There’s Something About Headlines

There’s Something About Headlines

Tips on how to turn your headline into the movie hero

In the talent acquisition field, you have specific candidate personas you are trying to reach. Understanding these personas informs the acquisition strategy. The same is true in content marketing. There are many styles and approaches to content creation, and more specifically headline writing. Whether you’re crafting a headline for a blog post, or a subject line for your LinkedIn InMail, knowing your content identity can help you build or improve your strategy. We’ve broken down headline writing styles into three characters from the 1998 film “There’s Something About Mary.”

What kind of headline writer are you?

Ben StillerSuccessful and Authentic: Ted/Ben Stiller

While Ted’s initial tactics are questionable, his motivations are pure. He loves Mary and wants to be with her. By the close of the movie he succeeds in doing this by being honest. Something else that Ted has going for him is his authenticity, which translates to likability.

Slate is a good example of “Ted” content. The online news magazine publishes compelling content with substance. Their style of headline writing routinely garners praise for its ability to inform and intrigue.

In a roundtable discussion with the editorial staff about headline writing, Slate Deputy Editor Julia Turner said this:

“I feel like our style has remained fairly consistent! For me, the keys to a great Slate headline are: 1) It should sound colloquial, like a smart, news-savvy friend is talking to you. 2) It should pithily pitch the heart of the piece, making a promise to you about what you will learn/see/experience if you click. 3) The piece has to deliver on that promise, otherwise the head is annoying clickbait.”

The language you use needs to match your ideal audience. For Slate, that’s a news-savvy friend. For you, it may be a recent college graduate. Distilling the heart of your piece into a headline obviously takes some time. That’s why many successful content creators stress the importance of taking time to write a headline.

In this infographic from Quicksprout, they suggest a writer spend half of the entire time it takes to write a piece of persuasive content on the headline. It can’t be an afterthought. If your headline doesn’t pique anyone’s interest, your content will never be read.

Ted headline examples:

  • “When Career Expectations Are Just About Getting Enough Money to Eat”
  • “This Personality Trait Predicts Success”
  • “How to Make Sure You Sound Like a Person (Not a Robot) in an Interview”

Cameron DiazWell-intentioned, but misguided: Mary/Cameron Diaz

A majority of online content is created by Marys. It begins with good intentions but ultimately is disappointing in its execution. Just like Mary naively thinks that “all you need is love,” a lot of content creators think, “all you need is great content.” Of course, great content is a necessity, but overlooking a headline is dangerous.

Mary headlines are not trying to be deceptive (see below) – they are not trying to be anything. They are boring, unclear and/or reveal it all, giving the reader no reason to read the rest. These headlines drive no action. They blend into the online chatter and disappear into the annals of Internet content.

Mary headline examples:

  • Unclear: “Could a Need to Tailor Your Resume Be a Sign of an Unsuitable Job?”
  • Boring: “Making the Most of a Job Fair”
  • Reveals it all: “Are You Expecting a Pay Rise This Year? One-Third of UK Employees Are” – Glassdoor UK Employment Confidence Survey (Q4 2014)

Matt DillonMisleading and phony: Healy/Matt Dillon

Don’t be this guy. Healy attempts to win Mary’s heart by making up a heroic backstory. He straight-up lies to her so he can get with her. He promises a lot and delivers none of it. In the world of content creation, that slimy behavior is known as “clickbait.” If clickbait was facial hair, it would be Healy’s pencil mustache.

In recent years, companies like Upworthy have built whole websites on the kind of content that makes you go, “Cool! Wait…What? Ugh.”

These headlines compel you to click because they rely on the “curiosity gap,” which is, by one definition, “the space between what we know and what we want or even need to know.” In addition to Upworthy articles, you’ve likely seen examples of this from smaller sites popping up in your Facebook newsfeed. Recognizing the lack of value in these posts, this summer Facebook announced that it would be cracking down on the amount of “clickbait” articles shown in newsfeeds.

Healey headline examples:

  • “They Agreed to Die Early if They Could Have ‘The Perfect Body.’ Yep, Die.
  • “It’s Unbelievable That People Actually Left These Online Reviews…OMG”
  • “They Start by Ripping His Life’s Work to Shreds. Then the Guy With the Ponytail Steps Forward.”

Tips on how to be a Ted if you’re a Mary or a Healey

What are the Teds doing right? And how can you move away from being a Mary or a Healey? As we’ve discussed, there is no headline solution that doesn’t involve a thoughtful approach. That means you will need to dedicate time and energy. But while you’re brainstorming, you can consider these tried and true effective headline tactics:

Use numbers

According to this Conductor study, females were even more predisposed to “number” headlines than males.

Use any of these action words

“Smart,” “surprising,” and “science” are words that appeared in the headlines of the most viral posts, based on one analysis.

Make a promise (you can deliver on)

Remember what we said up top. The reason Slate articles are not “clickbait” is because they offer a value understood in the headline. You might be able to get away with a misleading headline once, but readers will quickly catch on to repeated deceptive behavior. Here are some great examples of headline “promise templates.

Check the emotional value

A study conducted by The New York Times on which emotions make a post go viral revealed “anger,” “awe,” and “anxiety” to be the top three.

Whoever you identify with, there are ways you can up your headline game. With some small changes, you can move out of Healey’s seedy world of clickbait or Mary’s uninspiring headline love life and become Ted, the guy who gets the girl, er, reader.

All photo credit: © 1998 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved

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Allison Kelley
Written by Allison Kelley

Allison Kelley is on the Marketing team at TMP Worldwide Chicago. Since 2009, she has worked to tell brand stories for a variety of industries including nonprofit, HR, digital marketing, small business, entrepreneurship, travel, and B2B. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and Chicagoist, among others. You can contact Allison at or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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