When Great Headline Writing Isn’t Enough

Thanks to the many intense pressures existing in digital advertising, media and content marketing, the importance of a good headline has grown exponentially in recent years. Taking the media example, 20 years ago an attention grabbing headline was important to capture a reader’s attention and engage them, but they had already bought the newspaper! Now, to get paid, a media outlet is inextricably tied to the allure of their meticulously A/B tested headlines. Marketers, too, need to increasingly perfect headline writing above all else (check out SHIFT’s tips on writing great headlines here).

But this doesn’t solve one of the major problems of digital content – engagement. According to Chartbeat data, a third of visitors to article pages don’t read that page for more than 15 seconds. Assuming the average internet user isn’t reading like Johnny 5 in Short Circuit, that suggests the opening paragraph is about as exciting as a wet weekend on a campsite. As PR pros and content marketers that is decidedly not what we want for the articles we have slaved over.

Content marketers still are battling bounce rate and low session duration on content that, in theory, should have useful insight for the audience in question. You draw a horse to water – with a flashy, sexy headline – but you can’t make them drink. At this point the click-through has limited, if any, value.

Grab them by the proverbials

That’s why it’s worth examining the lost art of the opening line. Think about some of the great classics and what they were able to do with their first lines. The fact that we felt good enough to open a book based on the title is no guarantee we’d read through the first page or two, but some just suck you in hook, line and sinker. Some from great books knock the wind out of you from the get go (“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” – The Bell Jar). Others offer pithy observations that foreshadow the story to follow (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Anna Karenina). And others arouse oceans of curiosity in a handful of syllables (“Call me Ishmael.” – Moby Dick).

If you’re writing about a solidly B2B focused technology area, but not trying to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the principle remains the same. Make the opening to your article irresistible and whet the reader’s palate for everything that follows. Here are some ways to make that happen:

  1. Use metaphor to differentiate from the digital flood

Using a powerful metaphor right at the outset can be a strong way to engage the audience. Whatever topic you are writing about, it’s likely somebody else has written on a similar topic, so abstracting the concept to something that resonates with the audience (dramatic, pop culture-related) is a strong way to signal to the reader that what follows will be different. Take this great example from our client Adam Devine at Workfusion in a guest piece written for VentureBeat:

“Nuclear technology can power an entire city or flatten it.”

This article’s about AI, not nuclear power, but in a super concise and hard-hitting intro, the author is able to introduce a greater degree of drama around the discussion that follows. In this case it also contrasts with the headline (“Why every worker needs a virtual assistant”), which immediately creates curiosity where’s he going with this?

  1. Be bold – let the reader know immediately that this won’t be plain vanilla!

Often contributed articles and blog content are torn by the need to be politically/commercially correct (“we can’t say that, they’re a partner”). We end up in the middle of the road, pure vanilla territory. What we need to do is find areas where we can be bold, brash and brave. Again, this example in Advertising Age from client Chris Innes at SteelHouse:

“Display advertising is broken because the advertising industry is too focused on its own revenue, not the bad user experience it’s creating.”

Preach, Chris. Where it’s possible to do so, nail your colors to the mast and start articles with strong statements that make the reader want to see how you’re going to back it up.

Consider this example, also related to ad tech, from client Sailthru in AdExchanger:

“The struggle that publishers are facing when it comes to monetization is so pervasive that many aren’t even bothering to hide the evidence.”

In ad tech, it seems, people are not afraid to speak their mind.

  1. Step out of the comfort zone

There’s a long tradition in business writing that it should be concise and direct – quite right too. After all, nobody wants to read a fifteen line, multiclause, Jane Austen-style mega sentence about the latest development in either mezzanine financing or Software-as-a-Service.

Sometimes, however, marketers and executives err on the side of bone dry – a corseted structure of two summaries sandwiching a cascade of fact after fact. Often, that first summary begins with a rote, passionless statement of the context: “Last week, this thing happened.”

Instead of the formulaic intro, it’s worth introducing the context/facts with some emotion or tension. For example, introducing his article in Wireless Week looking at how the Yahoo data breach could affect acquirer Verizon, client Richard Stiennon of Blancco Technology Group could easily have begun with a factual statement about the status of the acquisition. Instead, he hints at an element of the drama that might be unfolding behind the closed doors of the boardroom:

“There have presumably been some heated discussions between Verizon executives and their counterparts at Yahoo since confirmation of one of the largest ever data breaches.” 

The continued emergence of content marketing as a critical discipline in the mix should encourage more creative writing that can hold a reader’s attention like a vise. The tone should be set by that first sentence, inviting and even compelling the reader to give up the next ten minutes totally engrossed in what you are communicating. It’s a lofty goal, but it’s worth striving for to maximize clicks at every turn.

Dominic Weeks
Vice President


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