The art of writing great headlines

rssheadlines How much attention do you pay to the headline of a blog post or other content you write?

I always think that the headline of a blog post, newspaper article, news release or other piece of written material is the most essential thing to pay attention to when you write that content.

A compelling headline or title is usually how you’ll get the attention of people when they’re doing things like I do most days – scroll through a list of headlines of content in my RSS reader.

I don’t see photos or other visual attractions, just words upon which I’ll make a rapid almost subconscious decision on whether to give the content the headline leads to any attention, or skip and continue scanning.

As an example of making headline creation an art if not a science, look to the Huffington Post and what they do to write compelling headlines as reported by the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University:

From direct mail to web design, A/B testing is considered a gold standard of user research: Show one version to half your audience and another version to the other half; compare results, and adjust accordingly. Some very cool examples include Google’s obsessive testing of subtle design tweaks and Dustin Curtis’ experiment with direct commands and clickthrough rates. (”You should follow me on Twitter” produced dramatically better results than the less moralizing, “Follow me on Twitter.”)

So here’s something devilishly brilliant: The Huffington Post applies A/B testing to some of its headlines. Readers are randomly shown one of two headlines for the same story. After five minutes, which is enough time for such a high-traffic site, the version with the most clicks becomes the wood that everyone sees.

Headlines have always played the most promotional role in news, charged with selling readers on the articles they adorn, so it only makes sense to apply the best tools of market research to their crafting. Think of it as a more rigorous version of magazines adjusting their covers based on newsstand sales.

The extent to which the Huffington Post goes to test how compelling their headlines are is doubtful whether it’s a feasible activity for your average blogger.

Yet thinking more about the headline of your post, and then writing a compelling one, is advantageous in a world where your great post is competing for attention among all the other great posts out there.

Luckily, there’s help close at hand, starting with Copyblogger’s How To Write Headlines That Work. Some good advice there. And check their series on writing headlines with even more tips and tricks.

If you use Twitter, you’re already well ahead in practising a technique of concise communicating, squeezing all you need to say in 140 characters or less. Good practice for writing snappy headlines.

Now you have a good reason to use Twitter!

About Neville Hobson

Entrepreneurial business communicator with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Co-host of the weekly business podcast For Immediate Release: The Hobson and Holtz Report. Also an occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Follow me on Twitter and Google+.