same information repackaged.

Highlight and explain clearly your most interesting point

It sounds obvious but your title should focus on the most engaging point of your story to encourage readers to click on your article. It’s amazing how many titles fail in this key regard — often by trying to sound witty at the expense of clarity.

Ask yourself: what would your audience think is the most arresting part of this story? Then describe it clearly in your title.

Remember, your piece will appear in places like Google and Facebook where it will compete against other stories for readers’ attention. Your title should give readers the biggest possible reason why they should click on your article rather than the other stories they can choose from.

Use keywords

It’s not just about using keywords — it’s about using the right keywords. You want your article to get traction on social media and search engines. One of the best ways is to use related keywords — aim for around three at a minimum. These will help the article to gain visibility when people search for your keywords.

For instance, if your article is about David Cameron and Barack Obama having a mud-wrestling match at a UN summit, your headline would be: “Cameron and Obama mud-wrestle at UN summit

Use the active voice

Using the active rather than passive voice gives your headline more power and direction. For example, “New anti-poverty initiative launched by UK Government” should be presented as “UK Government launches new initiative to combat poverty”.

Use a subtitle

Almost as important as your headline is your subtitle — it needs to add extra information without going overboard, or giving away your entire story. You should also avoid repeating your headline in any way because the reader will lose interest. If you need to mention a keyword again, choose a synonym. It’s also a good idea to ask a question in the subtitle, which you can answer in your article.

So, if we stick with the Obama/Cameron story, your subtitle might look something like this: “The UK Prime Minister faced off with the US President last night while world leaders looked on aghast. But was Barack really to blame?”

Don’t use full stops

This rings true for subtitles too — there’s no need to use a full stop at the end of your headline.

Don’t capitalise every word

Capitalising every word can look ugly and become awkward when choosing to keep certain words lowercase (e.g. ‘and’ or ‘the’). Capitalise the first word and keep the rest lowercase.

If your business is facing a content challenge, we can help with everything from strategy to writing. Please email for a free consultation.