The Headline Writing Trick You Can’t Afford to Ignore!

Headline Writing TrickIf you’re reading this, my headline worked. If not, then why am I typing this?

The simple point is that today the main job of a headline is to get you reading at least the first sentence of what follows.

Any headline that does that is successful.

The downside to this is that we see so many headlines on the web today that we have been desensitized to many of them. The upside is that we’re so freaking predictable it’s easy to rope most of us in with a few gimmicks, er, “strategies.”

I use Evernote to keep an ongoing collection of Internet headline word and phrase trends. That’s how I crafted the headline for this article. “Trick” is really big and the phrase “You Can’t Afford to Ignore” is very popular.

Do you hate Ann Coulter?

While I know many of you probably loathe Ann Coulter, she made the best use of one of these hyper-popular headline phrases last week when she gave this headline to an article she wrote:

Raise the Minimum Wage to $14 an Hour Using This One Weird Trick!

It was a stroke—or several dozen keystrokes—of brilliance.

The reason we keep seeing phrases like “You won’t believe,” “You’ll never look at…the same again,” “…will blow your mind” and “…reaction is priceless” is because they work. When they stop working, headline writers will move on.

Pull on the heartstrings

However, it’s probably more important to understand why those headlines work rather than how to steal them for your own purposes. They work because they arouse our curiosity. To do this they appeal to various human needs and emotions, such as:

  • The need to feel special.
  • The need to be part of the crowd.
  • The need to be current.
  • The desire to be surprised.
  • The desire to experience change.

For the most part, writing on the Internet doesn’t work when paired with a headline like:

Marketing Program Creates Demand

However something like:

You Won’t Believe What Happened When I Ran This Simple Ad!

would probably work pretty well.


Ignite your headlines

Comedy is often built around juxtaposition. Dennis Rodman on a diplomatic mission to North Korea. O.J. Simpson’s quest to find the real killer. These kinds of contrasts are often used or implied in viral headlines.

“You won’t believe…” implies that the reader is going to be shocked by something that follows. (Usually, by the way, what follows may be mildly interesting, but is very seldom “unbelievable.”) “…can’t afford to ignore” implies that the information that follows is earthshakingly important.

This is the kind of tension you often want to create with headlines. Raise an emotional expectation in the reader’s mind with the headline and then satisfy that expectation in the article.

And that, my friends, is the trick you can’t afford to ignore.

Photo Credit: “In E-Book Era, You Can’t Even Judge a Cover,” © 2010 Karen Horton, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license:


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