We’ve probably all done it at some point (I’ll fess up, at least). I’m talking about sharing an article on social media without reading the entire piece — or maybe without even clicking through and reading any of it at all.
And while sharing an article you haven’t even read might seem like a straightforward symptom of either digital-age content overload or plain old-fashioned laziness (no doubt with some truth to both points), it also speaks to the intoxicating power of a good headline. After all, that’s the only thing you knew about the post when you shared it — internally, that’s your brain saying, “I love that headline, and I want someone else to read it.”
So how do you create headlines imbued with that almost-magical power to inspire reactions, provoke interest, and create social media traction all on their own? Read on for four tips that will help you boost the performance of your legal blog articles through the gloriously simple power of a good headline.
What Do We Mean by the “Headline”?
Before we get started, it’s probably a good idea to define what exactly we mean by the term “headline.” Back in the days when print advertising dominated, the definition of a headline probably seemed obvious. However, in the digital marketing world, there are a few fields that could qualify as a “headline.” Those fields include the following:
This is the title that will display in Google and other search engines when someone performs a web search and comes across your article. It will also show up in the tab at the top of the browser if they decide to click through.
Easy to confuse with the title tag, this is the big, bold headline that appears at the top of your blog article when someone visits the page. The H1 can be different than the title tag, but your readers might find it confusing if they click on a headline in Google and then wind up looking at a new headline that seems to have little connection to what they clicked on. At LaFleur, we usually make sure the title tag and the H1 are either the same or similar.
Social Previews and Link Previews:
These are the thumbnails that users will see when someone shares a link to your content within a social platform like Facebook or an email program like Outlook. These platforms can generate the thumbnail automatically, but website hosting services like WordPress also give you tools to customize which image and headline the platforms will use for the thumbnail preview.
H2 and H3 Tags:
These are the section headers that break up a piece of content into sub-topics. Imagine the way people tend to outline information for a paper or speech into major sections (1, 2, 3, etc.) and then break those into sub-sections (a, b, c, etc.). H2 and H3 tags work the same way, with H2s dividing up everything that falls under the H1 (which means the whole article), H3s dividing up the sections marked by H2s, and so on. You can even go further with H4s, H5s, and H6s, but it’s unlikely you’d ever get that deep unless you’re writing incredibly complex or lengthy pieces of content.
For the purposes of this article, title tags, H1 tags, link previews, and social previews all count as headlines because they can all represent the first element of your content that someone will interact with, and they have an outsized influence over the rate at which people will click through and visit your page. While in-line header tags like H2s and H3s can also affect the readability and SEO performance of your content, they don’t figure into our discussion today.
Headline Writing Tip #1: Mind Your Word and Character Counts
Research shows that writing good headlines involves an equal mixture of art and science. For example, the content marketing technology company Polar published a whitepaper in late 2017 that reported the results of a study on headline length. Polar analyzed the performance of 10,627 branded content headlines and found that, in general, the click-through rate (CTR) for a headline tends to improve as the headline gets longer. According to Polar, this holds true up to a limit of about 100 characters or about 15–16 words. As the headline gets longer, however, the CTR drops.
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This conclusion seems a little confusing because it flies in the face of what search engines like Google tell us is best for search engine optimization (SEO). Google only displays the first 65 characters or so of a page title in its results pages (the actual count varies a bit because not all characters are the same width), and most other major search engines use similar criteria, give or take a few characters. So, if you follow Polar’s advice, your full headline won’t display in a Google search; instead, it’ll get cut off after 60–65 characters or so and an ellipsis (“. . .”) will display at the end.
The Ideal Character Count Is a Moving Target
However, it’s important to note a few things. First, Google won’t penalize you for having a title tag that’s longer than its limit. If you exceed Google’s character limit, but search users see your truncated title and still decide to click on it, there’s no harm done.
This means you may be able to get away with spilling over Google’s recommended character count if the portion of your headline that displays in Google still makes sense. If a reader sees your article in Google and the headline reads “Here Are Five Important Reasons Why You Should Always Contact…” then don’t count on many click-throughs. Meanwhile, a headline like “Why You Need a Personal Injury Lawyer After an Accident: Five Important Reasons” shortens to the equally coherent “Why You Need a Personal Injury Lawyer After an Accident…” on a search results page.
Second, it’s easy to devote all your attention to what Google likes — it is the most popular search engine and the number one site on the web, after all — but Google searches aren’t the only way to get traffic to your blog articles. You should also share your content on social platforms and distribute it to your followers through email newsletters, and Google’s imposed character limits hold no sway in these channels. (Social platforms have their own character limits, but they’re different than Google.)
In fact, research from the marketing software company CoSchedule shows the ideal headline length for social promotion varies by platform. On Twitter, headlines between 71–100 characters perform best, while Facebook headlines get the most click-throughs when they stick to about 40 characters. On LinkedIn, the sweet spot seems to lie between 80–120 characters.
Stay Flexible and Track Your Results When Writing Headlines
The takeaway is that headline length clearly matters, but there’s no magic number of characters that will work best for every setting and promotional channel. Instead, you need to tailor your legal blog titles to the setting where you’re posting or promoting your content.
In fact, this is exactly what successful content marketers and media outlets do. Click on the latest viral news article in your Facebook feed, and you’ll probably notice the headline you see when you arrive on the page is slightly different than the one you clicked on to get there. (I used to write freelance articles for a popular news outlet based in California, and they made us write separate social media headlines for every single article we submitted.)
Try different title styles and lengths for your title tags, email newsletters, social previews, and email subject lines. You won’t know what works best for your audience until you experiment with various approaches and gather data on how different types of headlines affect your CTR and overall organic traffic. However, it’s almost certain that the same headline won’t get you the best results across every channel.
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Headline Writing Tip #2: Keep It Conversational
Too often, even writers who can craft breezy and intuitive prose throw their talents out the window when writing headlines. I frequently receive articles from freelancers (and I mean the talented and hardworking ones!) with clunky headlines like “Gathering Evidence After an Auto Accident.”
Now, if an article is like a conversation, then your headline is your opener. So imagine going up to someone at a social function and saying, “Hey, nice to meet you. Gathering evidence after an auto accident!”
Attorneys and others with legal training are often especially guilty of writing overly formal prose when they’re trying to reach a general audience, and far too many legal blogs out there are packed to the brim with quasi-college-paper titles like “Understanding the Role of Negligence in a Personal Injury Claim.”
Address the Reader, and Don’t Fear the Contraction
On the other hand, consider the following real headlines that I pulled from a few high-performing personal injury attorney blogs in Google search:
- In a Car Accident? Don’t Miss These Long-Term Consequences
- Hiring an Illegal “Solicitation Lawyer” Puts Your Auto Accident Claims at Risk
- Start Planning for Your Sober Ride Home Early This Holiday Season
Notice a few of the stylistic choices that give these headlines a conversational quality:
- They use contractions (“don’t” instead of “do not”) and everyday language to evoke a spoken-word tone.
- They acknowledge the reader’s presence, either by posing a question or including the word “you.”
- They keep their statements short and to the point.
I often refer to this method of crafting conversational headlines as the “BuzzFeed approach” since that viral content website played a major role in popularizing it among media outlets aimed at Millennials. However, more traditional news websites that cater to older audiences are taking notice of the results these headlines generate.
Last year, the New York Times undertook a major A/B testing initiative to see which headlines attracted the most readers. The Times set up their website so that, for certain articles, half of all visitors would see one headline while the other half saw an alternate version. After several hours, they compared the results and went with the headline that performed best.
In almost every instance, headlines written in a more casual and plainspoken style won out. For example, the headline “Baltimore After Freddie Gray: ‘The Mindset Has Changed’” created a 1,677 percent increase in traffic to the same article over the title “Soul-Searching in Baltimore, a Year After Freddie Gray’s Death.”
“The most important [lesson we’ve learned] is pretty obvious,” wrote Times senior editor Mark Bulik. “Clear, powerful words and a conversational tone make a big difference.”
Headline Writing Tip #3: Don’t Just Raise an Issue — Take a Position
Asking a thought-provoking question can yield a headline that grabs your readers’ attention. Sometimes, though, it’s even more effective to take that question and just answer it straight-away in your headline. As an example, take these two recent headlines I wrote for client blogs here at LaFleur.
- Headline A: What’s the Right Amount of Motorcycle Insurance Coverage?
- Headline B: Here’s Why You Need More UM/UIM Insurance Than You Think
While there’s nothing overtly wrong with headline A, notice the way that headline B makes a claim that challenges the relevant audience — you need more insurance coverage than you think — and promises to back up that claim. Meanwhile, headline A expresses more uncertainty; even though it raises a question that might pique some readers’ interest, others might read it as saying “What’s the right amount of coverage? Who knows?”
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While it’s not possible to pull data and compare the performance of these two headlines (they’re on separate sites that receive different amounts of traffic, and they came out at different times), the New York Times’ A/B analysis provides some evidence to show how much of a difference this strategy can make.
Consider the following two headlines for a Times article about the staged nature of pro wrestling:
- Headline A: Is Everything Wrestling?
- Headline B: It’s Not Just Wrestling That’s Fake. It’s the World.
In this case, headline B created a tenfold increase in traffic to the article. While the Times framed this as a product of B’s conversational tone, it’s also fair to note that B takes a clear position while A simply raises a question. Since very few online readers will make it to the end of a piece of content, taking a clear stance in your headline offers readers a promise that you’ll get to the business of backing up your argument quickly and give them potent information early on. In the fast-moving world of online content, that can separate your headline from most of the competition.
Headline Writing Tip #4: Make Numbers and Lists Your Friend (and Put Them on Speed-Dial)
The internet today seems almost obsessed with lists, and there’s no sign that the torrent of list-based articles (or “listicles,” if you prefer) will let up anytime soon. When the marketing calendar company CoSchedule analyzed 1 million headlines in 2014 to find out which ones received the most shares on social networks, their number one takeaway was that list posts are far and away the most likely to get shared, which actually makes a lot of sense.
When you promise your content will adhere to a list format, your readers know they can skim the piece or even just read the list headers and still come away with vital information. It’s that promise of structure and familiarity in a list that lures readers.
You’re Probably Writing List-Style Articles Already, So Format Them as Such
Once you start to think in terms of lists, you may find that a surprising amount of your content lends itself to this form. If you look back at a piece you wrote on how to choose a personal injury attorney, for example, and find that you’ve covered four major points, consider adding a numbered list or some bullet points to your structure. Then, you can run with a headline like “These 4 Keys Will Help You Choose the Best Personal Injury Lawyer” or “Look for a Personal Injury Lawyer Who Meets These 4 Criteria.”
Of course, there’s such a thing as “list overload,” too, and some articles look silly if you try to format them as lists. This is especially true of articles about current news events or tragedies. Try to publish a list-style post on a regular basis where it makes sense, but don’t overdo it to the point that lists become the bulk of the content on your blog.
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Contact LaFleur for Expert Help with Headlines, Blog Content, Social Posts, and More
Of course, you can find headlines out there that break all the guidelines listed above — and succeed in doing so. But, as with so many disciplines, knowing when to break the established rules of headline writing begins with an intimate knowledge of the rules themselves.
At LaFleur, we know when to break the rules for content marketing because we know them backward and forward. We root our fundamental approaches to content creation in evidence and hard data, then tailor them to the unique business needs and target audiences of our legal clients throughout the United States.
Whether you’re a small firm looking to create your first website or an established law firm that needs to step up the quality and effectiveness of your content marketing campaigns, LaFleur can help you take the next step forward. Call us at 888-222-1512 or fill out our convenient online contact form today.
We can’t wait to hear from you!
Bulik, M. (2016, June 13). Which headlines attract the most readers? The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/13/insider/which-headlines-attract-most-readers.html?_r=0
Moon, G. (2014, July 22). We analyzed nearly 1 million headlines. Here’s what we learned. OkDork. Retrieved from http://okdork.com/2014/07/22/we-analyzed-nearly-1-million-headlines-heres-what-we-learned/
Neidlinger, J. (2015, February 16). What really is the best headline length? CoSchedule. Retrieved from https://coschedule.com/blog/best-headline-length/
What makes a great branded content headline? (2017, October). Polar. Retrieved from https://polar.me/resources/what-makes-a-great-branded-content-headline/