June 20, 2017

8 Tips for Writing Catchy Headlines

In a world full of noise, how do you get people to actually read what you write? It takes more than good content and design. The most important part of writing is the headline.

My advice? Be bold. Be brief. Be relevant. Because without a great headline hook to pull people into your article or ad, they’ll browse right on by.

As a longtime ad junkie, my appreciation for brevity started with the original VW Beetle campaign: “Think Small.” “Lemon.” “Old Faithful.” Witty, thought-provoking, accompanied by minimal text and surrounded by massive white space that focused attention on the product. It was so eye-catching, it was magical. Yet the ads didn’t promote the VW as much as the lifestyle that it made possible—simple, affordable, no need to show off.  Many consider that campaign the template for Apple’s “Think different” campaign, and its continuing minimalist copy and design to this day.

So, how do you recreate the magic? Start by following my 8 tips for writing better headlines:

  1. Use numbers, data or statistics. Example: “7 facts that’ll change your mind about sushi.” Anything quantifiable engages our brains to think.
  2. Be quick. Today’s consumer attention span is 8 seconds, according to The New York Times.
  3. Pose a question. It engages readers—assuming you know enough about the subject to pose your question, and readers want to know the answer.
  4. Keep word count low. Nielsen Norman Group says the best headlines are five words or less—people don’t read as much anymore.
  5. Minimize character count. According to Outbrain, 60-100 characters is the sweet spot for headlines. Anything above or below that reduces click-through.
  6. Whittle away. Gather all key words you need, then assemble and trim until you get down to the most succinct promise or offer.
  7. Use a turn or twist of phrase. But don’t let it get in the way, cause confusion or make readers work too hard.
  8. Run headlines by others. Get their reaction—sometimes we’re too close to our own work to be objective.

At AB&C, we practice what we preach. Our client Guthrie Clinic, the leading healthcare system in rural northern Pennsylvania and southern New York, asked us to recruit big-city physicians. We used the lure of the organization’s less hierarchical structure and the area’s less hectic, less expensive lifestyle. The ad headline? “Guthrie offers you less.”

For SCL Health, a not-for-profit Catholic health system, our recruitment rallying cry headline was “Patients before profits.”

For Delaware Office of Highway Safety, we used “arresting” (seriously!) headlines to make drivers aware of the criminal consequences of driving under the influence of prescription pills, illicit drugs or weed. The TV and print headlines? “Popped” and “Light Up,” accompanied by simple driver-under-arrest visuals.

So that’s my take on how to create headlines that don’t suck. Keep ’em simple. As short as possible. And relevant as hell.