Clickworthy: 11 ways to grab readers with headlines

Thrill readers the way Cosmo and National Enquirer do. Make the first five words count. And write for your friends, not some imaginary corporate target.


Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan’s new distance-learning portal RaganTraining.com. The site contains more than 200 hours of case studies, video presentations, and interactive courses. For membership information, please click here.

What? Nobody’s clicking on your headlines, your email subject lines, or your tweets?

Maybe you have a readership of dunderheads who need a good shaking. Then again, maybe your headlines:

  • Put your readers to sleep
  • Don’t sell the benefits
  • Are larded with jargon and acronyms
  • Don’t take risks, and
  • Are neither informative or fun

No offense.

In “Rope ’em in: How to write irresistible headlines in the age of social media,” learn from three experts in writing headlines that sizzle.

Andrew Lennie, a senior producer with WGN-TV in Chicago, tells you how to fix those clueless clunkers nobody clicks on. Mark Ragan, CEO of Ragan Communications, reveals the secrets of how PR Daily and Ragan.com lure readers. And James Ylisela Jr., president and co-owner of Duff Media Partners, offers the take of a seasoned Chicago newsman and consultant.

Start, Ragan says, by asking yourself, “Would I open an email if this headline was a subject line in my inbox?”

Then consider these tips:

1. Borrow a page from Cosmo.

Consumer magazines such as Cosmopolitan offer examples on how to write a snappy headline (“Is He Cheating? How to Get Over Him”). Likewise, Diet & Exercise has a cover teaser titled, “10 pounds gone in 10 days!”

Psychology Today offers a piquant pun on an irresistible issue: “Shrink rapt: Falling in love with your therapist.” (The magazine also decorates its cover with models in their underwear, which may or may not work for your organization.)

Internal publication headlines can be grabby, too, like this one from a Boeing: “I took charge of my career!”

2. Use lists.

Six out of 10 best-read stories on PR Daily are lists, Ragan says, and those consumer magazines also love them. Maybe Diet & Exercise is onto something with its “4 key butt exercises that get results.”

“Our brain craves that kind of organization,” Ylisela says.

3. Be specific.

What is it about your product or your service that you can make vivid, concrete, and specific—yet in a colorful way?

An intern wrote a headline at WGN that read, “Arsenio Hall joins WGN Morning News.” Lennie changed it to, “Arsenio on his Chicago roots, the Bill Clinton sax moment, and explaining to his son why people bark at him.”

Another success at WGN: “Jim Gaffigan on being a ‘Fat Dad’ and the joys of having 5 kids.”

4. Start with National Enquirer flamboyance, and then tone it down.

“It’s better to start in that place and then to trim it back than it is to start bland and go the other way,” Ragan says.

5. Collaborate.

One of the few times writing by committee actually works is when you’re working on headlines. “Headlines are great to collaborate with people on, because you can test them on your colleagues,” Ragan says.

6. Agonize over the first five words.

Think of those emails everyone is deleting unread. The first five words may be all anybody sees of the subject line, depending on how the email is displayed. Are you using strong verbs and nouns? What are you selling?

7. Hone your skills on Twitter.

On Twitter, “brevity is everything,” Ragan says. “Strunk and White would have loved Twitter.”

8. Make it seem like readers are learning cool, inside information.

WGN has not aired “The Blues Brothers” in 20 years, but that movie is still a cultural touch point for thousands of Chicagoans, Lennie says. WGN posted a promo photo of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. It contrasted this with a contemporary photo of the same street corner in Chicago. Lots of audience interest.

9. Promise something useful

Lennie cites several Ragan tweets, among them, “19 free tools to make your presentations pop,” and “5 nontraditional cover letters that worked.”

10. Write for your friends; not your fans

We’re not sure how they got away with it, but WGN headlined an interview this way: “Morgan Freeman shamelessly flirts with our producer … In other news, Morgan Freeman is a dirty old man.”

“We are talking in a way that’s how humans talk to each other,” Lennie says.

11. Ask a question that the user wants to learn the answer to.

Consider this one, from WGN: “Wanna know how Chicago really works?”

Of course you do. Say you don’t, and we’ll send a guy over to, um, convince you.

@r_working

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