4 ways to write better headlines and memes

Everything is going visual in communications—or so we hear. Yet headlines and text are all the more important in directing traffic for overwhelmed internet users.

This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

We hear everywhere that visuals are essential in today’s communications.

You’d be forgiven thinking that humankind is regressing to a preliterate age—giving up the written word in favor of painting cave images of hunters spearing bison.

Yet text, in the form of headlines and subject lines, is the gateway to many of the images we consume, says Billy DeLancey, executive director of Lobbyists 4 Good.

DeLancey made his case in a Ragan Training session, “Create a visual story with your words: Tips on writing for visual communications.”

Citing the late advertising great, David Ogilvy, DeLancey says five times as many people read the headlines as the body copy.

“When we create visual content, we want people to see the visual content,” DeLancey says. “So whether it’s the title of your infographic or it’s a video that you’re sharing the link on Facebook, you’re going to need to write something to get people to that visual content.”

This video clip is taken from the Ragan Training session, “Create a visual story with your words: Tips on writing for visual communications.”

For one thing, where would the viral phenomenon of memes be without text? DeLancey offers examples of how content can be changed by showing a picture of a small boy giving an adorably skeptical look to a foreign woman in what looks like a dirt-floored hut. Vary the words, and you convey quite different messages:

  • “So you’re telling me girls have a whole closet full of clothes and can’t seem to find what to wear?”
  • “So you’re telling me you allow food to expire?”
  • “So you’re telling me you saved my life by liking a Facebook status?”
  • “So people drive to places they can walk to … and then they pay to walk on this thing called a treadmill?

Here are four takeaways from a session rich with tips on writing successful headlines and other text:

1. Be unique.

The writer’s job is to make content leap out from the avalanche of tweets, emails and news site headlines that internet users see every day.

“We get thousands and thousands of different messages,” DeLancey says. “You need to have something that’s going to stand out to get people to see your visual content.”

He cited one infographic that reads, “10 curious customs from dinner tables around the world.” Who knew that the Hungarians are still smoldering that Austrian occupiers quashed their revolution of 1848—and this affects the way Hungarians offer toasts to this day?

Another headline, over a promotional picture of two women in helmets about to go zip-lining, reads, “When was the last time you did something for the FIRST time?”

Well, come to think of it, when? Maybe the story would be worth a click.

Related: Learn advanced techniques for corporate storytellers and writers in this event hosted by Mark Ragan and Jim Ylisela.

2. Be ‘ultra-specific.’

You know how, when you’re shopping online, you sometimes click on items to buy, only to abandon them in the digital shopping cart? Go figure: Retailers want you to complete the sale. One firm used this headline in its marketing: “Turn abandoned carts into 15 percent more sales.”

DeLancey says, “This headline is specific: ’15 percent more sales.’ Not ‘Turn abandoned carts into more sales. Or not, ‘Hey, come and find out how to increase your sales.'”

Another hedder on an infographic reads, “What happens one hour after drinking a can of Coke?” (It has to do with an insulin burst that causes your liver to convert sugar into fat, if you really want to know.)

Then there’s BuzzFeed—always an outstanding source of inspiration: “24 Pictures That Prove There Is Nothing Cats Won’t Sit On.” Not “a couple dozen,” DeLancey observes. Not “Pictures that prove…” Precisely 24.

Another BuzzFeed headline leads you irresistibly into a story from the Oval Office: “This 106-Year-Old Woman Dancing For Joy As She Meets Barack Obama Will Warm Your Heart.” The headline writer didn’t round it off to a century. Specifics make all the difference.

BuzzFeed also excels at A-B testing (or maybe A-B-C-D-E-F, etc., testing). The site sends out 20 to 30 variants of headlines on the same visual content, DeLancey says. BuzzFeed then determines which one is getting the best response. The winner is sent to its wider audience.

3. Convey urgency.

Here are two headlines that do this, DeLancey says:

  • “Are You Losing Sales By Giving Customers Too Many Choices?” (What!? Losing customers? Gotta read.)
  • “11 Different White Russians To Try Now.”

Why would I need to try them right now? Never mind! Quick! Go do it. Your boss won’t mind.

4. Be useful.

How about the infographic-map, helpful for France-bound travelers, that’s headlined, “When you greet a friend, how many times do you kiss?”

Or the headline that reads, “10 morning rituals of successful entrepreneurs.” Why, if Peter Jones, creator of Dragon’s Den, starts every day with a shave, shower and bowl of cereal, so should we all.

“If they’re successful, and I want to be successful, I’m going to get a lot of use out of what they do in the morning to be successful,” DeLancey says.

Another headline asks, “Is your startup idea taken?”

Yikes! Forgot to check that before we launched. At least they got us to click on their content.



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