Everything to You Need to Know About Writing Headlines
Words have power. In a headline, that power means the difference between someone reading your article and being lost in the scroll.
Headlines are the first-and maybe only-engagement someone has with your brand or company. An oft-quoted old Copyblogger stat says 80% of your visitors will read your headline — but only 20% will go on to finish the whole article.
How do you move your headline from “blah” to “click?” After reading from the experts, I’ve compiled a guide packed with better headline writing tips and strategies.
What headlines need to be successful
Applying the tactics detailed below will help you write better headlines, but it’s essential to understand the reasoning behind their use. A headline’s purpose is to get someone to read more. To gain someone’s interest, the best headlines hit on four factors, called the four “U’s:”
A headline that connects with these four “U’s” is more likely to capture reader attention and win the click-through.
One genius tip to check for uniqueness: put the headline in a search engine with quotes around it. It will show you if anyone else has used that specific phrase and any similar headlines.
Check for uniqueness by putting the headline in a search engine with quotes around it.
Ultra-specific is easy to understand. A reader knows exactly what to expect when they read the content. When the headline doesn’t match the content, that’s clickbait.
The urgency matters because you want your readers to go to the article NOW, not bookmark it with a promise to come back later. You know they’ll forget. This “U” is the trickiest to pull off without sacrificing your article’s purpose.
Useful means it has value for your target audience. Maybe it guides them to solving a problem or contains valuable information about the topic they’re researching.
Some experts tout headline formulas as a method of writing successful headlines. If you’re new to headline writing, it could be a way to get started.
John Caples offers 35 different types of headline formulas. I won’t list all 35 options here, as they were well-covered by Lars Lofgren, but essentially they fall into four categories:
- Use keywords in headlines
- Focus on benefits
- News-style headlines
- Price-related headlines
- Super-short headlines
Another formula idea referenced by content marketing guru Neil Patel is the “SHINE” acronym.
Then we have plug-and-play style formulas, like:
- Little Known Ways to [blank]
- The Secret of [blank]
- How to [blank] for [blank]
- Who else wants [blank]?
- Here’s a Quick Way to [blank]
- [Blank] You Can Be Proud Of
- What Everybody Ought to Know About [blank]
- # Ways to Avoid [blank]
- # Mistakes Killing Your [blank]
- Why I [blank] And Maybe You Should Too
- The Quickest and Easiest Way to [Blank]
Jeff Bullas lists over 101 of these plug-and-play headlines. Many are borderline clickbait in style, if not definitely clickbait.
6 headline-writing strategies and why they work
What formulas don’t give you is how to compose that headline. That’s where these strategies come into play. Knowing the most common headline-writing strategies helps you craft those words into someone unique and useful for your reader.
#1- Question headlines
Question headlines are the riskiest kind of headline. You’ve got to be smart about how you do them, or the headline can backfire.
A good question piques reader interest. After all, they’re searching the net because they want answers to their problems. Questions open a dialogue with your reader, making them more receptive to what you have to say.
That said, a lousy question headline has the opposite impact. Avoid question headline pitfalls by:
1- Never asking a yes/no question.
2- Always making sure the blog or email actually answers the question!
3- Responding to the question with the most insightful, engaging, and memorable take on the question.
4- Never using a question headline to make a point.
Yes, they are a thing. Whenever you address the reader in the headline, as in “you” followed by an action, like “try” or “click,” you are using a call-to-action headline. These are effective when paired with power words-more on those below.
#3- Shock factor/controversial headlines
These headlines are a double-edged sword. The controversy may drive click-throughs, but you risk alienating your audience if the headline and topic are too extreme. Ask yourself if using shock factor works for your brand. If it doesn’t, skip over this technique.
#4- Numbered headlines-the “list” headline
People like order and organization. When you use a numbered headline or one that signals a list, it appeals to our sense of order. Neil Patel called numbers “brain candy.”
Lists also promise a blog that’s broken into sections, easy to read, and quick to skim. Given today’s short attention spans, that is an asset.
But numbered headlines aren’t exclusive to list-style articles. You can pull in percentages and statistics to create a numbered headline.
Studies have found headlines with numbers outline those that don’t. One says a numbered headline will generate 73% more social shares and engagement.
A few tips for using numbered headlines:
- Small numbers are more attractive than larger numbers. It tells the reader a quick read.
- Odd numbers stand out. Readers think you’ve done original research on the topic.
- Use the actual number rather than writing out the word.
- A single-digit is more powerful than double digits.
#5- Reason why headlines
Why should someone do something? Tell them in your headline. Neil Patel calls these “rationale” headlines. You’ve probably used them in your posts before, and you’ve definitely seen them. Here are the keywords:
#6- Direct address headlines
One way Patel found to increase engagement is directly addressing the reader in the headline. It connects directly to them. These headlines use the word “You/Your” in the headlines.
Power words for headlines
Adding emotionally charged words to a headline gives readers a reason to keep going. Some generators and experts call these “power” words. The words work by connecting to our emotional core. Some example words:
Tips for writing good headlines
Target in your headline a specific keyword with a high search volume. High-search volume words are topics lots of people are searching. Don’t you want lots of people searching for you? And yes, including high-target keywords does help with organic and paid search discovery.
Not sure what headline is best? Do a brain dump of all possible headlines. Mix and match the styles. Share the best versions with a person you trust or the team.
Finally, do read this one: Wordstream’s Headline testing experiment using CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer. Each post made over 31 days had three titles. They correlated its score with its generated clicks. The experiment found “average-good” headlines often outperformed “great” headlines.
“Average-good” headlines often outperformed “great” headlines.
Danny GOODWIN, wordstream
Does headline length matter?
If you’re trying to make the headline display without being cut off in Google search results, sure, the character count matters. Squeeze that bad boy down to 70–85 characters.
When it comes to actual results, as in click-throughs, the answers vary. It seems on Facebook, longer headlines with 12–14 words get the most likes. On Twitter, it’s more like 8–12 words long.
No matter the medium you’re writing for, make every word in your headline count.
Great quotes on headline writing
As I researched this topic, these golden nuggets spoke to me:
Some “how to write headline” posts try to make the process sound easier than it actually is. The truth is you really can never know with 100 percent certainty that your headline will click with readers — and get their clicks.
You can write the most incredible headline in the world. But if it’s on a topic your audience doesn’t care about, it’s simply a headline wasted.
Start focusing on using headlines to get people to read the first sentence.
Measuring headline success
How do you know if all the energy you’ve invested in crafting the headline is working?
One way is through A/B headline testing. The AB testing tools available typically use click-through rate as a way to measure headline success. The more people that click on the headline, the better.
Abtasty does a thorough job explaining how an A/B headline testing tool can work to analyze the headlines on your blog.
With the right WordPress account or programmer, you could buy an A/B blog headline tester that will pitch 1–3 potential headlines at random to website visitors. The caveat: you’ve got to generate a lot of traffic for the results to be accurate.
For email headlines, some services offer A/B testing as part of your email creation, like Mailchimp.
What if you’re broke like me and don’t want to invest in a fancy plugin for A/B testing? Or your site doesn’t generate hundreds of visitors per day?
- Use customer inquiries: within 2–3 months, did the content generate any queries?
- Social media shares: Use social media to test a few headline options. See which version generated the most traffic; make that the permanent headline on your blog.
Headline A/B Testers
If you do have a website with substantial traffic and headline testing is something you’re into, here’s a few headline testers:
- Thrive Headline Optimizer: Licenses begin at $67 each for unlimited headline tests. It’s a WordPress plugin and, unlike other tools, doesn’t rely solely on click-throughs to measure headline success. It includes time-on-page and how far down the page visitors scroll. Go here for a step-by-step breakdown on Thrive’s Headline Analyzer.
- Nelio A/B Testing: Another WordPress plugin useful for testing blog posts, landing pages, Woocommerce descriptions, and more. Plans start at $29/month for one site with 5,000 page views. That means you’ll need enough visitors to make its CTR-based method work.
- Google Optimize: Recommended for those who know what they’re doing. You can run five AB tests at the same time for free. Bonus: it integrates with Google Analytics so that you can test different website elements. You’ll need to know how to define each goal, and it takes a greater level of configuration skill. Here’s a guide on using Google Optimize.
The difference between blog and email headlines
We use the tactics we use with blogs work for email headlines, but there are some specialized quirks for email subject line writing. To optimize email headlines:
#1- Stay minimalist
Email headlines must be clear and concise. Here, time is definitely working against you. You have a glance to get someone to open the email or delete. If you’re writing a notification email, stick to the point and keep it brief. Example: “The New App Is Coming!”
#2- Humor sticks out
Think about how many dry, same emails you get. It’s all promotions and sales notices, right? A funny subject line can be eye-catching as long as it’s well-placed and within your branding voice.
#3- Numbers still work well
Just like numbers work for blogs, so do they for email subject lines. They promise a quick and easy read. For example: “12 Ways to Stop Stress Eating.”
#4- Personalize beyond the name
The first name in the subject line is now so common people gloss over it. Personalization now focuses on other factors, like location, language, and interest. For instance, “Couples’ Discount at Your Polaris Day Spa.”
#5- Unusual punctuation
You may have seen emails with emojis or way more exclamation marks than needed. Marketers are using these as a way of making their emails stand out. It can be fun to experiment but pair it well with other headline writing tactics. One example recently received: “Kickstart Your Weight Loss ASAP ⏩.”
A few email headline best practices
- Multiple subject lines. Especially if you’ve got an email provider that enables A/B testing, why not write several subject lines and choose the best?
- Keep it short. Blogs give you more space. For emails, try to stick under 50 characters.
- Try Alliteration. This technique can create catchy headlines.
- You/Your. It’s still best practice to address the reader.
- Kill the caps. Screaming the subject line in ALL CAPS does not lead to more opens.
Headline analyzers and generators
Need help writing effective headlines? Are you stuck on crafting a unique yet impactful title? Try headline analyzers and generators.
These can’t guarantee you’ll write a click-worthy headline, but they do give you feedback. Use them as a place to get started. Just remember, if you swear you have a great headline, but the analyzer says it’s only so-so, stick with your gut.
Best of all, most of these are FREE.
CoSchedule’s analyzer is rather popular, and it has a browser extension for extra convenience. Its generator gives feedback on things like power word usage, sentiment, keywords, and length. You’ll get a score from 0–100, with near 100 being headline perfection.
The analyzer gave my headline a score of 77, saying the character count of 54 and word count of 9 was great, but it was flagged for being too generic.
The ShareThrough generator has a “headline quality score” based on “based on a multivariate linguistic algorithm built on the principles of Behavior Model theory” plus Sharethrough’s advertising research. It’ll give some suggestions, too, but if it tells me to “consider adding a celebrity” one more time…. Take it with a grain of salt.
Sharethrough scored this blog’s headline as a 65 average, with positives being strong human connection and positive sentiment.
If you want some creative headline ideas, this is a great generator to try. The options it gives won’t work for all company or brand voices. For those trying to be edgy or outside the box, give it a go. It’s free, and all you need is a target keyword to see multiple suggestions.
For a unique approach, the AMI analyzer assigns an “emotional marketing value” and “emotional classification” to your headlines. The ideal range to capture audience interest is 50–75%.
This one scores headlines on a scale of 1–100 for readability, SEO, and sentiment (emotion). They also have an email subject line tool.
Headline writing in a nutshell
Headline writing is complex, it’s essential, but it’s not the end-all of your writing efforts. Well-crafted content that is useful to your readers is still the most important thing to have. A thoughtful headline is how we tell our readers that what we have to say matters to them. Essentially, it’s a marketing tool.
Hopefully, the information here will round out your understanding of headline writing and give you some useful tips.
If there’s anything missed in this guide, shoot me a line.
What I read about headline writing
Originally published at http://mcmowrites.com on February 6, 2021.