Headlines and titles are essential if you’re serious about growing your audience.
Headlines describe articles inside ecosystems of something bigger — like magazines or blogs. Titles usually envelop the whole idea of your business.
Successful copywriters, bloggers, and freelancers spend hours choosing headlines. Titles might take days or months.
Titles like Chevron, Airbnb, or the New York Times took more than 45 minutes to craft.
Titles are usually — but not always — shorter than headlines.
Headline vs. Title — What’s the Difference?
Shorter and simpler is usually not easier. Quite the opposite. Enticing, short, and clear is way harder to come up with. You’re supposed to sum up the whole project in a few syllables and catch the eye of the reader.
This isn’t to say that headlines are easy either. They’re not. Headlines will make or break your article. They’re the difference between going viral and going bust.
The world has no time for lousy headlines.
Titles usually occupy four categories: straight info, name, twee, and double entendre.
- Straight Info: This title is about to get real with you. It will tell you exactly what’s inside without getting cute. E.g., “American History,” “Rifles,” “Consumer Reports,” “Dance Magazine,” etc.
- Twee: Over-the-top cutesy, almost to the point of throwing up (but they’re still enjoyable). Twee titles hint at what’s inside without revealing much. E.g., “City of Angels,” “Thank you for Smoking, “Breakfast served anytime,” etc.
- Double Entendre: These titles make you go, ‘hmm — ahham — oh!’ DEs exploit ambiguity. E.g., “Dirty Dick’s,” “Little Danish,” “Goldfinger,” etc.
- Names: This category is self-explanatory. Names are names. E.g., Amazon, Google, Medium, Hilton, McDonald’s, etc.
Titles are essential for books, movies, projects, and brands. They’re syllables that have the power to become household names.
The primary purpose of a headline is to attract readers. Many headlines can occupy one page (newspaper cover.) The terms title and headline are used interchangeably in journalism. Headlines are titles of a story.
Crafting the right headline is a mix of art and science.
The art lies in piquing interest. Viral headlines often describe enough to present the article but not quite enough to tell the whole story.
Headlines can fit into many categories. I’ll try to cover the most relevant.
- How-to: These headlines have grown generic over the years. The primary purpose is to present a problem and offer a solution. They’re attention-grabbing in their nature. But the saturation of how-to headlines is apparent. E.g., “How Authors Really Make Money,” “How to Create Headlines That Get Retweeted,” “How to Cook to Impress.”
- The Headline: These are simple and offer straight information. They follow the form of “the + explanation.” E.g., “The Productivity Triangle,” “The Choice Effect,” “The Challenge of Everyday Publishing,” etc.
- Listicles: Articles written as lists. There are plenty of listicles circulating the web. Maybe too many. E.g., “10 Proven Formulas to Satisfy Your Girl,” “5 Women That Defined History,” “10 Ways to Craft Viral Headlines,” etc.
- Difference between X & Y: Briliant copywriter Seth Godin successfully used this type of headline for decades. It was later adopted by Tim Ferriss and many others. It’s enticing and descriptive. E.g., “The Difference: Living Well vs. Doing Well,” “The Difference Between being Mindful and Being Present,” “The Difference Between Data and Information.”
- Question: Ask a reader something that will pique their interest. E.g., “Why do men never wear sexy underwear?” “How big is your red zone?” “How long before you run out of talking points?”
- Overly-descriptive: These headlines have been working well lately. They usually feature a long, complex sentence, almost a paragraph. E.g., “Keanu Reeves Rarely Talks About Money — but When He Does, it’s Life-Changing,” “Qualities of Incredible Leaders Who Inspire People to Do Their Best Work.”
- WTF: Headlines that keep you confused. These can take any form as long as they keep you saying WTF. E.g., “Include Productivity Hacks in Your Sex Life,” “Curvy Dildo That Will Help you Get That Promotion at Work,” “Man Becomes Rich After Talking to Birds.”
- Double Entendre: They follow the same principles as DE titles. E.g., “Include Your Children When Baking Cookies,” “Iraqi Head Seeks Arms, War Dims Hope For Peace.”
- Credibility: Headlines that include authority. Credibility headlines use words like scientists, experts, or proof. E.g., “Climate Crisis: 11,000 scientists warn of untold suffering,” “Two experts explain what other viruses can teach us about Covid-19.”
- Mistakes: Headline points to mistakes. It usually has the word mistake in it. E.g., “Mistakes Most People Make When Washing Hands,” “Mistakes Most Women Make When Sharing Their Feelings.”
- Trivia: Engages the reader in a challenge. For example: “Can You Find Nemo in This Picture,” “Can You Find the Problem in the Whitehouse.”
- Ultimate: The best of the best. You’ll offer the ultimate way to upgrade your reader’s life. E.g., “Best Way to Seduce Your Girlfriend Again,” “Ultimate Guide to Working From Home,” “The Only Way To Escape Uncertainty.”
- Open Letter: Drama. The open letter means you had enough. You can’t take it anymore. E.g., “An Open Letter to my Peers Partying on the Beach,” “An Open Letter to the Boy Who Killed My Father.”
The above examples usually work. But that doesn’t mean they will work for you. Smart timing, a well-crafted headline, and a bit of luck are essential to capture the scrolling reader.
Headlines can be further divided into two more categories: Positive and Negative.
People react faster to negative headlines, as recent studies have confirmed. This is one of the reasons why global media is mass-producing negative headlines. Negativity sells. And the good news is often not news.
This isn’t to say there are no well-performing positive headlines out there. The world needs positive headlines. We need to learn, grow, and laugh.
- Positive: Headlines used to enlighten, empower, and instill hope, humor, or pride. E.g., “Have You Heard the Good News About Sea Level Rise,” “‘Robin Hood of McNuggets’ Admits to giving Everyone an Extra Nugget at McDonald’s,” “Holding Captain America’s Shield is Monumental, Says Anthony Macki,” “10 Ways Meditation Will Soothe Your Anxiety.”
- Negative: Alarming headlines that inflict fear, worry, and sadness. E.g., “U.S. Stock Market Falling Faster Than During the Wall Street Crash,” “Anti-Asian Sentiment grows in the US as Trump calls Corona the ‘Chinese Virus,’” “I Never Thought I’d be Stabbed 18 Times.”
Titles reflect big ideas while headlines describe what’s inside an article.
They’re both important when presenting your work. Craft good headlines to entice readers and create titles that reflect your brand. Otherwise, you won’t reach your audience.
I hope this data will help you craft better titles and headlines. The truth is that no one can guarantee your content going viral. Nobody knows the ultimate approach. You’ll have to figure that yourself.
Write, edit, and publish; that’s the only way you’ll know.
Written by yours truly, Toni Koraza
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