After years of teaching content marketing, it’s time to lay down the law on one of the biggest problems for content marketers: writing headlines.
Headlines are first impressions. And you will be judged immediately and ruthlessly by this short set of words.
We all scan (and dismiss) headlines continually. That’s what “surfing the web” means. Skimming over waves of headlines.
The average Internet user sees 1,300+ headlines per day and dismisses 99.7% of them.*
*Totally fabricated, but a great headline!
Even if you do everything else right, slaving away in the salt mines of content, working your fingers to the bone, everything will fail if you get this one thing wrong.
This checklist will make sure you’ve got the right stuff to get the clicks and shares that drive real traffic. And where there’s traffic, there’s hope.
Note: If you’re already a headline writing pro, skip down to the last item. It’s our own secret sauce and it works really really well…
If you don’t explain what’s in it for the reader, don’t expect them to read it. Period. All great headlines are benefit-driven.
So make a promise. Make it specific.
Ask yourself as if you’re the reader. “What’s in it for me?” The answer should jump off the page. If it doesn’t, be ready to hear crickets. You’re about to fail.
In the words of Charlie Meyerson, “Assume your audience isn’t interested. Write a headline that spotlights the most compelling, most irresistible part of your content.” We’ll hear more from Charlie in a minute.
The ability to imagine the readers perspective is the key to success in writing headlines and everything else in your content. Empathy is the greatest marketing skill.
Not only do benefit-driven headlines get more clicks, they also get readers to buy. In one A/B test of landing pages by Ion Interactive, the headline that explained the benefits increased conversion rates by 28%. Makes sense.
Expert Insight: Barry Feldman, Feldman Creative
“Consider content marketing a war zone. The battle is for attention and your headline is your weapon. The reader’s perpetually—but subconsciously—asking, “Why should I read this?” Answer the question. Make it unmistakably clear what the reader gains by investing time in your content.
The pulling power of a magnetic headline traces to its promise. Simply stated, it’s a benefit“
Specific is good, but don’t give everything away. Here’s a headline I saw yesterday that I appreciated, but gave me no reason to click.
Average Full-Time Work Week is 47 Hours, Gallup Says
That’s interesting, but why click? I got the point already.
A great headline triggers curiosity. It doesn’t give too much away. Masters of headlines, Buzzfeed and Upworthy, have perfected this craft. Here are some some of Upworthy’s most shared headlines, each of which got millions of visits.
9 Out of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact
A Brave Fan Asks Patrick Stewart a Question He Doesn’t Usually Get and Is Given a Beautiful Answer
His First 4 Sentences Were Interesting. The 5th Blew My Mind.
13 Things You Never Knew About Tequila
Watch the First 54 Seconds. After That You’ll Be Hooked. I Swear.
Teased? That’s the idea. You have to click to find out what they’re talking about.
These websites pay their bills off the revenue they make from native advertising. So of course, their native advertisers are using the same tricks. To prove the point, take a look at the Native Advertising Leaderboard and you’ll see how many of the top native ad headlines create that curiosity gap.
Expert Insight: Ann Handley
List posts are popular for a reason: they set expectations about how much you’re getting yourself into. They also suggest variety; if you don’t like one thing, you might like something else.
Numerals, not just numbers, are part of the magic. In a line of letters, numerals stand out. So don’t write a headline with “Eight Things,” write one with “8 things.”
A study by Conductor tested five types of headlines. Headlines with numbers won, hands down.
Headlines with numbers aren’t always list posts. Numbers can also be data, indicating that the article is supported by research.
17 Social Media Books That Will Make You a Smarter Marketer
How to Increase Conversion Rates by 529%
101 Ways to Write Top 10 Lists that Increase Traffic By 21%
You get the idea.
Expert Insight: Sonia Simone, Chief Marketing Officer, Copyblogger
“Don’t buy the argument that “those headline formulas don’t work anymore” All that old “cheesy” advice can still be remarkably effective. Make sure there’s a benefit to the reader in the headline — something that person will get out of reading the content. Numbers in the headline still work. List posts still work.
The secret to staying out of Cheeseland? Make the content *behind* your headline amazing. Put some love (and work) into it, to make it compelling and genuinely useful. Bring your own unique writing voice and sincere care for the topic into your written, audio, and video content.”
Question headlines have two benefits. First, they leverage a psychological effect, causing the reader’s mind to take the next step: answer the question …or wonder. The lack of completeness inherent in questions causes tension and interest in readers.
Search is the second benefit. Google is focused on the meaning of a search query, not just combinations of words. It’s called “semantic indexing.” The natural language of a complete question helps Google understand how the article is useful.
People are using their voices, not just fingers, to search these days. This is part of the trend toward mobile. Naturally, they’re asking complete, full-sentence questions.
Complete questions and complete answers will help Google connect people to your content. Question headlines help future-proof your content for SEO.
Why Do Dogs Bark at Night? 5 Dog Trainers Offer Tips for Quiet Canines.
Which Superhero Are You? Take this short quiz and find out….
How Does Social Media Affect SEO? (this was a recent post/video on this blog)
Expert Insight: Heidi Cohen
“The power of question headlines comes from tapping into what keeps your readers up at night. Increase your question title’s effectiveness by making it personal. Include the word “you.”
The drawback of question titles is that its open-ended nature loses some clarity. This can hinder title performance. Therefore, when I use a question title, I use the subtitle to clarify any open points.”
Some words get clicked more than others. Other words get shared more. Word choice is critical to writing headlines. So choose carefully.
Luckily, there’s data on which words get the best results. Here’s a summary of research on the power words.
Words that get more clicks from search results:
How to, [List-related numbers], Free, You, Tips, Blog post, Why, Best, Tricks, Great
Words that get shared more (appear most often in viral posts):
Smart, Surprising, Science, History, Hacks (hacking, hackers and “life hack” related topics), Huge / Big, Critical
Negative words that get shared more (negative words from viral posts):
Kill, Fear, Dark, Bleeding, War
Words that get retweeted more:
You, Twitter, Please, Retweet, Post, Blog, Social, Free, Media, Help
Words that increase email open rates:
Urgent, Breaking, Important, Alert
To see the research behind these recommendations, here’s the full list of 131 words that increase website traffic.
Notice any patterns? Some of these are from earlier points on the checklist. The word ‘You’ appears several times. If you’ve written a benefit-driven headline, you’ve probably covered this already.
Expert Insight: Jeff Goins, Goins, Writer
“Every headline needs to offer a promise that the body copy delivers on. I don’t know about you, but I like my promises to be more than vanilla. They need to sound like amazing opportunities. Otherwise, they’re not much of a promise. The way to capture attention is to employ powerful words in your headline that get the reader excited to read the whole article.“
Length matters. But different sizes fit different places. Headlines are everywhere, but they’re not one-size-fits-all. Here are places where your headline is likely to appear.
Email Subject Lines in the inbox
Posts and Tweets in social streams
Search Results Pages from your <title> tag
At the top of the page in the header <h1> tag
You don’t have to use the same headline in every location. Pro marketers will tailor the length to the location, writing different headlines for different places. Here’s a guide for “headline” length.
To learn more about the logic and research behind these recommendations, take a look at this post: The Ideal Length for Everything In Your Marketing.
Expert Insight: Charlie Meyerson, Meyerson Strategy (and digital news media veteran of 16 years)
“Place the story’s most interesting word or phrase as close as possible to the start of the headline. This becomes even more crucial as people read on their smartphones, where email subject lines can get truncated to 3 or 4 words.“
Using the target keyphrase at the beginning of the headline gives you good “keyphrase prominence” helping to indicate relevance to search engines.
It’s especially important for both the title tag <title> and the header <h1>. This is fundamental to on-page SEO best practices. It’s not important for email subject lines and social media post headlines.
This may come naturally when you target longer, less competitive “how to” or question phrases. It’s more difficult when writing those Upworthy-style curiosity gap headlines.
Conflicted? Yes, some of these tips contradict others. So here’s a pro-tip you probably haven’t seen before. This is part of our secret writing sauce here at Orbit…
To create headlines that rank in search engines and get traction with readers, use a colon. This lets you separate the search-friendly keyword from the social-friendly click bait.
It’s a way to get good keyphrase prominence but still leverage human psychology in the rest of the headline.
Check out these examples from our past posts on this blog:
How to Research Keywords: Tips, Competition and Squirrels
Competitive Analysis Tools: 5 Free Ways to See the Analytics of Any Website
Neuromarketing Web Design: 15 Ways to Connect with Visitors’ Brains
Internal Linking: 10 Best Practices for Internal Links
Ego Bait: 5 Simple Ways to Leverage Blog Mentions
Thank You Pages: 9 Example of Missed Opportunities
See the pattern? Each post is optimized to rank for the phrase at the beginning of the headline (with perfect keyphrase prominence) followed by a number or words to connect with visitors’ hearts and minds.
Target Keyphrase + Colon + Number or Trigger Word + Promise
Does it work? Search for any of those phrases before the colon. You probably see the post ranking for the phrase …and you might just click, thanks to the numbers and curiosity gaps.
This is a huge and important topic. We didn’t cover everything here. These tips didn’t make the checklist, but this article wouldn’t be complete without them.
Write LOTS of headlines before choosing one.
We wrote a dozen before choosing one for this article.
Write headlines that create some urgency.
Hurry up and do this before your competition does!
Check the “Emotional Value” of your headline.
Put your headline into Advanced Marketing Institute’s Headline Analyzer, which will give you a percentage score of the emotional value. The higher, the better.
Add a fun theme, then share with specific people.
Adding a theme adds interest. If you write a zombie-themed article about search marketing, you can then find people who love zombies and SEO. There are 31 people with “zombie” and “SEO” in their Twitter bios.
Learn how exactly to do this here: Sharing Content with Laser Focus.
KEEP YOUR PROMISES.
If the headline doesn’t fit the article, don’t use it or you’ll erode trust with your readers. That “ultimate guide” had better be the best. Those “5 Easy Ways” better not be complicated!
Follow these tips and you’ll soon be making headlines like a corduroy pillow.