Turning Heads: The Art of the Headline

4 min read


You may not realize it, but you look at hundreds of headlines a day. I’m talking about billboards, advertisements, web copy, blog posts, or pretty much anything else that involves copy.

The average reader only has an attention span of about eight seconds, which means you have mere moments to pull them in, and the headline is the first thing they’ll see. That means the headline’s got to be killer. If it doesn’t seize your reader’s attention, there’s not much of a chance they’ll read further. I’m not talking about just being creative and clever with it (although that’s important, too). There’s an art that goes into writing a headline, and today we’re going to talk all about it.

Get your readers in on the action

One of the biggest ways to get your audience engaged from the start is to include a call to action in your headline. A really good example of this is an Indyfluence blog titled “10 Indy Area Black-Owned Businesses You Can Support Right Now.” The “right now” encourages readers to act, and content with lists (or “listicles,” if you’re feeling fancy) is a great way to use numbers in your headline. Listicles signal to the reader that the tips or tricks that follow will be quick, orderly, and easy to digest. These are all great things for a busy mind on the go, and another way to ensure visitors will read your content all the way through.

All the bells and whistles (or not)

There are lots of ways you can be creative and playful in your headline. For starters, everyone loves a good pun. Maybe that’s why our blog post Introducing: The Commanist Party still recruits readers almost a full year later. Or why the #INThisTogether campaign worked so well to convince audiences to help flatten the COVID-19 curve in Indiana.

Headlines that make you think aren’t something to shy away from. Be provocative. It’s important not to push things so far that they’re in bad taste, but the goal is to get your reader to pay attention. These types of headlines draw the eye, and make your audience want to engage with your content.

Now, it is possible to get too clever with your headline. In fact, sometimes a short headline that’s direct and to the point is all the fanfare you need to get your audience to pay attention. A New York Times article simply titled “Snow Fall” covering an avalanche won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013. Short, poignant headlines can pack just as much punch as long ones.

Leave ‘em hanging

Sometimes one of the best ways to bring a reader in with your headline is to leave them wanting more right from the get-go. Drawing your readers in with a compelling headline that leaves them with the desire to know more is a surefire to get engagement for your content.

For example, when Indiana became the first state to pass a new abortion ban since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the ACLU of Indiana was quick to publish information about abortion access in the state with the simple yet powerful headline, “Abortion Access in Indiana.” Not only that, but they also have a banner at the top of their website with the headline, “Breaking: Indiana Legislature Passes Ban on Abortion,” and once you click the link, the headline becomes “ACLU of Indiana Reacts to Ban on Abortion Passed in Legislature.”

The reason these headlines are so effective is because they’re succinct, yet meaningful. Readers are drawn in by the headline, which summarize what the content is about but also encourages readers to keep going by giving them a sense of urgency. In fact, this also works as an indirect call to action, encouraging audiences to act on reproductive justice. A good headline will leave you hanging where you have to know more, and the ACLU of Indiana did precisely that.

If your headline is going to be the first thing people see when they view your content, you need to make it count. Don’t be afraid to be creative from time to time with them. Whether you’re crafting something long and purposeful, or short and pointed, your headlines have the power to do incredible things. We aren’t overselling this: A simple headline can change the course of a person’s life. Use it wisely.