Whether you’re writing promotional or editorial copy, the first element of your piece that will draw a reader in will be your headline or email subject line.
A few details distinguish subject lines from headlines. For instance, the word free works in print media and on Web sites, but generally gives the impression of spam when used in email, which may even result in your message being trapped in recipients’ spam filter instead of sitting in their inboxes. Also, items like press releases and articles can have two-line headlines. However, space restrictions require subject lines to be much shorter. Otherwise, the two forms have the same basic function: to persuade the reader to read the text.
Some communication professionals find this to be the most challenging part of an assignment. After all, you have to spark readers’ interest and get your point across in just a few words.
Here are a few techniques that writers and copywriters use to grab attention.
State the Most Important Fact
Placing your strongest benefit up front is an extremely effective technique for grabbing interest. A good example of this is the headline of a university’s professional development brochure that described its offer as “Skills You Can Take to Work Tomorrow.”
For editorial work, you can use the headline to summarize the story or present the particular angle of your story. E.g. an article on profiling violent children had the straightforward headline “The Violent-Kid Profile,” but one describing Americans’ fascination with Cuba used the title “Forbidden Island.”
Ask a Question
Using an inquiry as your headline has the following effects:
- Incites curiosity
- States questions that readers may have been asking themselves
- Eliminates people who aren’t good prospects
- Draws readers in via “yes” or “no” answers
For example, I once received an emailed directory with the subject line: “Do you need to find a PR firm? with this email you can search by State or even Industry sector!” I wasn’t crazy about the sender’s capitalization choices, and my inbox only showed the first part (the question), but it made me curious enough to open it.
People like to know what’s required of them, so tell readers what to do. E.g., an article in a business magazine ordered readers to “Make Your Business Invaluable.” The headline carried a feeling of authority, so readers expected to receive very effective tactics.
A promotional piece from a museum used the same technique for a different but equally powerful promise: “Join Us … and we’ll show you the world.” The drama of the headline reduced the chances of my simply tossing the brochure.
State the Reader’s Problem
Slanting the headline of your piece toward the problems of your readers allows you to quickly communicate with a targeted audience.
E.g., an ad for communications system homes in on businesses with the words “Good News You’re Growing. Bad News You’re Growing.” An article for companies grabs their attention with “Your Employees Love IM. Should You Worry?”
Provide a List
People love lists. Think of how many times you’ve seen articles and marketing materials that start with headlines like “Seven reasons why ___.” A headline like this is likely to get a quick glance from most readers.
Use a “How To” Slant
Another favorite for readers is the piece that promises to help them achieve what their goals.
E.g., a well-known office support service created an in-house brochure with the headline “Finding What You Want on the Internet.” While it mentioned the service’s Internet access service, the brochure focused on general Internet search tips and so served as valuable resource for new users.
Practically every media outlet uses “how to” pieces, which can work to the PR practitioner’s advantage. Press releases or articles containing useful tips help editors fill space easily.
Reference Idioms and Popular Culture
Drawing on popular sayings and cultural references helps establish rapport with readers via communication shortcuts. An article featuring a restaurateur uses the title “Miracle on Charles Street.” A brochure for financial services asks readers “Looking for your missing piece of the pie?”
Engage in Word Play
Sometimes writers strive to make headlines interesting by means of puns, alliterations and other forms of word play. E.g., a promotion for postcards touts “The Power of the Postcard.”
An article on technology uses the headline “Be an Early Adapter” as a pun on the marketing term “early adopter.”
These are a few of the techniques used to create attention-grabbing headlines and subject lines. Hone your skills in this area by trying out several techniques on one headline and reading as many headlines as you can. And keep practicing.