This piece first appeared in SAY Daily, and "The week In Venn" newsletter (produced by say media), on May 6, 2011. And, lo, a good deal of it is still relevant today.
As a lowly headline writer, I must confess I’ve often had a crisis of faith when it comes to throwing my lot in with the Internet’s powers that be. Shall today’s headline be a shiny keyword-studded offering to the mighty Search Algorithm? Or should I craft it such that it curries favor with the demigods of the social web? Shall I sacrifice my snark? Or lean into it and pray that friends and followers see it as a mark of my personal brand, share a chuckle and hit the re-tweet or “like” button?
It’s a sore subject with former colleagues of mine from the alternative newsweekly world, who were forced to give up their carefully concocted print media zingers for search-friendly headlines sometimes a sentence long. But the good news for them is there's no time like the present to showcase those mad Stop-And-Read-This! headline-writing skills.
Headlines on the web need to be louder than ever to be heard above the scores of screaming pixels on any given screen. We're seeing a return to sensationalism, as the media struggle to keep up with our ravenous appetites and attempt to cater to a wider audience than it had to in those lazy morning newspaper days.
There has never been a better time to sharpen your headline-penning skills, no matter what industry you’re in. As a service to humanity, we hereby present you the 10 Commandments of Successful Headline Writing for the Social Web.
1. Know thy audience.
Do: Wax poetic about chaps and o-ring harnesses if you have a sizable following of leather daddies.
- Don't: Bore your community of fly fishermen with your fervent belief that greige is the new black.
2. Social media is 101% about emotions; use this to thy advantage.
Do: Be outrageous, be hilarious, be gag reflex inducing. Make ‘em laugh, cry or think “wait, what?!” like I did when reading the headline “Since There’s Nothing Left in the Sea, Fishermen Will Now Be Paid to Catch Plastic.”
- Don't: Be dismissible. You may as well be dead.
3. Tailor thy headlines to the network thou art addressing.
Do: Use self-deprecating humor when submitting a headline (and link) to editor-run social news aggregator Fark. A slideshow we created at the SF Weekly a few years back bagged 300K pageviews overnight thanks to the headline “SF Weekly Scrapes Absolute Bottom of Barrel, Offers Up LOLCat Year in Review.”
- Don't: Try that same trick on Reddit. Those nerds can smell a self-promotional scheme a mile away, self-deprecation or no.
4. Thou shalt offer value.
Do: Offer top ten lists. Grumble all you like about numbered lists ruining the Web. Those headlines will continue their reign of terror because they do so well–simply by promising value.
- Don't: Make promises with your headline that you can't keep. No one likes a bait-n-switcher. It might make for one great click-through but forget about a repeat performance.
5. Thou shalt keep it real.
Do: Remind yourself that you are talking to actual people and not the Almighty Algorithm. Ask yourself: WWPC–What Would People Click?
- Don't: Showcase your best Klingon, unless, of course, you are the director of the Klingon Language Institute and your Twitter followers expect no less.
6. Thou shalt keep it snappy.
Do: Take a page from the Twitter user's playbook and pack a punch while managing to fit your message in a bite-sized, digestible, share-worthy package. For example, did you know that Police in India Get Paid More If They Grow a Mustache?
- Don't: Bury the lead. (Yes you can actually bury the lead within a headline.) Today's consumers have the attention span of gnats–you only get one opportunity to hook 'em. Use it.
7. Thou shalt experiment.
Do: Ask a question, teach your audience how to do something cool, switch your style up from time to time–and keep an eye on your analytics tool to see what went over best. Speaking of experiments: “Human Breast Milk Cheese Now Available. Why? Hipsters.”
- Don't: Timidly walk down the same tried and true headline-writing road. On a related note: Don't be afraid of your own shadow.
8. Thou shalt keep thy headline social and thy URL search friendly.
Do: Lead with wit, sass and charm…and doctor your article's URL such that it does the heavy keyword lifting.
- Don't: Let those clunky keywords sully your glorious, luminous headline.
9. Keep thy top keyword.
Do: Win at life by creating flashy headlines that corner the social Web's attention and manage to help with SEO too. Warning: You don't get good at this overnight. Some recommend doing 10 variations of the same headline until you get one that sings.
- Don't: Sell your soul.
10. Thou shalt visit social news sites for inspiration.
Do: Visit the front page of Digg or Reddit to see which headlines made it through the grueling vetting process put in place by their respective communities.
- Don't: Be intimidated. It may take a lot of practice, but if you keep at it, you’ll eventually write a headline as inspiring as this one is for me at the moment: “Emotionally Crippled Woman Can Keep Physically Crippled Kangaroo.”