“The headline is the most important element in most advertisements. It is the telegram which decides whether the reader will read the copy.” –David Ogilvy
Ask any copywriter and they’ll likely agree with Ogilvy.
The headline is what hooks the reader’s attention. If you fail to write a gripping headline, you’ve failed your assignment, no matter how captivating the rest of your copy.
But attention isn’t enough — especially in today’s cluttered digital world where attention spans are shorter and newsfeeds longer. Now more than ever, writers are challenged to compel readers to stick around beyond the headline. But how?
Subheadings, also known as subheadlines and subheads.
If the headline is like a highly-anticipated first date, full of excitement and intrigue, the subheading is the follow-up call that makes or breaks the deal. A lackluster follow-up can diminish the chances of an ongoing courtship, and no follow-up at all quickly negates those chances.
Too often, subheads are overshadowed by headlines, poorly executed or neglected altogether.
To craft compelling subheadings that convert browsers into readers, you first need a functional understanding what defines a subhead. Let’s take a look.
What is a subheading?
Subheadlines come in two common forms, depending on what type of content you’re writing. The rules are more or less the same, but the location and function varies.
1. The short-form subheadline (just one, under the headline)
If you’re writing short-form content, such as a web page or advertisement, your subheadline will appear directly below a prominent headline at the top of the page or ad. The purpose is to expand on your headline and drive the reader to your call-to-action (CTA).
Contently once had this great example on the homepage of their website. The bold headline is eye-catching and gives a high-level explanation of what Contently offers and to whom. Meanwhile, the subheadline offers a more detailed explanation before asking the reader to take action by watching a video.
2. The long-form subheadline (multiple through the story)
If you’re writing long-form content, such as blog posts, editorials or whitepapers, you’ll likely use multiple subheadlines.
For example, you might include a subhead directly below the title, similar to the web page example, and you’ll also likely use subheads throughout your body copy to clearly divide sections, as I’ve done in this article.
Using multiple subheads throughout your writing serves several purposes:
- Outlines your main points in an easy-to-scan format
- Draw your reader’s attention to each section
- Optimizes your post for search, so it shows up high in Google results (Our SEO writing post explains this in more detail)
Nicole Dieker’s article, The 3 Biggest Pitch Mistakes This Editor Sees Every Day, shows editorial subheads in action. Her title tells the reader there are three pitch mistakes, while the three subheads throughout the article expand on those mistakes so the reader can quickly identify what each section is about.
Think of subheadlines like supporting characters. They’re not the star of the story, but without them the plot lacks context and development. Just as every great protagonist has a great supporting character, every great headline has a great subheading.
What’s in a subheading?
Now that you have a solid understanding of what a subhead is and where it appears in various types of written content, it’s time to put your pen to paper — or fingers to keyboard.
The most effective subheadings pack a punch by answering your target readers’ questions with concise, benefit-oriented copy.
Here are a few tips for crafting successful subheads.
1. Answer questions before they’re asked
Whether you’re writing about a product, service or idea, make it clear upfront who you’re writing for and what you’re writing about.
Recall the Contently headline. It states what’s being offered (storytelling) and for whom (the modern marketer). Although interesting, the headline alone leaves room for questions like: What does this storytelling help the modern marketer do? Enter: the subheadline, which further explains who uses Contently (the world’s best brands) and what they use it for (engaging audiences and driving measurable business outcomes). Now the target audience has a broader understanding and is more likely to take action.
Here’s how to apply this thought process to your own writing. Once you’ve nailed down your headline, make a list of every outstanding question your audience might have. Then, write down answers to your hypothetical questions. This exercise will help you refine your subheadlines and ensure you’re answering the right questions.
2. Choose your words carefully
You have roughly seven seconds to make a first impression. This is about the time it takes to read a headline and subhead.
In an ideal world, a perfect headline would inspire readers to carefully comb through every sentence you write. In reality, today’s readers are toggling between social feeds, email inboxes, text messages and internet browsers — and writers must vie for their attention.
Don’t waste readers’ time with superfluous words. Keep your headlines and subheads concise, without sparing clarity.
Take this subheading for example: “Researchers recommend leveraging high intensity interval cardio training to optimize fat-burn and increase overall workout effectiveness.” (Are you still with me? Okay, good.) Now let’s simplify. By removing unnecessary words, we get a more engaging subheadline: “Researchers recommend HIIT workouts to boost fat-burn and effectiveness.”
When in doubt, make your subheadlines easily digestible in order to connect with distracted, on-the-go readers.
3. Give your readers what they need
If you’re writing on behalf of a company, client or publication, you’re not writing for yourself. You’re writing for their audience.
Know the audience and determine how your writing can improve their lives in some way.
With this in mind, use your subheadlines to provide a snapshot of the benefits they’ll receive by reading on. Benefit-focused subheads are a powerful tool for persuading readers to care.
For example, if you’re writing an article titled, What 10 Minutes of Exercise Each Day Does to Your Brain, your subhead can emphasize the benefit by saying, “Adding these three activities to your daily routine can sharpen your mental wit.” The subhead doesn’t reveal everything, but does hint that the reader will benefit by learning about three specific activities.
Readers need a reason to care, whether it be to gain useful information or enjoyment. Use your subheading to make your reason clear.
Yes, headlines are often the most important element in any content piece. But a compelling headline paired with an impactful subheadline is a powerful combination that can greatly increase the clarity and effectiveness of your writing.
4. Make the reader want more
While you want to provide plenty of information so the reader gets what they need, sometimes it works to ask questions or give readers a hint of what’s to come so they keep reading.
This post, for example, asks in the headline, “Is Upwork Legit?” And then in the subhead, “Why do freelance writers hate Upwork so much?” If the reader is curious about that question, she knows she’ll get what she needs if she keeps reading.
When done well, this feels good, and the reader leaves feeling satisfied. When it’s done poorly, for example, when the question isn’t answered entirely, it can feel like click-bait. If you make a promise in your subheading, be sure to deliver it.
This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.
Photo via wong yu liang / Shutterstock