Why Headlines Sometimes Don’t Work


From the ninth grade on, writing teachers, sales managers, copywriters, and others will tell you that you need to shout out your strongest benefit in your headline to attract the readers’ attention (just like everyone else’s headline). Although that would seem logical, it is not the most effective way to get better attention from the reader. So, how can so many people be so wrong?

Headlines and their character depend a lot on the context of the situation.

For example, headlines that capture our attention in a newspaper may not catch our attention the same way on an internet site. The reason is simple.  The purpose for reading each is generally quite different.

What Is In It For Me? vs. What’s New?

On a website, the purpose is to gain new information whereas in a newspaper it is to catch up on current events. Some familiarity is usually present when reading the newspaper because of the geographical interest and other ongoing news.

On a website, we are attempting to invite a person to consider new information and the purpose for reading the new information is somewhat selfish.

  • “What is in it for me?”
  • Does the information appear credible?

Overall, there is more reader intent on websites and the payback must be more immediate.

In the newspaper, much of the reading energy is more relaxed, casual, and without the searching intensity. Also, in the newspaper there is a stronger context associated as the headlines generally are adjacent to a photograph, text, or story context information. A non-descriptive headline, in such cases, isn’t much of a loss while the eye is scanning the other visual cues.

That isn’t a luxury a web reader usually has when viewing a webpage.

Often, the well-thought out headline will be at least a click away from the photos, nicely arranged pages, and content related to the website’s purpose. Non-descriptive headlines won’t convey enough information to urge the reader to make that extra click; they simply just pass by looking for something else more captivating.

After all, half the readers will bypass a webpage within the first five seconds. The other half has to have a further reason or they will leave, too.

One major benefit in writing headlines for websites, as opposed to writing headlines for print is that there are no restrictions on how you use the space. Abbreviations are not necessary and shouldn’t be done. Because of the column widths, print headlines often don’t have verbs or won’t make complete sentences. Neither is necessary on a webpage.

Imagine seeing this headline on a newspaper’s front page and on a webpage:

“Abandon Hope.”

This headline would be effective if placed next to a photo of earthquake rubble, for example, but what are you going to do on the web page to get the reader to click through?

That’s the point. Maybe this one would work:

“Abandon Hope of Website Success without Effective Headlines.”