How you can write a clickable science headline

December 15, 2015

By Lisa Willemse

Have you ever finished writing an article or post only to struggle to come up with a good headline? If yes, you’re not alone: crafting a good headline can be the hardest writing you’ll ever do. 

It also might be the most importantapart from images, which I talked about in a previous post, the headline is what gets people to open the main article. It’s why marketing copywriters spend as much as half their time just on the headline. This notion seems almost laughable when you consider the average length of a headline is only 123 characters and typically conveys no real information. Its significance pales in comparison to the body of the post. So why would we want to spend more time writing headlines? 

Because data do not lie: When you’re writing for public audiences, the headline can mean the difference between your article being read and being ignored. Neil Patel, a leading marketer and entrepreneur, provided this summary: “On average, when I write a great headline, I generate 6,591 more visitors the day I publish the post. I also generate 292 more tweets and 137 more Facebook shares.” Ironically, he also noted that these numbers have little to do with the quality of the post itself, which attests to the power of the headlinenot that I’d recommend sacrificing the quality of an article, since it’s good content that will get people to read the entire post and return for more.

Another marketing guru, David Ogilvy (who rose to prominence in the Mad Men era), once said that “five times as many people will read the headline as will read the body copy”; a metric that still drives marketing today.

Those 123 characters suddenly have a lot more power, especially if our goal is to draw new readers and interest in science.

Stealingand rejectingideas from marketing

I’m not going to suggest that marketing has all the answers for increasing readership of science communicationsfar from it. Sales (the goal of marketers) and audience engagement (our goal in science communications) are entirely different things, with different goals and desired outcomes. But marketers spend a lot of time researching and testing how content has an effect on the end user. As a result, they’ve got a good idea of what works. Here’s a look at the common marketing recommendations for headlines and how they canor perhaps shouldn’tbe applied to science communications. 

  1. Keep it short. There are different suggestions on exactly how short, but most agree on two things: first, that Google only shows the first 65 characters of a headline in search results so anything after that is lost; and, second, that readers focus on the first three and last three words in a headline. While some advocate for a six-word headline for this reason, it’s a less than ideal reality, especially if you follow the recommendation to be specific, below, which I think is far more beneficial for science writing. That said, headlines should not be longeight to 15 words is average, and given people’s propensity for scanning, the lower end of that number is what we should be aiming for. 
  2. Be specific. We all like to be clever at times, and headlines offer a good opportunity for this, but unless you’re really good at puns or other literary devices, you’re better off sticking with specificitysomething science is pretty good at anyway. So, instead of “Life possible on Mars”, the headline could be “Why NASA’s discovery of water on Mars means life on red planet is possible”. The second example includes specific information about who the source is as well as what makes life possible. In answering more questions outright, specificity also lays the ground for further inquiry.
  3. Use numbers. There are a few ways to work with numbers. A common one is the listicle, which tends to be used by many sites as clickbait (i.e. “11 of the most disturbing photos you’ll ever see”) and the negative associations with them (inaccurate, stolen or uncredited content, damages credibility) make them an unappealing option.  Another way to use numbers is to add specificity and interest, so long as the number is not too large (one or two digits). People have an affinity for numbers and data because they appeal to our sense of logic and organization, and digits make a headline both appealing and faster to read. If you use them, be specific, i.e. 76% rather than “more than three quarters”.  
  4. Use interesting (and jargon-free) words. This would seem obvious, but it does require some thoughtand a good thesaurus. Adjectives, in particular, have been shown to increase both readership and recall of ad material, but can also be perceived as “sales-y”, hype-ridden and are prone to overuse. Which words are used and how they are assembled can make a massive difference, and it’s playing with the many combinations of words that will deliver the best results. Ogilvy allegedly wrote 104 different versions of a headline for a successful Ford ad. 
  5. Convey action. Other than specificity, this is the one rule I see used most often in science writing. Incorporating action (watch, learn) or implied action (how, why, can) are useful for personalizing a headline while tapping into a reader’s needs.  
  6. Use negatives. I’m less in favour of this approach, since it’s the opposite of positive action. But it can be used effectively in certain circumstances. Take this National Geographic post, for example. 
  7. Promise a benefit. This makes sense in marketing (buy this and lose weight!) but it’s the least relevant to science writing. After all, science is an iterative process that rarely speaks in absolutes, so unless the article is about a meta-analysis that definitively proves a cause and effect (i.e. smoking is linked to premature death), making any promises of benefit will quickly push a science story into the realm of tabloid hype. And none of us want to be there. 
Ultimately, the purpose of a headline is to get your audience to read the first line (and all) of your post. It need not be disingenuous to be effective. Consider these two headlines: 

“New dinosaur species challenges understanding of how they evolved”
“Meet the peculiar new dinosaur scientists say will rewrite history books”

They both say pretty much the same thing. But which one would youor your neighbour, mother, daughterbe more likely to click on?

Thumbnail image source: Photographer Kevin McShane. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0. Link to original image on Flickr.

Lisa WillemseAbout Lisa
Lisa Willemse is a communications professional with 18 years experience working in the technology, child development and health research fields, and is currently a Senior Communications Advisor with the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Her background includes training in fine art, communications and journalism and she spent several years working as a freelance editor, writer and photographer for a range of Canadian and US-based publications. In 2014, she was invited alumni-in-residence for the acclaimed Science Communications program at the Banff Centre. She is also involved in several online art and science-based initiatives, including contributor to the Canadian Science Publishing and Genome Alberta blogs and Board member for Science Borealis, a Canadian science blog aggregator. Follow her on Twitter and Medium @WillemseLA.

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