Don’t just slap the topic on top of the story
Note to self: “Label headline” is not a headline.
Label headlines like Label headlines carry a double problem. They skip the verb, so they suck the action out of your headline. And they don’t say anything about the topic.
That’s why serious communicators and publications like The New York Times avoid them. We analyzed 99 headlines in one edition of the Times, skipping the sports pages. Of those, just 7% were label heads.
Yet the most common type of headline I review as a writing coach is — by far! — a label headline. I’m convinced that most corporate communications, marketing and content marketing headlines are label headlines.
What’s a label headline?
Good news headlines “need at least two things … a noun and a verb.”
— Mary Pretzer, design columnist, Editor’s Workshop newsletter
This subhead could have said “Label headline definition.” But that would be a label subhead.
Label heads are those that identify the topic but don’t say anything about it. They are nouns or noun phrases without verbs.
“Every good title is a short story.”
— Russell Banks, American writer of fiction and poetry
Examples of label headlines
Here, for example, are a few of the label heads that have crossed my desk lately:
Tornado Chase Q&A
US Recruiting Trends
Disposable air cleaners
Improvement by Transformation
Innovation & Growth Video Series
First-ever 3D virtual retinal display
A New Target in Healthcare Marketing
Systems Integration and Testing Facility
Modification to the NSA mission and vision
Manager’s guide to selecting a proxy or delegate
And … drum roll, please: The worst label head I’ve ever seen was on a sales letter encouraging me to increase the size of a directory ad. The headline:
Why avoid headlines like Sales Letter when your headline tops, say, a sales letter?
Why avoid label headlines?
“Lose your reader with your headline, and you’ve lost the reader altogether.”
— Alan Sharpe, business-to-business direct-mail copywriter
Why avoid label heads? With label headlines, you:
- Miss the chance to communicate. Headlines get twice the attention of text. They change the way we think. “Readers” might not read anything else. If your headline says nothing, you’ve missed your best opportunity to reach and sway the huge and growing percentage of your audience who just read the display copy.
- Make your story dull and boring. While some readers get all of their information from the display copy, others use headlines to decide whether to read. If your headline says Strategy statement, I can almost assure you that readers will choose not to dive in.
- Sap the energy from your story. Without verbs, your story has no action. Without verbs, there are no benefits. Readers can’t see what they could do differently with your product, service, program or idea.
How to fix label headlines
“Nouns are important, but the nouns must do something.”
— Pete Hamill, novelist, essayist and journalist
How can you fix label headlines?
- Say something about the topic. If you find yourself writing “headlines” like “Graphic systems,” ask yourself “Graphic systems what?” Or “What about Graphic systems?” Are we for them? Against them? Should I get one if I don’t have one? Should I get rid of one if I do?
- Add a verb. “A story is a verb, not a noun,” writes one of the former editors of The New York Times. That means that something essential is missing from a label head. Unless you’re writing a feature headline, use a dynamic verb in every headline. Bonus points for putting that verb in present tense.
- Develop creative standing heads. You may want to use a label for the name of a recurring column or department. But surely, given all your talent and education, you can come up with something better than “Bulletins” or “Manager’s Letter.”
I’d like to buy a verb, please.
So instead of:
Charity Collection for Geneva and Africa
Help African orphans, vulnerable children, Manchester’s poor
Donate to XYZ’s autumn charity collection Oct. 15-31
Eighty two million and counting
245 XYZ employees take on the Global Corporate Challenge
Teams walk 82 million steps in 100 days
XYZ Talks registration — Behind the scenes at the Hermitage
Go behind the scenes at the Hermitage
Learn about Russia’s treasured art collection at XYZ Talks on Oct. 10
HPV and throat cancer
HPV virus? You could be at risk for throat cancer
Get a free screening, answers to your questions, on April 16
Work from home tomorrow!
Please stay safe and warm during Detroit’s snow emergency, parking ban
See what a difference a verb makes? Stop labeling the topic of your blog post, article or content marketing piece. Start using your headline to actually say something about your story.
Are your headlines getting the word out?
“Readers” don’t read. Even highly educated web visitors read fewer than 20% of the words on a page.
Want to learn how to reach people who spend only two minutes — or even just 10 seconds — with your message. If so, bring Ann in to present Catch Your Readers — a persuasive-writing course — to your team.
There, they’ll learn how to write headlines that put their key messages where their readers’ eyes are. They’ll discover how to deliver their ideas to people who don’t read the paragraphs. And they’ll find out how to draw even reluctant audience members into their message.