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How I learned to stop writing headlines and start loving my audience

Posted By Laurie Pumper, Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, August 19, 2014

By Laurie Pumper, CAE, Communication Director, Ewald Consulting

Everyone who writes for associations wants to get the largest possible audience for that material. However, one of the best ways to gain that attention often gets left until the end of the process. Many busy writers give little thought to the headline — yet that short bit of text can make the difference between so-so readership and virality. Here are some hints to help bring your headlines and other short-form messages to life.

Why do your readers care?

Having a strong call to action can help you create a strong headline. But determining what will motivate readers means knowing your audience. It was one of the first lessons I learned in journalism school, and it is just as relevant now. Are your members likely to read your message at work, at home, or on a plane? Do many of them use mobile devices for emails? Learn what inspires your members; learn what they fear; learn as much as you can about them. Then use that knowledge to develop great content (and headlines) to meet their needs.

Does a picture really say a thousand words?

Especially on magazine covers and social media platforms, you have the opportunity to draw in your readers with a great photo. The best photos convey the emotion you want your audience to feel. Research has proven that people of all ages will focus on a face immediately to seek meaning and connection.

Keep your language simple

If you try to jam too many ideas into your headline, it will be difficult for readers to understand what the article is about. It’s best to rely on a simple sentence structure for headlines.

Sweet emotion

Even people who believe that they rely on logic to make decisions actually rely on their subconscious emotions to make many decisions. Use an emotional message (in conjunction with a photo, if possible) to help convey your story. Bring it back to what is important for your audience. “Tax bill passes legislative committee” probably won’t get as many readers as “Tax bill could mean funding cuts for ABC members.”

Some people love a mystery

If the headline gives just enough information to intrigue readers, they will want to learn more about your topic. A good question can help drive traffic to your content. Like many of the other hints provided here, it’s best to use this type of heading occasionally.

Pop: More than a word from Dr. Seuss

Using a pop culture reference can add fun to your headline. Just be sure that your readers will understand it. If your group has global reach and/or if your readers include everyone from the Greatest Generation to Millennials, it may be more difficult for pop culture to translate well. Sometimes, even if people don’t recognize the reference, the language may provide a clever turn of phrase or an engaging way to talk about your content. Even if you’ve never seen the movie Dr. Strangelove, you may have liked the rhythm of the headline for this article.

Mix it up

If every headline you write relies on the same formula, it gets dull. If every subject line includes the word “Urgent,” people will learn that most of your messages really aren’t that urgent.

Does length matter?

There are many opinions on the ideal length for a headline or subject line. My general preference is that shorter is better, but I have seen powerful headlines that are long. Many Content Management Systems set a limit on the number of characters for headlines and subject lines; keep those in mind as you craft messages for different platforms. Your audience makes a difference, too; I’ve found that attorneys or academics are more willing to read a long headline (and the full article that follows).

Just because someone else wrote a crummy headline, you don’t need to use it

Many association leaders aren’t trained as writers: they’re doctors, land surveyors, occupational therapists, and other people who really understand their subject matter. As an association communicator, I see myself as a partner who can elevate that subject matter to connect better with the intended audience. Don’t misstate or exaggerate, but add emotion and clarity.

Try, try again

For the best headlines, don’t be satisfied with the first one that pops to mind. Sometimes, divine inspiration strikes — more often, you’ll get better results by brainstorming a bunch of ideas. Whether or not you agree with its political bent, Upworthy has managed to drive millions of views to its videos. The Upworthy mantra is to write 25 different headlines before choosing one. Try bouncing ideas around with a co-worker or a volunteer; feedback from someone with a different perspective can generate fresh ideas. If you do have to work alone, do the brainstorming to come up with a bunch of possibilities; then walk away for awhile. When you come back, a fresh eye will help you choose the best option.

Spell check, proofread, read it again

Headlines, captions and subheads are all more likely to have errors that are missed during copyediting. Don’t rely on your software to spell-check; you could misspell a name or use a correctly spelled word in the wrong place. Don’t ruin the impact of your perfectly crafted headline by letting a typo slip past you!

Don’t stop at the headline

You’ve chosen the perfect headline — congratulations! Now keep practicing your skills on subheads, captions, email subject lines and social media posts. All these spaces give you an opportunity to reach your audience with just a few well-chosen words.

Tags:  Ewald Consulting  Laurie Pumper  writing headlines 

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