Are you a blogger, vlogger, entrepreneur, or marketer?
Then you need to know how to write headlines that compel your audience to stop their scroll, and to actually click and read the content.
Advertising legend David Ogilvy once said that “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”
A more recent study by Columbia University confirmed that about 6 in 10 people who share articles on social media haven’t read anything but the headline.
As you can see, it’s one thing to write and distribute great content, but the real work is to get people to go beyond skimming the headline. If no one clicks to read your article, they won’t be able to connect with your brand, learn about your offerings, or become a customer.
This is why you should spend up to fifty percent of your budgeted writing time crafting the headline alone, and treat the headline as one of the most important components of your content.
The headline for your email campaigns, blog posts, webinars and other marketing pieces is often the reader’s first interaction with your brand online, so it’s one of the most critical components of your content marketing strategy.
It’s the first, and maybe only chance to grab your target audience’s attention.
Think for a minute about the headlines you read perusing news or entertainment online, or on social media.
What you're about to read
What drives you to click on an article and read it?
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s usually the catchy headline.
Maybe the headline is promising you something: a way to save time, be more effective at work, make more money, or otherwise improve your life.
Perhaps it is warning you that you might be doing something wrong, but that you can discover the correct way if you click inside.
A well-written headline creates tension or curiosity. The reader feels the urge to take action to alleviate the tension or satisfy that curiosity.
The headline must be deliberately crafted to evoke interest, compel someone to click, and ultimately drive traffic to your site where the reader can learn more about what you offer.
If your headline doesn’t communicate value by promising something worthwhile to the reader, they will move on to other mail in their inbox, social media posts, or articles online.
Learning how to write effective headlines will enable you to grow your business and increase traffic, followers, webinar attendees, and so much more.
But there’s more to writing than simply coming up with something catchy. In fact, there is a formula for writing headlines that you can learn and follow.
9 tips for writing catchy, powerful headlines your clients can’t resist…
1. Include numbers
As already mentioned, just getting someone to click past your headline to read your content is a significant feat.
There is so much information online vying for attention. Endless articles, posts, emails, and webinars compete for a few seconds of someone’s time.
Because of this, most people are interested in optimising their online experience. They want to engage with information in the most efficient way.
Put a number in your headline to assure your reader that your article is a finite list that will communicate everything they need to know in a digestible way.
Use the number itself (3) rather than writing it out (three). The digit will stand out more than the word.
EXAMPLE: For instance, instead of saying “WordPress Design Principles that Drive Traffic,” get more specific. Nail down a number like, “7 WordPress Design Principles that Drive Traffic.”
Pro-tip: Odd numbers hold our attention longer than even numbers. There’s a psychological reason for this which has to do with our minds’ automatic impulse to categorise and sort things. An even number is easily split into two, while an odd number defies such a quick sorting. For this reason, our brains will linger a bit longer on an odd number. Use this to your advantage by including odd numbers in your headlines!
2. Add an adjective in the headline
Adjectives range from tame to rousing. Choose adjectives that will trigger an emotion or reaction in your reader to boost the impact of your headline.
Would you rather click on “3 Ways to Create a Great Newsletter” or “3 Powerful Ways to Create an Unforgettable Newsletter”?
The right adjectives can turn copy from bland to vivid.
When you choose adjectives, look up synonyms of common words to find alternatives that aren’t overused. The novelty will be attention-grabbing.
For example, instead of using “easy” to qualify the simplicity of your tips, try “effortless”, “painless”, or “straightforward”.
Always proofread your headline with a critical eye. If the adjective doesn’t offer technical detail, stir emotion, or if you could communicate the same thing with a clear, descriptive noun rather than an extra adjective, leave the adjective out.
As you test more headlines according to these ideas, you will learn to balance stimulating adjectives that make your copy longer with clean, minimalist copy that describes exactly what the reader can expect.
EXAMPLE (Adding Evocative Adjectives): Instead of “3 Formulas to Build a Website,” change it to something like “3 Foolproof Formulas to Build a Website.”
EXAMPLE (Removing Unnecessary Adjectives): The headline “5 Awesomely Epic Tips to Write Amazing Articles” sounds bloated and tired. Those overused adjectives are limping along and add nothing to engage the reader. Cut it down and switch the trite words out for something more interesting: “5 Unique Ways to Invigorate your Writing”
Pro-tip: There are known “power adjectives” that are more likely to evoke interest in your headline. If you use a drab, redundant, or misleading adjective, then it’s probably better to have used none at all. Search “power adjectives for marketing” and you will find many articles that share these words. Take a look at the headlines and see which one you click on…and then try to figure out why that one caught your eye over the rest!
3. Use call-to-action words
Include a call to action in your headline.
If you tell your readers what to do, they are more likely to frame you as an expert voice.
Consider the mindset of your audience when they are searching for the information you’re sharing.
If your content is a guide, a list of tips, or answers the question “why”, then you know that your target reader is searching for information.
When you offer the answer they’re looking for in your headline, they are more likely to click because you have already eased their tension or fulfilled their need by letting them know what action to take. Now that they know what to do, they’ll click the article to learn exactly how or why to do it.
EXAMPLE: “5 Steps to Build Email Campaigns,” might be enhanced by adding, “Use These 5 Steps to Build Your Next Email Campaign.”
Pro-tip: Engage your prospects with a task in the headline. Let them know exactly what they need to do to get the value that you’re offering before they even click the article. If the task is clear and engaging, readers are more likely to get curious and click through to read the details.
- Keep it accurate
This is probably one of the most important rules to creating effective headlines: respect the readers’ experience.
Your headline creates an expectation. You’ve crafted it to do exactly that. The content beyond the click must deliver whatever was promised in the headline, otherwise you’ll lose that reader’s trust.
Clear and accurate headlines build trust, and make it more likely that the reader will engage with your content in the future.
If you use a clickbait headline to boost engagement, but don’t deliver worthwhile content, you may have earned a few clicks, but you will have turned off readers who might have become customers.
EXAMPLE: If a reader clicks on “Try These 3 Unusual Ad Templates That Convert!”, it is reasonable for them to expect some downloads that they can customize, some information about why these particular templates convert, and maybe some tips on how to boost conversions. If someone clicked that headline and the article was a sales pitch for a program that taught paid advertising, but didn’t offer the valuable templates unless the reader enrolled for the course, that person would likely feel misled and as though their time was wasted.
Pro-tip: Clearly state the main benefit of your content so that the reader knows what to expect, and then deliver exactly what the headline promises.
5. Add brackets
Adding square brackets to the end of your headline to identify the type of content in the article is a surprising way to boost clicks.
Hubspot performed a study of over 3.3 million paid link headlines, and found that headlines with a bracketed clarification – [Infographic], [Interview], [Podcast], etc.—performed 38% better than headlines without clarification.
It all comes down to setting expectations, so readers know exactly what they are getting into when they click on your link, article, post or email.
EXAMPLE: This headline: “Facebook Ad Spend Surpasses Other Internet Ads [Infographic]” assures the reader that the article will be in an easy-to-digest infographic, packed with data and to the point. A reader is more willing to invest in the click if they know ahead of time how the content is presented.
6. Make it creative
The formula for writing headlines is not only about numbers, adjectives and calls-to-action.
There’s room for you to be creative and find ways to make your headline pop.
Play with alliteration (i.e. “Foolproof Formula”) and use strong, vivid language to grab attention.
If there are photos or illustrations within your content, let the readers know this in the headline. Research proves that headlines featuring the word “photo(s)” perform almost 40% better than headlines without it.
You can even take risks with some new words once in a while.
Apple advertised the iPod as even more “unputdownable” once it was redesigned to include the trackwheel.
Boldness with novel words can be rewarding if used sparingly.
So don’t be afraid to take risks, but don’t throw away all the other rules of effective headlines while you get creative!
Pro-tip: While creativity can be a great tactic to catch the elusive attention of your audience, you still want to keep your headline easy to understand. Unless you know your audience extremely well, tactics like humor, sarcasm, or references to a current trend have a 50/50 chance of flopping.
7. Keep it short
Keep your headlines short and concise.
People scan headlines, and are likely to register only the first and last 3 words. If your headline is too long, they will skim over whatever is in the middle, and you may lose their interest before they click.
There is no magic formula for size. However, headlines longer than 65 characters will be cut off in search engine results.
Keep in mind that the headline should communicate to the reader what’s in it for them in the most concise way possible.
The less the reader has to get through in the headline, the more likely they are to pay attention long enough to click through to the content.
EXAMPLE: This headline “Don’t Miss these 9 Unbelievably Bold Secrets to Write Inspiring Headlines that People Will Actually Click!” will lose the reader before the end. The essence of the content is lost in the length. Pare it down to what’s essential: “9 Bold Secrets to Write Inspiring Headlines”. Now the first three words communicate what the reader will learn (9 secrets), and the last three words communicate the outcome they can expect by the end of the article (they’ll be able to write inspiring headlines).
Pro-tip: A/B test a shorter and longer version of your headlines and see which generates the most engagement for you. Use the data you gather to guide you as you write future headlines.
8. Optimise it for search and social
When you’re writing a headline, it’s wise to ask yourself “Would I be curious enough to click this?”
If not, research keywords and search terms to add oomph to your headline.
Keyword tools like Ahrefs, SEMRush and Ubersuggest can show you which phrases and keywords people are searching for, as well as what content they’re clicking.
You can do a search for keywords relevant to your content and then compare your headline to the headlines that get the most traffic for those keywords.
This simple practice will give you insight into the search terms and headlines people are actually using and clicking. You might be surprised that a search query you think is popular doesn’t get much traffic at all, but a related query you would neve have used personally sees thousands of hits per month.
Once you know this information, you can adjust your headline to answer the questions people are asking in search queries, and to compete with the most popular headlines that respond to those queries.
Make sure you use keywords in your headline that your audience is already searching for. Once you know which keywords to incorporate, place them as close to the beginning of the headline as possible in order to catch your reader’s attention.
Pro-tip: Ahrefs and SEMRush offer free trial periods if you sign up with a credit card. Ubersuggest lets you access limited content without entering a card, but there’s a cap to how many free searches you can do each day. If you are writing frequently and wish to boost your SEO tactics, any of these tools are well worth the money as they provide massive insight into keywords, competitors, and even content ideas.
9. Avoid superlatives and words that create a sense of urgency
Positive superlatives like “best”, “magic”, or “life-changing” in headlines actually decrease click-through rates.
This is because savvy readers associate these kinds of terms with worthless clickbait articles, and are less likely to engage with them.
You might be surprised to hear that words that convey urgency like “quick” or “now,” do the same.
People don’t like to be forced to do anything, and these words can come across as pushy. Words like “need” and “cutting-edge” have also been overused to the point that they are now weak, and sound more like a sales pitch than an offer of value.
Always keep in mind the kinds of words that make you wary when you see them in a headline, and assume your readers will feel the same way.
The psychology of marketing is constantly evolving, and as readers become accustomed to certain phrases, those attention-getting tactics lose their potency. As a content creator, you need to adapt.
EXAMPLE: The headline “5 Magic Ways to Write the Best Ads Ever” may have worked in 2013, but today it sounds gimmicky. You will earn more trust with the less exuberant, but certainly more accurate “5 Little Known Methods to Write Copy that Sells”
What kind of headlines lose attention?
Now that you know the strategies for creating effective headlines, here are a few things not to do.
These are the kind of headlines that turn readers away, or that readers are not clicking on:
- Headlines that give instructions are not what readers want. Stay away from the word “how.” Headlines containing the phrase “how to” perform almost 50% worse than headlines without this phrase.
- Headlines with the word “easy” are often viewed as spam. Stay away from phrases like “easy ways” or “easy steps.”
- Headlines that refer to “you” or “your” can sound too personal. The attempt to speak to readers directly does not always appeal to everyone.
- The words “tips” and “tricks” in a headline are associated with a -59% and a -26% click-through rate respectively, according to a Hubspot study. This is because readers are developing their own internal “spam filters”, and tend to avoid headlines that sound like they’ll deliver low-quality content.
These “no-no’s” are loose guides, not hard and fast rules.
There is real science behind effective writing, because we can study consumer psychology to measure how people respond.
But there is an art to writing as well.
Remember that A/B testing is the most effective way for you to see how your specific audience reacts to different headlines. If you want to post a How-to article or offer Tips and Tricks, go ahead! Write a creative headline and put it out there.
But, in the interest of science, try publishing the same article under a different headline and see for yourself which version your readers like more.
There are so many ways to optimise your content marketing headlines.
Whether you’re looking for increased engagement, followers, clicks or conversations, just remember that all of your marketing campaigns start with great headlines.
While there’s no true formula to write the perfect headline every time, you will find that practice will help you hone in on what works.
You can use the ideas in this article as a starting point, and then it’s up to you to continuously research ideas, test different strategies, and track your metrics so that you have verifiable data to determine which headlines get clicks, and which get skimmed and scrolled.