How do I write headlines to engage my community online? 4 simple rules

Writing project headlines to engage your community online is both an art and a science. There are some things that you simply must and must not do. Once you have these rules down pat, like any creative endeavour, you can play around with things a little to drive up participation rates.

The project headline is critical to the success of your engagement process.

It is the first thing people see. It is, more often than not, the only thing people read. On average, 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest. This is the secret to the power of your title, and why it so highly determines the effectiveness of the entire site.

It is the principle tool at your disposal to drive the reader on to the next sentence.

Here’s an example of what not to do?

Public Exhibition – Planning Proposal, Draft Amendments to Council Development Control Plan (WDCP), Draft Voluntary Planning Agreement and Explanatory Note

Believe it or not, this is a real project headline. It’s the longest headline we have ever seen on an EngagementHQ site. I’ve modified it slightly to protect the innocent because we love all of our clients, but you know who you are!

Free Download: Online Citizen Engagement Guidebook

There are lots of blog posts about writing compelling headlines that drive visitation and click-throughs to blogs or online news sites.  Unfortunately, there are none about writing for community engagement. And even less about writing compelling headlines to engage the community in conversations about public policy!

There are also lots of blog posts about writing compelling ‘landing pages’ that drive readers to behave in a particular way, generally to buy something, or sign up to something, or download something. This is something that all community engagement practitioners want. First, we want people to be aware of our projects, and then we want them to actually engage with the project.

This is the process of conversion. It is precisely what web-designers have been thinking about for years.

It’s arguable that current community engagement practice doesn’t do either of these things particularly well.

It’s equally arguable that both of these skills are critical to contemporary community engagement practice where online engagement is such an important, sometimes central, part of the engagement strategy mix.

Given that there is no guidebook, I’ve scoured the web for practice advice from other disciplines like journalism and web design to help us improve our practice.

Here are the 5 questions to consider for engaging headlines when you are composing your next project headline.

Is your headline too long or too short?

“Omit needless words,” said Strunk and White. If you apply that guideline to only one aspect of your writing, let that be headlines.

Web headlines need to be longer than traditional print media headlines, but much much shorter than traditional government reports and advertising copy.

Advice varies on the ideal length of a headline, but it should have six to eight words. Some say seven, other say eight, citing an untestable statistic that, “eight-word headlines get 21% higher click through rate than average.”

Why? Because shorter headlines are typically easier to read. Space may seem limitless online, but the human brain’s capacity to group, process, and hold words in short-term memory isn’t. Without glancing back, can you remember how that last sentence began?

Is your headline comprehensible to “Mrs Smith”?

Consider the cognitive load your headline places on users. The more complex the headline, the more difficult it will be for users to read, the more likely they are to overlook it. Try to keep your headlines straightforward and unadorned. Use concise and familiar words, if possible.

There are a few rules that are useful here:

  • Start your headline with the subject of the consultation – the first one to three words should connect the reader with the subject of the project.
  • Be accurate and specific – the more focused the subject the better so that you attract people who have a genuine interest.
  • Don’t use puns – you’re (generally) writing to encourage people to think about public policy, not buy a newspaper.
  • Don’t use unnecessary big words – you’re writing for everyone, not your tertiary educated mates.
  • Don’t use jargon – you’re writing for everyone, not your professionally trained colleagues.
  • Don’t use metaphors – you’re not writing poetry.
  • Don’t use adjectives – this isn’t creative writing.

Is your headline searchable on Google or Bing?

You need to make the project easy to find on search engines.

This means clearly identifying the subject and object of the project in the headline.

Longer headlines are much more likely to appear in search results. This is a key difference between headline writing for print, where the title can be supported by images, and the web, where the copy needs to make sense out of context because it can show up anywhere.

“Name the known, omit the obscure.” If the subject of your post is well-known to the audience you care about, include the subject’s name in the headline.

This advice is clearly targeted at journalists writing personality-based stories, but the rule also applies to place or issue based projects.

If a place – whether a town, suburb, street, site, creek, mountain, park etc – is being changed as a result of your project, put the name of that place at the start of your headline.

Similarly, if the project has a well-publicised name, this should go at the start of the headline.

This practice is particularly important because  in several of its potential destinations — Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc. — a headline that’s too long will have to be truncated to fit, which could mean that the most important part of the headline is missing.

Does your headline compel your community to take action?

The headline does not stand alone on the page, it is supported by a sub-header, a lead paragraph and a call to action. But, it is the largest piece of text on the page, the first thing people see and the first opportunity you have to motivate action.

Can you draw your reader into the ‘story’ to compel them to keep reading and ultimately to take action? A few tricks to achieve this:

  • Use the active voice
  • Use the present tense
  • Try playing with quotes
  • Tray playing with questions
  • It doesn’t need to be grammatically perfect

Sample headline alternatives to get the juices flowing

Instead of

“Bicycle Action Plan”


“Manningham Bicycle Plan: Let’s get riding today”

Instead of

“Public Exhibition – Planning Proposal, Draft Amendments to Council Development Control Plan (WDCP), Draft Voluntary Planning Agreement and Explanatory Note”


“101 Pacific Drive, Sydney redevelopment: What do you think?

Instead of

“Help us improve our library services”


“Port Phillip Library: What would you change?”

Instead of

“Financial Assistance for recycled water projects”


“Tweed Water Recycling: How should Council help industry?”

Instead of

“Flood mapping”


“Mapping Toowoomba’s Floods: Help us get it right”

Instead of

“Parks chat”


“Randwick’ Parks: Where do you love to play?

Thanks for getting all the way to the bottom! Subscribe to our monthly digest newsletter if you’d like to be kept up to date about community engagement practice globally. Take a look at our two product websites: EngagementHQ if you need a complete online engagement solution, and BudgetAllocator if you need a participatory budgeting solution. Or get in touch if you have a story idea you think is worth sharing.

More Content You Might Like