A very basic guide for people who write for the web and find themselves trying to build an audience.
ONE. Give people a reason to click
Why is your work worth anyone’s attention? That’s not a mean question: you must think it’s worth people’s time, otherwise why publish at all? So your headline has to explain in some way why they should click on you, why they should care about your thing ahead of the seventy billion other things people are trying to make them care about right now. If you can’t work out a value proposition and express it clearly in a headline, it might be worth editing your piece.
TWO. It has to work out of context
In print, you have lots of elements to work with that can tell a reader what something’s about – intros, pull quotes, images and head all work together. On the web, even if your site uses all those things as part of its design, your headline is going to appear in many places you can’t control, all on its own. Twitter, Facebook, Google and any number of other social sites are going to strip it from its context and force it to perform. If it doesn’t make sense when you look at it on its own, it won’t work as a web head.
THREE. It should probably mention what the piece is about
That might sound obvious, but it’s worth stating – it’s surprising how many fascinating pieces have incredibly obscure headlines. Anyone who finds you through search because they’re looking for the thing you’re talking about is almost certainly going to be lost if you don’t mention it in the headline.
FOUR. People like lists
That doesn’t mean you should write a list if your piece isn’t already a list. But if you’re writing a list and you don’t take the opportunity to use a number in the headline, you’re probably missing a trick.
FIVE. People like useful
This ought to be self-evident. Are you giving people instructions, a helpful way to do things, or information they might find useful? Then make sure your headline says so.
SIX. Don’t make promises you can’t keep
Make sure people know they can trust what they’re clicking on. Don’t pretend what you’ve written is better or more comprehensive or more emotional than it is. No one likes feeling foolish or disappointed, and people aren’t going to share things that create those feelings.
SEVEN. Keep it snappy
Too long, and it’s going to end up truncated in most of the places that count – Twitter has a character limit, Google has a display limit – and look ugly on your site on mobile, unless you’re specifically designing for it. You’re going to lose attention. Simple tends to be better; shorter tends to be better; if you can make it elegant, alliterative or amusing at the same time, that’s icing on the cake.
EIGHT. Work out what your audience responds to
This is the golden rule. It’s one reason why Upworthy is so good at the sharing game: Upworthy’s headlines are designed around two clauses, one with an emotional pull, because that’s what its core audience of mothers shares most. If you’re making things aimed at a certain audience and you know they respond to a certain type of sell, then you can cheerfully ignore the rest of this list, safe in the knowledge that your readers won’t care.