5 terrible headline habits

Grabbing readers’ attention is paramount in today’s barrage of information. Here are some common, terrible tactics, and how you can reach your audience more effectively.

No matter whether it’s a sign in Times Square or a post on a fast-paced social media network, headlines compete for attention in a crowded landscape.

Make your headlines more attention-grabbing by avoiding the worst headline habits.

Miranda Tan, CEO and founder of MyPRGenie, says every marketing writer knows that unlocking the secret to a great headline or email subject line is crucial to getting the best return on a company’s investment in marketing. It’s becoming increasingly clear — as data are accumulated from millions of tweets, Facebook posts, and other kinds of sharing on social networks — that every social media post is a headline and content summary rolled into one.

Failing to recognize the power of that 140-character post, Tan says, is among the worst headline habits. The “80/20 headline rule” is a well-known marketing axiom that says that if 100 people read a headline, only 20 of them will read the rest of the story. In social media, according to tracking data from bit.ly, the online short link generation company, 90 percent of the people who share your content do so on the basis of the headline only-they don’t even bother to click and read the content before sharing.

Here’s a collection of five terrible headline habits from MyPRGenie’s popular how-to and best practices blog that could be hurting your bottom line. There’s also advice on avoiding these mistakes next time you’re writing a social media post or a headline for a press release, blog post, white paper, or other content.

1. Don’t tell me what to do: Pushy headlines

Outbrain, the content aggregation service that distributes paid syndicated content worldwide, recently conducted a study on headlines. The survey says that headlines perceived by readers as pushy get up to 20 percent fewer clicks than those perceived as less pushy.

What makes a headline pushy? According to Outbrain, words such as you or your or any verb that tells the reader they must or should do something would be considered too pushy.

A study from MyPRGenie says journalists and bloggers are especially resistant to pitches and headlines that seem too pushy. Though 66 percent of journalists and bloggers say they use press releases in their work at least once a week, more than 70 percent say pushy headlines and subject lines will earn a fast trip to the recycle bin.

2. Don’t focus on the positive: Negatives sell

Another Outbrain study, headlines with negative superlatives — like the headline on this blog post, which contains the word worst — outperform those with positive absolutes, such as always or best.

Compared with headlines that contained neither positive nor negative superlatives (or absolutes), headlines with positive superlatives performed 29 percent worse and headlines with negative superlatives performed 30 percent better.

The big news in the study however, is that the average click-through rate on headlines with negative superlatives was a staggering 63 percent higher than that of their positive counterparts.

Econsultancy‘s Chris Lake looked at the handful of articles that were responsible for more than 10 percent of 22 million page visits over four years on his company’s site. He found that violent words like kill, dead, fear, war, and battle are common in Web content with high volumes of social shares. So are headlines that use vibrant words such as brilliant, fails, horrifying, ultimate, and kickass.

Wondering how to work words like that into your marketing content? Take a look at these headlines for examples:

  • A headhunter’s blog offering career tips: Don’t Kill a Promotion with Social Media Disasters
  • Tweet from a bakery: Horrifying Holiday Menu Mistakes That Can Ruin a Party
  • Landing page for a sales training company’s webinar: 10 Ways to Avoid Winding Up Dead in the Sales & Profit Wars
  • PR consultant’s email pitch to prospective clients: 7 Brilliant Holiday PR Strategies That Failed Miserably

3. Don’t Write Long Headlines (Unless They Work)

These days, every writer knows that search engine optimization — writing content that search engines can find and index — is a job requirement. One of the first rules drilled into a writer about SEO is that headlines should be shorter than 70 characters (60 is better, as headlines longer than that can be truncated in search results), with at least one keyword.

There is good reason for that rule-and for most of the others about headlines. Sometimes a longer headline with a pun, a literary or pop culture reference, or a memorable phrase can pack more punch than a 60-character headline. So, look at your analytics before you throw out the rules. If your highest-traffic content has longer, higher-impact headlines, then use them.

Headline length matters, according to the Outbrain study cited earlier. It says that a review of 150,000 English-language headlines promoted by Outbrain, 16- to 18-word headlines performed better than shorter or longer headlines. The study says the highest click-through rates for content come with headlines that are about 100 characters in length, and that headlines shorter than 60 characters don’t perform as well.

4. Don’t write headlines last: Put the important stuff first

The prestigious Columbia University School of Journalism has an online tutorial on headline writing that includes this quote from Dr. Merlin R. Mann, an Abilene Christian University associate professor of journalism: “The importance of headlines cannot be understated … Headlines are far too often written last (often quickly and under deadline pressure).”

Starting with a working title is one way to give a headline the attention required to deliver the needed impact. Famed copywriter and ad man David Ogilvy wrote that a working title that summarizes the main point of your story should be written first. “Then go back afterward, to make sure it reflects the entire message and conveys that point in a fresh way that will grab the audience’s attention.”

It’s not enough to write headlines that are just OK. They must be strong enough to continue to generate traffic week after week, and even year after year. For instance, on my personal blog, three traffic-hogging blog posts continue to draw more than 200 new page views every day — two years after they were originally published.

What do those articles have in common? Two of the three include numbers. I don’t know why, but ever since Twitter started, tweets that include numbers and links in them get more shares and more click-throughs than tweets without numbers. All three focus on things people are afraid of: being sued, getting into trouble with the government, becoming the victim of a scam.

It’s sad, but true: We are motivated by fear — and headlines that promise to alleviate a fear or solve a frightening problem get noticed.

5. Don’t be wimpy: Give people a reason to pay attention

Forbes contributor Jayson DeMers wrote that the biggest headline mistake copywriters make is forgetting the benefit to the reader. “The reader is going to use the few short words in your headline to decide whether the next 40 [or] 400 or 40,000 words are worth his or her time. So if you forget what the benefit to your target audience is when you’re writing your headline, you won’t get the results you want.”

In his article, DeMers uses his own business as an example. He’s an SEO consultant, so one of his examples was writing social media and content marketing headlines that would give prospective customers a reason to click on his copy. He describes a 30-minute process to write a headline that might work something like this for his business:

Start with a working title that tells a specific target audience what the benefit for them is of using your product or service. For his business, that working title might be something like, “3 Techniques for Instant Search Engine Rankings Boosts in the Law Industry.”

Focus on the benefit more closely by asking a question-in this case, the question might be, “Why are search engine ranking increases important for lawyers?” Then refine your headline to something like, “3 SEO Techniques for Lawyers to Attract Customers and Leads.”

Once the first draft of your copy is finished, look for the most powerful summary that tells a prospect exactly how he will benefit from what you have to say. That got DeMers to his final title, “3 SEO Tools That Lawyers Can Use to Attract New Clients in 30 Days.”

The more specific the benefit is to the prospect, he says, the more likely they are to click through and read the content.

A version of this article first appeared on Business2Community.

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