Your Headlines Are Broken! Here’s How to Fix Them
What was your reaction to reading the headline of this blog post? I am willing to bet that your reaction fell into one of three general categories:
- “He is right. I always struggle with writing headlines. The headlines I write often are flat and uninspired.”
- “What is he talking about??? I am a great headline writer. He certainly must be talking about someone else.”
- “What difference does it make? Headlines aren’t important.”
If you answered No. 1 or No. 2, obviously I can’t assess your headline writing without looking at your work. But if you answered No. 3, I can tell you right now that you are dead wrong.
Why Headlines Matter
Headlines are the most valuable piece of real estate in any piece of writing. Anyone who still reads printed versions of newspapers and magazines understands that this is true. Our eyes instantly gravitate to the large font of a headline to determine in a matter of seconds whether an article is worth our time.
If you aren’t convinced that headlines matter, ask the three Wall Street Journal reporters whom China recently expelled because of the public outcry over a February 3 op-ed piece that referred to China as “the real sick man of Asia” in the headline.
Headlines are equally important when it comes to writing blogs, white papers, e-books, or other forms of thought leadership in the financial services industry. Whether your content is showing up in a LinkedIn feed, an email inbox as a subject line, or in the “Insights” section of your website, the headline is your best (and perhaps only) chance to convince the reader to spend his or her precious time reading the ideas that you worked so hard to craft.
An effective headline for financial thought leadership accomplishes the following:
- Identifies the topic of the article
- Grabs the reader’s attention and compels the reader to learn more
- Intrigues the reader by suggesting that you have a distinct point of view on the topic
- Accomplishes all of the above in as few words as possible
This is a tall order, and the challenge becomes even more daunting when considering that many marketers suggest that headlines should be no longer than 60 characters to avoid being truncated when showing up as email subject lines.
Headline writing is difficult. Making a big impact with just a few words is an art, and there are people who spend their entire careers focusing on this craft. But just because it is hard, that doesn’t mean that financial marketers and thought leaders can afford to be average at it.
5 Ways to Raise Your Headline Game
- Find your edge. To be seen as a thought leader, you can’t just recycle and package conventional wisdom. You must always advance the conversation. Your headline needs to convey that your article will achieve this goal. Your headline shouldn’t try to be exhaustive and literal in explaining the contents of the article; instead, narrow the headline to highlight what unique or interesting ideas you have about the topic.
For example, why would a reader spend his or her time reading your article about how the coronavirus is impacting equity markets when there are hundreds of other articles from well-respected asset managers offering the same information? Instead, your headline should highlight how your coronavirus article will tackle the topic from an angle that others aren’t thinking about or challenge misconceptions or inaccuracies that you have seen in other articles.
- Be provocative, bold, and engaging. In a crowded content marketing landscape, it is important to cut through the clutter and grab the reader’s attention. This is especially important when posting content on LinkedIn, Twitter, or other social media platforms. The goal of your headline shouldn’t be to simply identify the topic that you are writing about; rather, your headline should be aggressive in showing that you are writing about the topic in a way that deserves the reader’s attention. This isn’t the time or place to be timid and deferential. If you truly want to position yourself as a thought leader, you need to show that you aren’t just part of the herd.Some ways to do this include: 1) phrasing the headline as a question that prompts readers to think about how the topic applies to them personally; 2) focusing on a misconception that other articles on the topic perpetuate; 3) making historical or pop culture references that force readers to ponder how you are going to connect two seemingly disconnected ideas; and 4) using humor or puns to convey that the article is going to be fun to read.
- Use a consistent voice. Being funny or edgy is a great way to write effective headlines, but you need to understand your (or your firm’s) voice and use it consistently in your headlines. If you don’t use a consistent tone, it can be confusing for your readers. For example, if some of your headlines use sarcasm and others don’t, it can be difficult for readers to know when you are joking and when you are being sincere. Similarly, if some of your headlines are news-driven and action-oriented but others are more cerebral, it can be jarring for your readers. Find a style that works for you and try to stick to it as much as possible.
- Delegate headline-writing duties. At many newspapers, reporters don’t write their own headlines. Instead, they file their story, and then an editor writes the headline. Aside from logistical reasons for this division of responsibilities (e.g., it is unclear how much space there will be for a particular newspaper headline until the editor lays out the page), there is also value in having someone who isn’t as emotionally or intellectually invested in the article write the headline. A more detached perspective can be helpful in identifying the most compelling aspects of the article. Sometimes, the writer is “too close” to the topic to see this. Also, headline writing is a specific skill; just because someone is a good writer doesn’t necessarily mean he or she will be a good headline writer. These are powerful reasons to consider outsourcing your headline writing to someone you trust.
- Omit low-value words. Space is at a premium in headlines. As mentioned above, many firms recommend keeping headlines to fewer than 60 characters to fit within the constraints of how email programs display subject lines. (One workaround for thought leadership is to have two versions of the headline: a longer version that accompanies the article, and, if necessary, a condensed version for email subject lines.) Regardless of how much space you have, there is value in getting your point across in as few words as possible. Remember, your headline is fighting for the reader’s attention, so you need to get right to the point.One easy way to do this is to omit articles (a, an, the) or conjunctions (and, or, but, so) that aren’t essential. Headlines don’t need to strictly follow formal style rules; the reader understands that headlines may be condensed for the sake of brevity. For example, instead of “The coronavirus is spreading in the United States and Canada,” a more concise but equally descriptive and understandable headline could be “Coronavirus spreads in U.S., Canada.”
Headlines matter. Writing headlines that are bold, accurate, and concise is a difficult skill to master. By incorporating these best practices, you can elevate your thought leadership game and make sure that your content gets the attention your ideas deserve.
For more advice about how to write effective headlines, check out this article: “How to Write a New York Times Headline.”
If you need help writing headlines for your financial thought leadership, don’t hesitate to contact us. We have worked with institutional asset managers, investment banks, private equity firms, and consulting firms to create compelling thought leadership—and headlines that command readers’ attention.
About the Author Scott Wentworth is the founder and head financial writer at Wentworth Financial Communications. Scott and the team of writers and editors at WFC help professionals across the financial services industry build their brands by creating investment-grade white papers, bylined articles, newsletters, blogs, social media posts, and other forms of content marketing.