Keys to writing the best headline ever

An AdWeek editor shared some of his special sauce for headlines that provoke without being salacious.

Shoulder pads. Hot coffee. Time on my hands.

When these three elements collided as I sat in my fluorescently-lit corporate cube in the late 1990s, I would flip through Adweek, its large letters gleaming back at me with that imposing black font, bathed in all of its Madison Avenue glory. Those moments reminded me I had officially “made it,” even if I was working as a communications manager at a semiconductor equipment company, hardly the epicenter of tech excitement. Scanning the glossy headlines and photos, I secretly hoped one day I’d run a mind-blowing, multi-million dollar ad campaign that would be featured in Adweek. In the meantime I had my cushy job, Aeron chair, and fantasies to covet.

Recently, I heard Adweek editor David Griner speak at a marketing industry event. As chief honcho of its cultishly popular AdFreak blog, which covers all things digital advertising and creative. It’s heartening to know that Adweek is a survivor of the marketing industry’s ups and down, as am I (minus the shoulder pads and award-winning ad campaigns).

Griner’s topic, “How to Write Content Without Selling Your Soul,” was a bit misleading, but not in a bad way. He advised the audience to focus on headlines, calling them “the most important thing.” He went on to describe what makes them great, what not to do, and other secrets to AdFreak‘s success. The connection quickly became clear between Adfreak‘s bullseye headlines and their delicate dance with this click-bait culture of ours.

We all suck at writing headlines

It was a harsh opening, but in Griner’s world none of us possess an inherent gift for knocking headlines out of the park the first time. One of the reasons for AdFreak‘s explosive growth and millions of readers each month is because its headlines toe the line of “being provocative without being salacious.” He also advised, “you can’t be more conservative than your audience.”

It’s not about being conversational or witty

Headline nirvana is more than delivering the facts in a casual, conversational, or humorous manner. It’s about hooking readers immediately with a personal, insightful, and emotional connection, with a touch of tease. Can you explain the article to friend in a way that makes perfect sense, but will also pique his or her interest? Is the headline accurate and reflective of the content of the article or is it clickbait? Most importantly, Griner asked, “Would I click on the headline if I didn’t write it?”

Make the headline as long as it needs to be

The average AdFreak headline is 14 words (and typically contains a subhead). Cheating? Perhaps, but I’ll cut them slack because they’re good at it. Questions to ask yourself: Does it oversell or undersell? Is it short enough to tweet? Is it long enough to make sense? One of AdFreak’s best-performing articles to date is a guest post with a personal point of view revealed in the headline and a magnet for its universal appeal—captured with just the right number of words in the headline.

Workshop headlines to pure bliss (or to death)

As much as we would all like to believe we are singular geniuses, it takes a village to create a grade-A headline, especially one that impacts your audience directly. According to Griner, AdFreak headlines are routinely dissected, rewritten, spit out, and regurgitated in a group setting that ranges from work meetings to casual conversations or even to running it by a friend or spouse. Honesty is key.

“You might get your feelings hurt, but it’s better to have a pitch perfect headline,” he said. Griner added that if your headline is rejected or slashed up beyond recognition, you can’t take it personally. Keep the big picture in mind to reel in eyeballs and clicks the right way, with hard work.

Break your own rules

This is counter-intuitive, but Griner pointed out that his team doesn’t follow its headline manifest all the time. The formula for a perfect headline is…drumroll please: trial and error. “We violate our own rules all the time, he said. “Trust your instincts but be open. Always question, experiment, and measure.” If a headline isn’t getting clicks, tweak it, rewrite it, or start from scratch. Something is not working, and you must fix it.

No matter how compelling the article, it will never reach its true sharing potential if readers don’t click.

Janice Cuban is principal of Janice Cuban Creative, specializing in content marketing for B2B, B2C and small businesses. She is also a blogger, freelance writer and lover of all things marketing and technology.

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