Headlines! Online, they are used for or in articles, videos, blog posts, comments (sometimes), ebooks, websites, emails, PPC ads, profiles, tweets, and so on. Even URLs are like headlines.
The importance of headlines can hardly be underestimated in the communications world. More people by far see your headlines than read what you wrote or published. Your content often either reaches an audience or is dropped into oblivion based on your headline.
Headlines are an opportunity to address the central theme that ties the whole together. Of the principles of rhetoric used today and stretching back thousands of years, one of the most powerful and accepted is this: “Say one thing.” Books, essays, speeches–all are most powerful and best remembered if organized and unified under one banner, one central theme.
But it would be a mistake to say that the headline must always be a statement of the theme. Rather, the wording of the headline is based on its purposes, among which are these:
1) It answers the question, “Why should the reader dig deeper?” (Or in the case of videos, the viewer–but we will generalize as “reader” henceforth.) The headline should always address the perceived self-interest of the reader. In some way, the headline should always promise a benefit.
2) It fairly represents the whole that follows. Hence the relationship between the headline and the central theme must usually be a close one. If there is a disconnect between the headline and the content, the reader will quickly become disillusioned by the lie … and move on. If the headline promises, the content must deliver.
3) It should qualify the reader. You are not writing for everybody in the world, but only for those with a felt need for your product/service (and money to buy it) or those who a looking for the information you have or those with whom you can develop some sort of relationship.
How you write your headline follows from its purposes.
1) Thus the headline should not be vague, but rather specific and concise.
Think of people scanning lists of email subject lines. If the first three to five words don’t grip the attention, the whole will be ignored. So don’t waste the first three words on qualifiers, fluff, prepositions, “a,” or “the” without good reason.
And beware of words and phrases with two meanings. Persons searching for the historical character “Bloody Mary” may be annoyed when they land on your article about “Bloody Mary,” the alcoholic beverage.
2) Use keyword search tools to match your headline with what people are searching for. Slight changes from “leave” to “leaving” can sometimes make a big difference in the volume of searches. Examples of such tools include adwords.google and wordpot (for free), tools.seobook and wordtracker (for a subscription).
And if your headline uses phrasing that is highly competitive, how will you stand out in the crowd? Keyword research can help identify similar wording that is not as competitive.
3) Work at the headline, and make necessary changes after you are finished editing the content. Prefer simple, short words over long, unusual words that convey the same meaning. Prefer words that strike at the emotional reasons behind what you are saying. Prefer the vivid to the mundane, the gripping to the bland, the visual to the abstract, the personal to the formal, the plain to the alliterative or to the obscure.
Your marketing results will be better if you understand the purposes of headlines and how to write them.
P.S. Since I wrote the above, I came across a little something on the topic that is too good not to include! Thank you Vicki Berry!