Writing great headlines is hard. It takes knowing the art as well as the science. But it is important.
So important that some experts argue you should spend as much as 80% of your time writing great headlines and 20% writing the great content that goes with them.
And not just in your blog, but on all content from sales pages to ebooks:
Whether your content has been created to trigger subscriptions, social shares, backlinks or purchases, without a killer headline your content is as good as dead.
Why? Here are 3 reasons:
Your headline (or title tag) is the thing people either click on – or scroll past – on SERPs
Your headline is often the only thing people actually read – according to Copyblogger founder, Brian Clark, 8 out of 10 people will read your headline, but only 2 out of 10 will go on to read the rest
Your headline is the bit that gets splashed all over social media and news sites and is used as the link anchor back to your content
So how do you craft headlines that hit the headlines? Drawing on headline-making research, I’m going to guide you through 5 steps to writing great headlines.
Ready? Let’s go.
Step 1: Pick the Right Subject for your Headline
Most people write like they are baking a cake. They have an idea for a new kind of cake, go crazy with the ingredients, stick whatever flavour of icing on top that comes to mind then put it in the shop window and hope people – and Google – pop in for a slice.
And no one pops in. No one even looks in. And the cake goes in the bin.
Never write anything BEFORE you write your headline.
Your headline (the icing) and the subject of your content (the cake’s flavour) should be inspired by research into what your niche target audience are actually interested in – the kind of cakes they LOVE ALREADY.
So look at social media. Join forums. Read blogs. Do you have industry influencers? What influences them? Read the comments for keywords to use in your headlines.
Ask your sales or tech team about their interactions with customers. Are your customers looking for help or content that you can provide?
(A trick used by Rebekah Radice is to create a swipe file of subjects and headlines that your customers are interested in for inspiration.)
I’m not saying that you can’t cook up something totally original. If you already have an audience the size of The Great British Bake Off, knock yourself out. But if you are just starting out, you need to know what will whet the appetite of your customers.
And bear in mind that the most popular and most shared content is content with a practical, problem solving nature. If you want to write about why people love cake, great: but if you write a practical recipe for the most truly scrumptious cake in the world ever, then your recipe will be the one that will make the headlines.
On Google too. Google just laps up truly scrumptious, practical content.
Step 2: Write Headlines that are Love Letters to Google
As you know, Google displays search results with the headline (or title tag) in bold:
Notice how long the heading is – this one just fits. Any longer and what I’m trying to say could be lost or abbreviated with an ellipse.
So how long should your headline be to fit into Google? 65 characters.
But should you write to fit Google’s 65 character limit? According to research by Kissmetrics, the best headlines are 6 words long.
Why? Because people scan online and 6 words is just long enough to be read in a single glance.
Which is a good length for most web content, but most blog headlines are longer. So Kissmetrics suggest you ensure that the first 3 and last 3 words in your headline both stand out and convey enough meaning to get people to click on.
At the same time, there is a limit. You should never exceed tweet length – even come in a little under so that your headline can be retweeted without truncation.
Writing great headlines means writing great Google-friendly headlines. 6 words work best for most content. But longer blog headlines need to be under 140 characters – and the first 3 and last 3 words need to be the most memorable.
But that’s not all the advice out there. Here are 2 more tips to trimming headline length:
DON’T USE CAPITALS as they look bad and also take up more space on Google
10 Tips to Writing Headlines that Take 10 Minutes to Master and Drive 100% more Traffic: always use numbers to keep the headline shorter
Now let’s turn to the various types of headline you can choose from.
Step 3: Use Headline Formulas to Cook up a Storm
There has been lots of research into the perfect headline formula. And naturally they used this research when writing great headlines on great headline writing.
This great review on BufferSocial has ‘30+ Ultimate Headline formulas for Tweets, Posts, Articles and Emails.’
But that post pales in comparison with the peerless Peter Sandeen who has compiled a list of ‘101 Headline Formulas that Capture Attention and Get Your Message Read.’ .
Check them out for yourself. They’re free and packed full templates that you can use.
Below I’m going to take 4 of them and weigh up the pros and cons.
Listicles: When you need the Magic Number
What’s your top 10 favourite movies? Your top 10 must read books? Who are the 10 people – dead or alive – that you’d invite for Sunday lunch?
According to Fast Company, human beings are hardwired to love top 10 lists. But before you pick 10 as your magic number, other research out there has revealed 2 interesting things:
Big numbers – 30 or 101 – are more highly valued because lists this long are perceived to be definitive
Odd numbers – 3, 7, 11 etc – are also more highly valued. ‘3 things’ is more convincing than 10 because most people expect padding in ubiquitous top 10 lists. See The Guardian for more on this
Listicles make perfect blog fodder. But can a service page be turned into a listicle of benefits all wrapped up with a catchy – and sharable – heading?
If so, try it and see. But before you do, follow these 3 last pieces of advice:
Write your number as a number to save space and stand out
Make sure the ideas and research in your content backs up and justifies your headline numbers
Listicles can appear gimmicky so don’t over use them and if your target audience might judge them to be spammy, find another way
‘Why’ Headlines: When you Just Have to Know
Why are we here? Why is the sky blue? Why did the dinosaurs become extinct? And why was Season 2 of True Detective so crushingly disappointing?
We click on why headlines because we want to know the answers. Answers to the things like philosophy or science or TV shows that interest us – or did interest us until we were so let down that we were scarred for life.
But why are they so clickable? Simple:
Why questions create what psychologists call an ‘open loop’ in our heads that we just have to close.
So if your headline would make a great why question, then close that loop.
But before you do, there are 3 (rather obvious but important) things to know:
Don’t use a why headline if your audience already know the answer: what’s the point in them bothering to find out what they already know?
Don’t answer your why headline in the headline: wait till they get to the content – the end of the content
And be aware of Betteridge’s Law: don’t ask a why – or any question headline – that can be answered with a big resounding, NO
‘Get’ Headlines: When You have to Get to the Point Fast
If your content offers something like an ebook or invites the reader to participate in a survey or quiz or take part in collective action – presumably with a financial or other reward – headlines that start with triggers words like ‘Get’ get to the point very well.
But remember these 2 tips:
Get headlines get to the point: ‘Get your free ebook’ or ‘Get involved to save the Rhino’.
So don’t clog up a succinct get headline with anything that might put them off. If they have to fill out a survey or give you their email, ask them nicely in the content.
‘How-to’ Headlines: When Solving Customer Problems Solves your Problems
There are 2 kinds of people online: those just browsing around for inspiration or amusement; and those searching for specific answers to specific problems.
‘How to’ headlines speak perfectly to the latter. But there are 3 things that make ‘How to’ headlines an often perfect choice:
Google loves them: they want to connect people to solutions
The practicality of the content (guides, recipes, manuals etc) gives them an unparalleled shelf life
People like to fix problems: they also like to share fixes with others and link to them
How to headlines are also flexible. Peter Sandeen illustrates some useful alternatives:
How to ____
How to ____ – The Essential Guide
How to ____ like ____
How to ____ even if / without ____
How to ____ while ____
How to use ____ to ____
How to ____ in 5 easy steps
Step 4: Use Headline Formulas in the Right Way
Most headlines combine psychology to get people interested in what your content promises/offers. Plus a little SEO keyword science to get Google interested.
And after all the research, most people agree that a typical headline formula comprises the following elements:
Number/Trigger word + Adjective + SEO Keyword + Promise/Result
But each of these elements have their own pros and cons. Let’s look at them.
Every Headline Contains a Number of Trigger Words
We’ve already looked at the pros and cons of using numbers in listicles. But don’t limit your use of numbers to the start of the headline.
If your product or service boosts performance by 100% – which your content can adequately back up – you can stick it in the Promise or Result side of the formula.
Every Headline Contains Kick-ass Adjectives
You want your headline to be read – then clicked on. So jazzing up how great the content waiting beyond that click isn’t harmful.
Just don’t over do it. Creating a sense of urgency is a great idea. But beware freely using simple or easy words like ‘free’ and ‘simple’ and ‘easy ‘: they are overused.
Every Headline Contains SEO Keywords
The days of splurge gunning SEO keywords into everything you do are gone.
But every headline contains SEO keywords. And the consensus advice is to place them at the start of your headline. Which can change the formula into something like this:
SEO Keyword + Number/Trigger word + Adjective + Promise/Result
Every Great Headline Promises Great Results
What’s in it for me if I click on your headline and read your content? That’s what you put at the end of your headline.
The benefit. The solution. The result. Just make sure that you can back this up in your content.
Step 5: Be Specific [Plus 2 more tips]
The trick with writing great headlines is to be creative and targeted. Knowing what your audience actually reads can help get you started, but experimentation can help you fine tune your headlines further.
But the golden rule is to be SPECIFIC.
If you have great facts and figures in your content, use them in the headline.
If you have interviewed someone important, name drop them in the headline. And if you’re important, namedrop yourself. People looking for you or the big cheese you’ve just interviewed will both find the content more easily and click on much faster when you do.
Use the specificity test to weed out any fluff or exaggerated claims you’re making.
Writing Great Headlines with Bracketed Clarifications Perform 38% better than Headlines without them
If your content features an:
Mention it in the headline: people like to know what they’re clicking into.
But you don’t have to put it in the main body. Recent research has shown that putting this in brackets at the end of the headline works very well.
Brian Dean is an SEO genius, and a big hat tip to him for pointing out the Hubspot and Outbrain research that reveals this research.
Don’t neglect subheadings. Seriously
If you’re writing a long form blog – a Power Page – it is essential that you break up your content into sections to make the content easier to read.
And when you do, be just as scientific about creating subheadings that keep people reading.
What you’ve Learned [Hopefully]
Whether you like it or not, you’re in the headline grabbing business.
So get your headline right:
- Write headlines (and content) that your customers actually want to read
- Be aware of how your headline will look and read on Google
- Avail yourself of tried and tested headline formulas
- But be specific and creative in how you use them
Writing great headlines means knowing why great headlines are so great. But don’t let your headline down with crummy content. Everyone has been suckered into clicking on a great headline only to find the content doesn’t live up to the billing. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
So don’t let your headline down. Make it the cherry on top of the perfect content-rich cake and you’ll have people coming back for more and more of the same.