How to Write Winning Headlines – and Subject Lines, Too

Posted by on May 3, 2017

You see a headline on a news page: Facebook Admits Fault Over Children Ad Sales Tactics.

You continue to scroll and on another page of the same site you see the following headline: Facebook Handed Over Data on ‘Insecure’ and ‘Overwhelmed’ Teenagers to Advertisers.

If you didn’t click on the first headline, perhaps you were more inclined to click on the second one?

With news, content and emails at every digital turn we take, the importance of a headline – as well as email marketing subject lines – matter more than ever. As marketers, we vie for high click-through rates, strong engagement and increased shares. But, without an enticing headline or subject line, our content and offers go unnoticed.

That’s why I recommend the following tips:

  • Know your audience. We write blog posts and bylined articles for several of our clients, including Baylor Scott & White Health. Sometimes, we’re writing for consumers, other times we’re writing for physicians – depending on the publication or outlet. Regardless, we always consider what would resonate with the audience.
  • Embrace trial and error. Consider the headlines above. Since either could be effective, we employ a couple of tactics. One: test different options by using one headline for one audience segment and another for a second audience segment. Two: monitor our analytics for declines and refresh our online headlines to find out what resonates. Three: we typically give our clients several headline options to either choose from – or test out.
  • Follow the SEO rules (and balance with common sense). I earned my HubSpot Inbound Marketing Certification last year – a process that involved taking 12 courses and passing a test that I actually had to study for. If you want your content to rank well in search engines, HubSpot recommends keeping titles under 70 characters so they don’t get cut off in search engine results. Other best practices: identify and use keyword phrases; come up with something catchy or creative; and keep it simple.
  • Stick with the truth. Imagine the disappointment you experience when you click on a headline or open an email only to find there’s no real payoff or the content isn’t what you expect. Clients and customers don’t want to feel bamboozled, so consider their experience and expectations. HubSpot recommends adding clarification in brackets to define the content – e.g. [Interview], [Podcast], [Infographic], etc… In a study of over 3.3 million paid link headlines, they found that headlines with this type of clarification performed 38 percent better than headlines without clarification. Again, it’s all about setting clear expectations.

Not all headlines are created equally, but they should be created with a purpose: to attract your target audiences, moving them toward a new experience with your brand.


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