Effective headlines can coax your website visitors to visit more, stay longer, and even climb willingly into your sales funnel. Likewise, careful content crafting can turn your site into a higher life form in the ecosystem of online search.

Will Prospects Click?

Dice with words Yes, No and MaybeHeadlines themselves are making, well, headlines lately, as journalists and bloggers and marketing strategists struggle to reinvent this art form for the Internet age. For example, Australian communications pro Steve Hind wrote a provocative piece for The Guardian earlier this month, “In defence of clickbait,” that captured the zeitgeist of writing click-worthy headlines.

Hind must have struck a raw nerve, because his story got 172 comments on The Guardian’s site. He also drew the attention of NPR, which then interviewed him for some additional insights: “That Clever Trick Of Getting You To Click.”

Moreover, Hind noted, cartoonist/blogger Randall Munroe recently drew and posted a whole panel on the topic: “20th Century Headlines Rewritten to Get More Clicks.” (My personal favorite: “Avoid polio with this one weird trick.”)

The headline-as-clickbait controversy affects anyone seeking to attract eyeballs to website content—including you. You might think you’re in business to do whatever it is your business does. But if you are using a website to inform or educate or persuade your target market, you are a publisher. You face the same hurdles as an online newspaper or magazine.

Move Your Readers

Much like those newspapers and magazines, you have to figure out what makes your readers happy enough to stick around as long as possible and keep coming back. But if you’re a small business, you have an equally important task: move your readers to take action.

That action might be “join our email list,” “comment on this article,” “share this content with a friend,” or “discover what we can do for you.” Ultimately, you’re trying to use your content to cultivate an ongoing relationship with each visitor. Hopefully, a significant number of those relationships will convert into sales and referrals over time.

The content (including headline and subheads) you create to please – and move – your readers will fall along a style spectrum somewhere between “Walter Cronkite” and “P.T. Barnum.”

Cronkite, the iconic voice of TV network news for a generation, had a signature sign-off at the end of each broadcast: “And that’s the way it is.” If your readers simply want the facts and respond better to traditional “newsy” headlines, then put your Walter Cronkite hat on and write in a no-nonsense style (“New Study Says Life is Wonderful”).

Barnum, who in his day was a marketing genius among other things, famously said, “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.” He also said, “The noblest art is that of making others happy.” So, if your readers would rather be entertained, wear your P.T. Barnum suit and write whatever makes their mouths curl into a smile (“Kute Kitteh Can Make Your Life Wonderful—No?”) or even pop open in amazement (“Cat Wins Lottery. Owner: ‘Life is Wonderful!’”).

Scannable & Tweetable

Readers often don’t really “read” online. They skim. They scan. They jump. Whether your readers crave news or entertainment or whatever else you offer, have mercy on their screen-fatigued eyes by using subheads throughout each blog post or article to enable them to scan through it quickly.

You’re competing with a zillion other online channels for the attention of those eyeballs, so at the very least you want the underlying message of your headlines to be, “Hey, you!” You also want to help your prospects and customers share your content by making your headline short enough, clear enough and engaging enough to be easily tweetable.

In the noisy, crowded room of the Internet, your best headlines will help you get—and hold—the attention of people you most want to attract. Writing effective headlines and subheads takes effort, creativity and a willingness to experiment. But pleasing your audience makes the whole process worthwhile.

Many thanks to our guest blogger, Mark Wright. For more insights about writing for websites, visit Mark’s blog.