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You Headline Matters. Tips for Getting It Right

Last week I came across this excellent post on writing headlines for online content.

Headlines
Image credit: Headline by Gracey, http://mrg.bz/42b920

Kurt Gessler, deputy editor for digital news at the Chicago Tribune, shared "18 Tips For Writing Engaging Headlines and 27 Makeovers That Saved Stories From Extinction." Gessler points out that newspapers often fail to write engaging headlines for online articles because they still think of stories in the context of a printed page, where a headline works in conjunction with the full story and maybe even a pullquote, graphic or photo. Online, Gessler says, the product is "unbundled." Online content needs to be marketed story by story, often only through the headline.

I think we often make a similar mistake. We think we are marketing our entire blog or website, but most people will not be exposed to a piece of our content in that context. Instead they will likely see our headline shared on social media, in an email or in their feed reader. We should be focusing on writing really good headlines; not in an attempt to game Google search results or to trick people with clickbait, but in an effort to get people to really engage with our content.

Here are a few of Gessler's headline writing tips that really stood out to me.

Be clear and focused, first and foremost.

Gessler says there is nothing more important than clarity in a headline. The headline should tell the reader "why they should care or how this affects his or her life." Sometimes that means stating what we might think is obvious.

Don't get too cute or punny.

As I said before, I like sounding clever, so I've written a few of these headlines. Gessler points out all the assumptions you are making when you write a cute or punny headline:

  • You assume everyone gets the joke
  • You assume there are no language barriers
  • You assume your pun hasn't been used many times before
  • You assume there is nothing more interesting in your content

Focus on impact and implications

I tried my hand at this in the headline for this article. Gessler says the key is to tell the reader why the story is important to them. He offers some suggested structures, including:

  • This is what XXX means to you
  • Experts offer advice on XXX
  • XXX is a problem. This is the solution

After reading Gessler's advice, I'm going to take more time to write my headlines. I often dash them off as an afterthought, but they really do matter. People are exposed to a lot of online information every day. More times than not, a person's decision whether to read a piece or not depends on the headline.

Bob Bertsch, Web Technology Specialist, (701) 231-7381

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