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Mastering the Art of the Headline

Writing accurate, compelling display copy is no easy feat. These tips can help.

By Colleen Ringer

When it comes to creating content, there may be no heavier burden than the one borne by the headline. Tasked with enticing readers to click through and read more, headlines need to also provide a glimpse of the topic at hand and add SEO value — and they need to do all of that within very limited word count parameters. So, how do you write a headline that works? Here, C/A editors offer their tips and tricks.

Be Direct and Descriptive

Today’s average consumer can sense clickbait from a mile away. (Remember when every headline was some iteration of “You’ll never believe what happened next”?) Rather than relying on a manufactured sense of suspense to drive clicks, use language that lets the reader know what the story is about right away. This can help drive higher-quality conversions and show respect for the reader — nobody likes to feel misled.

Pro tip: If you have to choose between a clever-yet-confusing play on words and a more basic but to-the-point headline, opt for the latter. — Rebecca Au-Mullaney, Editor

Optimizing for search will help more readers discover your content, and when your headline speaks directly to what they’re searching for, they’ll be more likely to click through.

Integrate Target Keywords

Before you begin drafting any copy, conduct keyword research. In addition to boosting your content’s SEO, incorporating target keywords can help you narrow the focus of your headline — and maybe even the story itself. Optimizing for search will help more readers discover your content, and when your headline speaks directly to what they’re searching for, they’ll be more likely to click through.

Pro tip: When working keywords into display copy, remember to be authentic. If your headline promises to dive into a certain topic, your body copy needs to deliver on that promise. — Emily Rubio, Editor

Choose Your Words Carefully

The pull of the thesaurus can be strong, but when it comes to headlines, sometimes simpler is better. If your article is offering information on how to spot the signs of a stroke, call it that. If you’re writing a travel guide to Mexico City, say so in the display copy. Superfluous and uncommon words only serve to alienate your target audience.

Pro tip: If you’re feeling stuck, skip the thesaurus and head to IMDb instead. A quick search of movie titles with a word related to your content can offer a bounty of phrases that can punch up your headline. — Eric Corpus, Senior Editor

Delineate Between Print and Digital

When repurposing print content for the web, it is typically a good idea to write an entirely new headline. While print pieces often feature creative headlines bolstered by design and untethered to the world of SEO, digital headlines are quite the opposite. When you take a high-level editorial intro and paste it into a grey text box, the headline’s meaning all but disappears in the absence of design and complementary copy. For maximum on-page SEO, opt instead for something descriptive and tangible for your digital pieces.

Pro tip: When taking something from print to digital, look to the article’s deks and subheads for ideas. In print, this is typically where you’ll find the more descriptive display copy. — Leigh Flayton, Senior Editor

Ask ChatGPT to Write Your Headline

As an AI-driven natural language processing tool, ChatGPT can read your content and generate headlines that are optimized for search engine rankings or social media shares. Once ChatGPT generates a list of headline options for you, it’s important to take the time to review them for accuracy and refine them to ensure they align with your brand voice and target audience.

Pro tip: ChatGPT can often err on the side of the generic, so be sure to edit your headlines for specificity. — Katie Bridges, Managing Editor

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Colleen Ringer Overlay Blue
Colleen Ringer Editorial Director

Colleen has worked with clients large and small for more than a decade as a writer, editor and content strategist. She has managed content marketing programs for national and global brands, including hospital systems, universities and nonprofits. Before entering the world of content marketing, Colleen lived in the land of magazine publishing and wrote about architecture, design and travel.

As a mother of a video game-obsessed son, Colleen spends part of her free time learning about Fortnite and the other part trying to recruit her son to root for the Arizona Cardinals. She loves a good book, a strong iced tea and when her Fantasy Football team is winning.

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