Why writing great headlines is like creating a soap opera.

writing great headlinesOne of the things you’ll notice about soap operas is how hard the writers work to let you know that the best part is yet to come.

For example, just before each commercial break the drama is built to a point of peak suspense…so you just have to sit through the commercials to find out what happens next.

The same devices are used at the end of each episode to make sure you tune in again next time. Will she run off with the pool cleaner? Did he survive the plunge off the cliff? Will she be found guilty and sent to jail? And so on.

What is happening here is the script writers and story editors are trying to achieve two goals at the same time. First, they are trying to create some compelling and entertaining drama. Second, and just as important, they are working hard to make sure you don’t stop watching the episode after commercial breaks, or abandon the series between episodes.

They achieve this by making sure they never resolve or close off a story segment before a break in the program. For example, the program won’t end with the line, “Thank goodness you’re alive!” Instead, they make you wait until the next episode to find out if that character is alive, or not.

They do this because they know that the times at which they are most vulnerable to losing viewers is when there is a break, during commercials or between episodes.

What does this have to do with headlines on web pages?

Web writers face a similar challenge when writing a page of web content.

We are most vulnerable to losing readers immediately after they have read our headlines.

You have probably experienced this yourself. You click through to a page, read the headline, and then click away. Or you see the headline on Twitter or Facebook, but don’t click through to the page.

One reason your headline fails and you lose readers is that the message in the headline was too complete, and didn’t provide a reason to keep reading in order to find out “what happens next”.

Here is an example of a headline that is too complete.

Studies confirm that drinking a glass of milk a day is good for you.

The problem with that headline is that it tells the whole story. It reveals the entire message of the page. I don’t need to read the body text, because I have already been given the complete answer. During the “break” between the headline and the body text, I’ll just click away from the page. Or if I see the headline in my Twitter stream, I won’t feel the need to click through.

Now let’s look at a version that is open-ended, and drives you to keep reading to find the answer.

– Studies confirm your grandmother was right to make you drink this.

The answer is no longer in the headline. The message is not complete. There is a reason now to keep reading. Plus there is an element of intrigue. If I keep reading, will I find out that my own grandmother really did make me drink this? Now I have an unresolved question in my mind, and a bunch of memories of my grandmother from when I was a child.

Concluding thoughts…

Always keep your headlines open-ended. Make sure the reader is left with an unanswered question. Give them a reason to keep reading.

And if you ever lose touch with what this all means, or how to do it, just watch a soap opera, and see how at the end of every segment and episode, they always give you a reason to stay tuned for what happens next.

Note: Check out my new course on how to write better headlines for web content…

Course on headline writing


4 thoughts on “Why writing great headlines is like creating a soap opera.”

  1. superb post nick,

    and very timely as i am involved in working on my very first DRM project after joining AWAI in July.

    i always take advantage of every event offered by them and other marketing /writing gurus, and heard you this afternoonbon the game-changing trends for 2013 for online writers.

    thanks for all the invaluable info.


  2. Nice post Nick, thanks.

    Of course it’s not just soap operas – you could go back as far as the Arabian Nights stories. Or Dickens and his newspaper serials.

    There’s a great article in the New Yorker about cliffhangers: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/television/2012/07/30/120730crte_television_nussbaum?currentPage=all

    In between all the history, it makes a really important point: don’t leave your readers (or viewers) feeling manipulated or tricked by the cliffhanger that made them read on.

    When you set up a cliffhanger, make sure your web page delivers the goods.


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