Engaging audiences is a daily battle for all digital publishers and there are few more powerful tools than the humble headline.
Those few, carefully chosen words can mean the difference between a reader visiting, reading, commenting, and returning — or ignoring you altogether.
But nailing the headline is often as vexed as it is crucial. The first step is to recognise what worked in print (for decades) doesn’t necessarily work in digital. Digital headline writing is more art than science, but these tips can make your headlines sing:
1. Wordplay is fine, but it’s better to be direct
Puns, wordplay and witticisms work well in print. The reader has the physical artefact in hand and is already committed to reading.
They are less effective in digital, where the headline’s role is to grab the reader — from an e-newsletter, Facebook or Twitter. Communicate clearly to the reader what the story is about, and why they should read it.
For instance, we recently ran a story in Australian Doctor about British researchers who were urging Australia to adopt a new version of the Heimlich manoeuvre, involving thrusting yourself against the back of a chair.
Print headline: ‘Heimlich takes back seat to DIY move‘. Fine word play, but not as clear or direct as it could be.
Digital newsletter: ‘Move over Heimlich: This chair thrust could save your life’.
2. Don’t give everything away
Good headlines entice the reader and create an itch they want to scratch. They shouldn’t give everything away. We want them to click through and engage with the content!
Research stories are a classic case in point. The key finding can often summarised in a sentence: ‘X drug decreases risk of Y by Z percent’. But the reader might reasonably think they have the thrust of the study without needing to read more.
To encourage deeper engagement, don’t tell the whole story, for example: ‘Researchers heartened by new X drug findings’.
But there is a fine line between ‘teasing’ and ‘clickbait’, and the headline must reflect what’s in the story. Readers don’t like to be disappointed with an article after being enticed by a headline.
3. Look for what’s interesting – and hit it hard
News is a commodity and it’s relentless. Readers risk feeling swamped, and that they’ve already read a story elsewhere. Hone in on what’s different about your story and hit it hard. Is there a compelling anecdote? A killer quote? Something out of the ordinary?
For example, we ran a ‘Tech Talk’ column in Australian Doctor about how telemedicine is evolving.
Print headline: ‘Telemedicine: think international collaboration’. A good headline when eyeballs are already on the page.
In the cut-throat digital world, it must really be more enticing. Buried within the piece was a fascinating real life tale: ‘How telemedicine helped saved a baby, 14,000km away’.
4. Look beyond the ‘what’ for the ‘why’ and ‘how’
Who, what, when and where – this is Journalism 101. But it’s often the why and how that really make people tick. This is what sets engaging content apart from the pack. Always try to include them in the headline.
There are myriad examples of such stories across our website — and although the strategy often works best with opinions and analyses, it can also work well with news.
A recent example was a story about constitutional changes by the RACGP. A simple headline could have been ‘RACGP to change constitution’. But the story went deeper than that, which is what we tried to achieve with our headline, which proved far more engaging: ‘How the new constitution will change the RACGP’.
Another example is the axing of 457 visas — something of deep interest to international medical graduates and students.
It was reported widely in the mainstream press, so we needed to show that our coverage was tailored to our audience. Rather than ‘Goverment to scrap 457 visa scheme’, which ran everywhere, we opted for ‘Why doctors are worried about the axing of 457 visas’, which is more specific and targets our audience.
5. Why prompts are effective
It’s easiest to explain this point with an example. The Australian Tax Office recently released its annual data on the average taxable income of different professions — something of perennial interest to our audience.
We could have run a straight headline:‘Doctors remain high in annual income ranking).
We took a more engaging approach: ‘See how your income compares against other doctors’.
6. Learn to love listicles (but don’t overdo them)
Anyone who deals in audience data knows the power of the listicle — and if you’ve read this far, you need no convincing of its merits!
Always look for ways to turn content into a list, but remember not to overdo it. As a general rule, we try to have a maximum of two listicles on any digital newsletter.