The Irresistible Pull of Subheadings

Written By: SiteSell in CTPM | October 27, 2014

The Irresistible Pull of Subheadings

It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that subheadings make the difference between…

  1. Visitors who land on your page and swiftly hit the back button, and…
  2. Visitors who read the page and go on to become followers, fans, evangelists and customers.

“Evangelists” are those folks who may never purchase your products but nevertheless “spread the word” by commenting, liking, sharing, linking, and generally shouting your brand’s name from the social media rooftops. Treasure these people.

Subheadings matter, then. They matter a lot.

And that, in a nutshell, is the conclusion that this article will reach.

It’s good to start a piece of writing with a conclusion, because it promises important things ahead. And when you make compelling promises, you’re more likely to keep a visitor engaged.

The next step, after you’ve “hooked” them with your headline and preamble, is to keep them engaged while you make your argument (or “prove” your conclusion).

Use Subheadings To Grab Attention!

That’s the first subheading right there. It came at just the right moment…

You were engaged enough not to have “bounced” already. But it was by no means a done deal that you would keep reading all the way to the bottom.

The subheading “pulled” you deeper into the content.

And for that matter, so did the sentence right above!

Too many subheadings on a page will lose their impact and may even look odd if there’s little text in between them. The occasional single-sentence paragraph, possibly in bold text, is a great way to make people sit up straighter in those stretches of text in between the subheadings.

How many is too many?…

When the content between the subheadings becomes ridiculously small (just one or two short paragraphs, say), the “subheading to text” ratio will start to look very top-heavy. And…

If you have so little to say about a sub-topic, you really have to question whether it’s a separate topic at all (or whether it shouldn’t be incorporated into the sub-topic above or below, or even deleted altogether).

For a great example of how to use many subheadings to “pull” the reader deeper into the content, see this page from a successful SiteSell customer …

Keep Bouncers From Bouncing

“Bouncers” are the folks who take one look at your page, hang around for approximately 0.823 seconds, then hit the back button.

Now, even if your content is earthshaking, a significant chunk of visitors will fail to be shaken. But there’s nothing you can do about those folks.

(And quite honestly… good riddance!)

You can, however, keep those bouncers with slightly stronger attention spans on board by using plenty of “white space” and visual interest on the page. Simply break up intimidating chunks of text with…

  • subheadings
  • sub-subheadings (if necessary)
  • bulleted lists (like this one!)
  • images, quotes and callout boxes (with generous margins so they don’t rub shoulders with the text)
  • two shorter paragraphs instead of one long one
  • the occasional one-liner paragraph, possibly in bold (like we discussed above)
  • short sentences to act as counterpoints to the longer ones

If I had written this article as a series of loooooooong paragraphs and nothing else (no subheadings, no bullets, no one-liners, no nothing), you probably would have quit by now, no matter how interesting or important you thought the content might be.

Don’t lose your own visitors by making life unnecessarily difficult for them…

Solid blocks of text are an invitation to leave and find a more user-friendly site. White space is the “ante” that keeps potential bouncers from bouncing.

It’s not enough by itself. But it’s welcoming and at least gives visitors the opportunity to give the page a chance.

Keep Readers Reading

A long article can be daunting (even if it is well broken up and visually appealing).

You’re asking visitors to devote the next 5 or 10 minutes of their life to what you’ve written. And, frankly, with so much unrewarding content online, they know there’s a fair chance that they’ll waste 10 minutes of their life on an article that promises big but fails to deliver.

Subheadings keep readers reading by reducing that risk.

Spending 10 minutes on an article that ultimately fails to deliver is like gambling and losing. Staking just 60 seconds on one small section of an article is not so risky…

If that single section fails to deliver, the reader hasn’t lost much. If it engages her, she’ll risk reading the next section… then the next… then the next… and before she knows it, she’s made it to the end.

But if you fail to provide these stepping stones across the river (in the form of frequent subheadings), articles turn into an all-or-nothing proposition. And that translates into higher bounce rates and fewer folks to convert into customers.

Turn Scanners Into Readers

Not everyone will read your article word for word, not even if you make it super-easy for them. In between the “bouncers” and the “readers” are the folks who simply scan.

By adding white space to the page (subheadings, in particular), you have at least made scanning easy. Subheadings alone can never tell the whole story, but they at least give the broad outline of your argument and help the scanner to decide if closer reading is worth her time or not.

For that reason, it’s important to…

1) Make subheadings clear

Cutesy or cryptic or abstract subheadings won’t tell the story. And if the scanner reaches the bottom of the page with no idea what the heck you’ve been yabbering on about, she’ll more than likely leave.

2) Make subheadings compelling

In other words, use them to force the scanner to stop scrolling and start reading. How?…

By promising benefits (or “what’s in it for her”). Make a subheading communicate an irresistible reason to read the text below… a vital piece of information, perhaps, that she cannot afford to miss.

A good tip is to occasionally write a subheading that’s the conclusion of the preceding point, rather than an introduction to the text that follows it. These can force scanners not only to come to a stop, but to engage reverse and start scrolling in the opposite direction.

3) Make subheadings consistent

The technical term for this is parallelism. It means using the same grammatical construction for all of your subheadings, as I have done here…

  • Use Subheadings To Grab Attention!
  • Keep Bouncers From Bouncing
  • Keep Readers Reading
  • Turn Scanners Into Readers
  • Make Your Life Easier as a Writer
  • Consider “Signposting” the Journey in Advance

Each subheading starts with the same style of verb. If I had written this instead…

  • Subheadings Grab Attention!
  • How To Keep Bouncers From Bouncing
  • Keeping Readers Reading
  • The Secret of Turning Scanners Into Readers
  • Why Subheadings Make Your Life Easier as a Writer
  • Have You Considered “Signposting” the Journey in Advance?

… the subheadings would have been “out of whack,” making it a little less likely that the fast-scrolling scanner would have seen this as a coherent piece of writing.

It won’t always make sense to use parallelism. But at least be aware of it.

Of course, parallel subheadings don’t all have to start with a verb. They can start with a noun, take the form of a question… whatever you like. Just be consistent in your choices.

It’s also a good idea, for optimal clarity, to use different constructions for different heading levels. For example…

If your H2 subheadings all start with an imperative verb…

  • Read These Subheading Tips
  • Apply to Your Own Pages
  • Watch Your Metrics Improve

… use a different construction for the next level down (H3s)…

  • Read These Subheading Tips
  • Apply to Your Own Pages
    – How To Create H3 Subheadings
    – How To Create H4 Subheadings
  • Watch Your Metrics Improve

It’s a minor point. But sometimes it’s the little things that count.

Make Your Life Easier as a Writer

Just as reading a page with no structure is daunting for the reader, so writing one is daunting for the writer. Working out your subheadings in advance makes the writing so much simpler.

Having to write about an entire topic from scratch can trigger a bad case of writer’s block. Covering a single subtopic, though, is a breeze: 3 or 4 paragraphs and you’re done.

Focus on the bricks and the wall will build itself.

That’s all that subheadings are: the subtopics of the main topic. So…

  • If you’re writing a “How to________” article, the subtopics are the specific steps you need to take to accomplish the task.
  • If you’re writing a “Why______” article, the subtopics are the individual arguments you put forth to support your conclusion.

Subtopics will simply suggest themselves 9 times out of 10. But if you’re struggling to split up a topic, ask yourself the fundamental questions: who, what, where, when, why, how? (These are the questions the readers will want answered.)

However you split up a topic, just make sure that you do split it up. It’s a win – win – win…

  • It makes it easier for you to write the page.
  • It makes it easier for readers to read it (by pulling them deeper).
  • It makes it easier for scanners to assess whether they want to read it.

(Without subheadings, scanners probably won’t give you the benefit of the doubt, except for on the shortest of pages.)

Consider “Signposting” the Journey in Advance

It can be a good idea, particularly for long articles, to list your subheadings at the top, either as a list in the preamble or in a callout box off to the side.

Additionally, making each item an anchor link (one that takes you down to the relevant subheading when clicked) helps to create a better user experience. Doing this…

  1. Alerts folks to the fact that you’ve covered this topic in depth (as opposed to “thinly”).
  2. Allows scanners to see the bare bones of the article without even having to scroll down.

Hopefully, this alone will encourage the scanners to stay. Or if they were after something more bite-sized… well, they were probably not your ideal visitors anyway. And quite frankly…

Good riddance!

For more page-writing tips, also see this article on how to write engaging headlines…

5 Headline Writing Tips To Make Your Headlines More Effective

Without a strong opening headline, visitors won’t even continue to your content in the first place, much less be converted into fans, evangelists and customers.

Another comprehensive resource for writing content that hooks your reader time and again is the American Writers and Artists blog.

SiteSell is a privately held Canadian-based company that helps everyday people start profitable online businesses.

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