I died, see page 56May 17, 2016
That’s a real grabber, no? It was the best headline I ever read. A teaser for a first-person account from a guy whose heart had stopped while out hiking, and was then resuscitated on the side of a mountain. It claimed my attention, compelled me to read on, and has ever since served as a touchstone for every headline I have ever written.
In the attention-driven, clickable economy of today, headlines are more important than ever. And their construction has changed dramatically. The best headlines used to be those that relied on word play— ripped from the pages of the New York Daily News. Like the recent $2 million in Pedi Cash. This fronted a story about how New York was going after nail salons for bilking their employees out of tips.
But you don’t see many of those kinds of headlines anymore. That’s because they don’t work. Not in the digital world where no one clicks on a story because of the pun in a headline. Rather, an effective digital headline has to be more urgent and compelling. Undeniable.
For headline inspiration, I often troll Upworthy, the innovative viral website founded in 2012 by a former editor of The Onion and a past executive director with MoveOn. They serve host to the intersection of awesome, meaningful, and visual. So you better believe they know how to craft an effective headline, one that ignites viral sparks. And they do an amazing job. Here are a couple of their recent headlines that enticed me:
- Can you dance to a song if you can’t hear the music? Watch and see
The headline makes it all but impossible to ignore
- He had an epiphany while living in a dumpster
Nine words that command your attention. Who is this? What was the epiphany?
- There’s a reason so many people love “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” A songwriting expert reveals it
How many clickbait headlines fail because they’re old news? Then, you stumble across a headline that explains some simple mystery of life and you’re swept away.
Notice that none of these headlines rely on that hackney listicle lead we see all so often. You know the kind, 10 things to make you more likeable and you won’t believe No. 3! I am skipping the entire article because I have been disappointed too many times by No. 3. If you have to use this come-on for a headline, your content ain’t all that.
As the exception, Upworthy headlines work because they create a curiosity gap—as my colleague Fran Merlie here at Gregory FCA, calls it. They leave out a single piece of critical information on a specific topic that intrigues and entices. They also paint pictures of a deaf dancer, or someone living in a dumpster, or a black-and-white Judy Garland singing with her hair in pigtails. Each gives me just enough detail to connect with the topic while leaving me wanting more.
If you’re not getting the engagement or clicks you would expect from your news, posts, or publicity, try examining your headlines. Do they incite curiosity? Paint a picture? Create that irresistible urge to linger and learn a bit more about whatever is being asserted?