The Problem with Carefully Crafted Headlines

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013 at 9:46 AM | Category: Blogging, Books, Marketing, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 8 comments

My youngest showed me a bookmark that listed the 20 Texas Bluebonnet nominated books. “Mom, I’m going to read all 20 of these books,” he said.

Needless to say, I did cartwheels and back flips in my mind. (The only place it can happen as I haven’t done a decent cartwheel since the ’80s.) A child who wants to read? My oldest was average about reading. The middle one despises it.

A little background. The Texas Library Association runs the Texas Bluebonnet Award program, a reading program that encourages children in third through sixth grades to read more books. They must read at least five nominated books to be able to vote.

We reviewed the list to find his next read. Then I did what I should know better to do. I started judging books by the title. An interesting thing happened. The synopsis of the titles that interested me sounded like books worth reading. And those with blah titles didn’t.

After my son finished “Benjamin Franklinstein Lives!” I picked it up. Good title, right? I don’t like monsters or anything, but I knew it wouldn’t be scary since this is for kids. Here’s the synopsis:

Victor Godwin’s orderly life is upended when he discovers that Benjamin Franklin never actually died. In truth, he was put in suspended animation and hidden away for more than 200 years in Victor’s basement.

Intriguing, right?

I didn’t like it.

Bad Headlines Live!

That’s what happens when I come across a headline that interests me. I click through only to find a disappointing article that doesn’t deliver.

There are jillions of articles about writing headlines for blog posts and online articles. They give advice, tricks and formulas for crafting a super duper catchy one that hypnotizes people into reading.

Please stop. Just stop.

It happens often enough that I quit visiting a few websites that let me down again and again and again. Everyone has an off day. Of course, I didn’t stop visiting after one over-hyped or perfectly crafted headline. These sites were notorious enough that I started remembering how they wasted my time too often.

Sometimes it’s not so obvious. Some headlines say they’ll show you how to create a plan or strategy only to be vague without helping you.

Back to Basics

A simple headline that describes the article beats out another using a formula that over promises and under delivers. The same goes for email subject lines. I open plenty of email newsletters with basic subject lines that tell me what the issue is about. They don’t always have a benefit or add a sense of urgency. Some even use the same headline such as: “Newsletter name: Title of key topic or article.”

Just say what’s in the email and make sure the content in the email matches the landing page. Bryan Eisenberg shares great examples of how an email promises one thing and delivers something else. (Check it out. It’s unbelievable how companies overlook something so basic.)

Now when I review the Bluebonnet list, I look up the book’s summary and read well-written reviews. I also ask around for recommendations. 2013-2014 nominee “Walls Within Walls” caught my eye. And guess what? The school librarian loved it. And my son is already hooked. (Bonus points: the book takes place in New York, my dad’s hometown.)

For 2012-2013, my son voted for “Aliens on Vacation.” If I could vote, it’d be “Wonderstruck,” which left me — like its title — wonderstruck after reading it.  (Its author, Brian Selznick, wrote “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.”) At my son’s school, “Wonderstruck” received the most votes. “Postcards from Camp” won the 2012-2013 Texas Bluebonnet Award.

Are headlines becoming a problem for you in your Internet travels? Do they live up to your expectations? What can we do to write better headlines?

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“Do Not Read This Blog Post”

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007 at 7:24 AM | Category: Blogging, Language, Marketing, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 2 comments

That’s not a typo in this entry’s title. It must be negative week as I came across two compelling entries on using negativity in writing.

Admitting Weaknesses

I took an superb online writing class from Jeff Sexton, the author of the Accentuate the Negative post. He gave great examples of how showing the downside of a product or service could gain more credibility than one that has nothing but raves.

Remember Avis? “We’re number two, we try harder.”

I’ve been fortunate to work with clients who use my services again. However, I had a client that didn’t work out. When I stopped working for the client, I asked for a testimonial and said that I didn’t expect a positive one. The client chose not to do it.

But it’s understandable as few want to go on public record making a negative statement about someone’s work. I don’t think I could do it as I prescribe with Lyndon B. Johnson’s approach — criticize people in private. I read a story about the former U.S. president who asked a staff member who did something embarrassing aside where he lectured him. I couldn’t find the story — if anyone knows the story, please let me know.

Using Negativity to Create More Clicks

The second entry comes from David Meerman Scott. In Do Not Read This Post (yeah, I read it and stole his headline — actually, doesn’t putting “” around it indicate I’m quoting him?), he discusses the use of “not” and the importance of delivering on the headline. Take care and “Don’t let people think that you really are being negative or exclusionary.”

Exclusivity also increases want. Example: Google’s Gmail. To get an account required receiving an invitation. Somehow Google pulled it off without coming across as “exclusionary.” Though plenty of blogs had comments from those who had not received an invitation feeling left out or not “in the in crowd,” the whole campaign didn’t emit a negative tone.

Like Scott says, have fun with using the negative approach.

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Two Deadlines Looming

Monday, October 2nd, 2006 at 8:00 AM | Category: Meryl's Notes Blog No comments

If you get an email with the above in the Subject without looking to see who sent it — what do you think? Considering I was swamped during that time, I jumped out of my seat. I always make an effort to beat my deadlines and probably because of all the things going on at work and at home — it made me more sensitive to my workload and schedule.

This was in an email mailing between newsletters from The Publicity Hound. Joan Stewart sends stuff between newsletters from time to time. So I emailed her about it thinking maybe it would’ve hurt more than helped to have such a headline.

But she provided a different perspective I had not considered. She said, “That subject line was intended for people who need a ‘heads up’ about deadlines. Had I not put that in the subject line, I would have heard, ‘Why didn’t you tell us we had to order by 5 p.m. Friday? Had I known that, I would have opened the email immediately. Now I’ve missed out on the discount!'”

Fair enough. Those who weren’t interested were more likely to hit the Delete key and move on. I guess being a newsletter editor made me want to respond and it reinforced the lesson of the importance of knowing your audience. She knew her audience well enough to know that it would work for most. So I’m the odd gal out in that audience.

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Five Tips for Writing Eyeball-Grabbing Headlines

Sunday, December 30th, 2001 at 9:44 AM | Category: Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 1 comment

If you made it this far, the headline for this story has caught your attention. Hot headlines are a hit with readers because they stick out, grab attention and urge them to read the rest of the story.

We’re all experiencing information overload and have made it a habit to skim pages. According to David Ogilvy, a successful advertising writer, “Five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy.” Sounds like we need to treat those headlines like trying to get our foot in the door.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a sales letter, Web page content, email, or an article. Pulling together a handful of powerful words and putting them ahead of the content is more likely to grab eyeballs than just going right into the story, letter, or content.

Despite our success with newsletters, we continue to learn how to add more punch when writing headlines. Here are the tips we have learned and try to apply:

  1. “What does the reader get from this?” The answer to your question can be the baseline for the headline. From there, modify it to ensure it has easily understood and expressive words. This addresses the “What’s in it for me?” question. You can almost never go wrong with headlines that convey reader benefit.
  2. Keep It Short and Simple (KISS). It continues to hold true even with headlines. If it is too long, the reader isn’t going to be able to swallow it with one gulp and will move on before figuring it out.

    Try summarizing the content in 10 words or less and make it your benchmark. Play with it until you come up with something snappy without being unbelievable. Another way to go about it is to treat headlines like a billboard. Speeding cars make it easy to overlook the billboard’s message, so it better be short and simple.
  3. Be diverse. Often, I find that many headlines from a source sound repetitive since they repeatedly use the same type words and phrases. If you’re out of ideas, use a thesaurus to help you find new words. Another option is to search for keywords in the content and use them.
  4. Believable. When I see a headline that sounds “too good to be true,” it immediately looks and feels like “spam” and it’s trashed or skipped over.
  5. Emotional. Headlines that make a reader excited, scared, or curious produce better results because they prompt action. Write in the first or second person with present tense verbs to make such headlines urge people to take instant action.

If you have the luxury of conducting a headline test and getting a report of results, then send out your content to half of your test audience with one headline and the other half with the other headline. Review the report to see how many actually read the story for each headline and compare.

Another option is to have your colleagues review several headlines and pick which works better.

Work smarter not harder when writing headlines and make a whizbang first impression. Expend as much energy in the headline as you do writing the rest of the content. If that doesn’t happen, then few will read beyond the headline. Here are some typical words to help you get rolling:

Advice… Facts… Last Minute… Save… Amazing… Finally… Secrets… Announcing… Free… Luxury… Security… At Last… Growth… New… Show Me… Bargains… Hate… Obsession… Breakthrough… Here… Only… Share… How Much… Protect… The Truth Of… Discover… How To… Rewards… Yes… Do You… How Would… Sale… You… # Tips… # Ways… Don’t Buy… Don’t Spend…

There is no rule that says headlines have to be dull, flat, or full of technical jargon to ensure professionalism. Go have a ball writing headlines.

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