Even as writers and editors have become comfortable with writing for the web—and most of us do it every day—we still make a common mistake. We tend to write for just two mediums: print and digital. But just as not all print mediums are a monolith, not all digital platforms are the same, either.
You wouldn’t write the same for a newspaper article as for a nonfiction book. In the same way, it doesn’t make sense to write the same headline for something you’ll share on Facebook as you would for something meant to be found in a search, for example.
There's no one good way to write a headline. The effectiveness of a headline style depends on the platform where the content is found.
As with any writing, it’s all about context.
Everything that surrounds your writing—in the digital and physical worlds—and everything that happens before, after, and while an audience reads it affects what it means to them.
Catching a reader’s attention—mainly, getting them to click—depends on what surrounds the thing you’re promoting. And what catches their attention on social media is not the same as what grabs them in search or other platforms, because readers are there for different reasons.
Unfortunately, the quality of a story is irrelevant if you can’t get a reader to click on the headline.
Online content isn’t packaged the way it is in print, where you can entice readers with a cover or front page and get them to read deeper. All online content goes through a distribution platform first.
Online, you have to sell the reader on every story.
That starts with a clicky headline. To write that, you need to understand the context of the platform where readers will see the headline.
To shape headlines for a platform, you have to understand for each platform:
Here’s how that looks for three major platforms: Facebook, Google, and email.
Facebook and other clickable social media platforms, including Twitter and LinkedIn, are as useful to publishers as they are challenging. The audience is huge and active—and it’s your job to convince them to leave the platform and visit your site.
Because readers on social media tend to be there for brief entertainment, timeliness is valuable on the platform. Readers will gravitate to the things that are relevant to them right now. That makes Facebook best for news sites and other sites with timely content.
Headlines on Facebook need to be eye-catching to people who aren’t looking for your content or anything like it. Make them exciting and provocative without being overly promissory or misleading. A curiosity gap goes a long way—catch a reader’s attention with the headline, but don’t give away the whole story. Make them want to click to know more.
A lot of writers and editors cringe thinking about search, remembering the days of keyword-stuffing and black-hat SEO schemes. But Google has grown up; today, it generally respects authority and expertise. The platform presents an opportunity to do what publishers are all about: inform.
Search is the best platform for niche sites, because the purpose of your content is the same as the platform: to explain stuff and answer questions.
Headlines in search need to be eye-catching and clicky because you’re competing with a few other results for the click. But they’re usually more straightforward and less sensational than social headlines. They just need to let readers know you’ve got the information they’re looking for.
Every publication should use email to connect with readers. The platform gives you more autonomy and a more engaged audience than either social or search. If you deliver great content and cultivate your relationship with those readers, it can be valuable for driving traffic to your website and as a stand-alone product to monetize.
Headlines in an email still need to be clicky, but that could mean something different for loyal readers. It might be less about being eye-catching and leaving a curiosity gap and more about demonstrating that the article is about a topic this audience will definitely enjoy.
Dana Sitar has been writing and editing for digital media since 2011. She trains journalists, writers and editors on writing for the web, and has written about work and writing in digital media for publications including the New York Times and HuffPost and in a column for Inc. magazine. She presented “Headlines That Work: How to Capture Readers’ Attention on Any Platform” as a webinar for ACES in February 2020. Say hi and tell her a good joke on Twitter @danasitar.