This past weekend I started a discussion online that became my most commented-on discussion of all time. I received 83 total comments. Was it because I made some brilliant observations? Perhaps I asked the key question that lawyers everywhere were dying to know that answer to? No, it wasn’t any of that. It was more sensational, but far less relevant. In my red-eye flight back from Los Angeles to New York City, I sat in front of Keanu Reeves. You may have remembered him from such movies as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and I think he was in The Matrix. (And approximately infinity other movies.)
The point is this, sensational headlines just like my celebrity spotting can grab attention, they get people to click on articles, but they don’t really serve much of a purpose beyond that. If you are a brilliant litigator, for example, you can write an article with Justin Bieber in the title that will get hundreds, maybe even thousands of clicks and even generate some comments, but how do those views advance your reputation as a litigator? Will they even be viewed by any potential clients? It is highly unlikely. In the world of content marketing, sensational headlines are referred to as “linkbait.” These headlines get you to click and view because hey, I’m curious about “10 ways to use Duct Tape to make money,” or “5 child celebrities that turned out to live completely unremarkable lives.” But lawyers need to do more.
As we continue the discussion, I want to add that headlines do matter. The headline is almost more important than the body of the article, because if the headline doesn’t get people to read, then the article will not succeed. But here are a few guidelines for creating excellent headlines:
1. Keep it short.
Twitter only allows tweets to be 140 characters long, yet our attention span for headlines is even shorter. No more than six or seven words is ideal. My headline is eight words long, but I can cheat because I’m writing the article.
2. Include urgency or a call to action in your headline.
Don’t you hate those newscasters that announce the upcoming news, “Tonight at 9, learn why your drinking might kill you.” Seriously? I have poisonous drinking water, and you are going to make me wait until 9 to find out why? News is the worst at this, making everything overly urgent. If you are sharing news with people that is time-sensitive, you should let them know. It makes for a compelling headline and once they actually read the article they will understand why you had the need to make it urgent.
3. People love lists.
“Top 5 reasons your drinking water may be killing you.” Just kidding, your water is just fine. Or is it?
People love lists because they know exactly what they are going to get. Before your intended audience takes the time to click on any article you write, they are going to ask themselves, “what am I going to get out of reading this article?” Putting things into list format may be overdone online, but it is still very effective, especially if you deliver great content and information through your list.
Now back to sensational headlines. What if you are a trusts and estate attorney, should you write an article with an angle about Donald Sterling’s family trust and the Clippers. The answer is actually yes because this news is relevant to your practice! Will all the traffic be relevant and come from potential clients? Absolutely not, but some of the traffic may be relevant. What if you are an environmental lawyer, can you include Donald Sterling’s name in a headline that says, “Donald Sterling May Be Toxic to the Clippers, But How Can Brownfield Redevelopment Help You Clean Up Toxic Waste From Your City?” Absolutely not. You are grasping for straws.
Use sensational headlines only when the sensation is directly relevant to your expertise.
I know what you are thinking, but wait, Adrian, you just used a celebrity sitting to create a sensational headline, didn’t you violate your own rule? Well, I actually get an exception because my article is actually about sensational headlines. Anyway, for those that were wondering, I did get a picture of Mr. Reeves, but I had to real subtly take a selfie with him in the background.
In the words of Bill S. Preston from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Write excellent headlines, not just sensational ones (he might not have actually said that.)