Note: I included a list of over 250 headline writing formulas and templates at the end of this post. Feel free to download it and use it to write your next headline.
How much time do you invest in crafting the perfect headline?
According to dead copywriter David Ogilvy:
“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.”
This is still true today. Research shows that 80% of your visitors will only read 20% of your article, and only 20% will read the rest. How you start your article is crucial but the headline is even more important. It’s what grabs the reader’s attention and gets them to read the first sentence.
Do you craft your headline just after you wrote a piece of content, or do you start with a headline and work from there?
The number one indication that people read your blog posts or emails is that they actually open them. There are at least 200 million blogs on the internet. Some of them have tens, hundreds or even thousands of articles written. So why should people click through to your content?
That’s what this post is about.
The number one thing that will make your headline less effective is vagueness. Unless you’re a large publishing site that talks about every topic under the sun, even if you do get people to click on it they might not be the right people for you. And if you’re a large publishing site you will still disappoint most people if your offer isn’t relevant to them.
What’s the solution?
A unique, relevant offer. Or, the 4 Us:
Let’s look at each one and find out what they mean:
What do you bring to the table? In other words, there’s probably a number of other people that have written about the same topic before; How is yours any different?
Your headline must have a unique “angle” to it. This can represent a unique point of view, or a new piece of information that has been uncovered. Maybe your blog post is about “How To Lose Fat And Gain Muscle” but instead of being like every other article on this subject, yours has a really cool infographic, packed with actionable tips, data and a really inspiring story that you paid a designer $20,000 to create.
Also, your headline says “9 Proven Ways To Lose Fat While Gaining Muscle, Backed By Science [Infographic]”.
Well, that’s quite different.
People generally want something specific. You walk into a restaurant and you want to order something to eat. If the only option on the menu was “Food” you wouldn’t order, even though that’s what you want it’s not specific enough (or at all).
If I told you I could “Increase Your Blog’s Traffic” vs. “I Will Increase Your Blog’s Traffic By 30% In Two Weeks” which one would you be more interested in?
This also relates to using numbers or brackets in your headlines, which we’ll get to.
Imagine if the infographic I mentioned earlier, “9 Proven Ways To Lose Fat While Gaining Muscle, Backed By Science [Infographic]”, was BS. You see the headline, you’re like “Oh, that’s incredible. Life-changing” and when you actually read it, it made absolutely no sense or instead of showing you how to lose fat and gain muscle, it contained animated GIFs of cats doing pushups.
What if it actually made sense and you followed all the advice for the next 6 months of your life and you saw 0 results from it. Would you trust anything from that person ever again?
In his book, “Influence”, Dr. Robert Cialdini describes how perceived scarcity will generate demand. You can create a sense of urgency in your users by setting a deadline or providing a limited offer.
One way to induce urgency in B2B is by warning of the potential consequences of not adopting your product, or implying how they will make money or save time by using your product or service.
In this post, I’m going to show you how you can write a compelling headline and never run out of ideas.
The Brief History Of Headlines
Consider this: The first modern newspaper didn’t have any headlines.
In 1605, a German book dealer named Johan Carolus started using his brand new printing machine to achieve a task that he’s been doing by hand up until then. He would collect military and political reports from across the world and publish them in a weekly newsletter. Now, using his printing machine, he could print a lot more and so his newsletter turned into a book-sized publication that looked like this on the inside:
This was the first modern newspaper. Each piece of news would start with a line that mentioned the Location where it happened, and the Date. No headline.
Since then, newspapers have evolved and they became more sophisticated, with attention-grabbing headlines that sometimes occupy 50% of the page and use words and stories that speak to the masses (think sports newspapers)
How did this change happen? In a nutshell, it came about because newspapers realized they could not just spread the news, but also have a voice of their own and contribute their own opinion to it. With so many newspapers competing to draw attention to the same story, they’d have to be unique in some way, whether it’s a different angle or a bigger headline. The presentation below does a great job at explaining the evolution of headlines from 1785 until now:
Here’s an example…
To save space, a long word is sometimes replaced by a shorter word with not quite the same meaning, e.g. “attack” to mean “criticize”. In this article by Variety, the word “Axed” was used instead of “Eliminated”.
During one focus group conducted by Jane Buckingham of the Intelligence Group – a market research company – one of the subjects said to her:
“If the news is important, it will find me.”
Think about what that means. It used to be that you got your news from a newspaper that you bought or from visiting a news website. I can’t even remember the last time I did this. Now, the only places I get my information from are online communities, twitter, google and email.
The homepage has shifted for many people from Google to live feeds like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit or in my case, GrowthHackers.com (an online community for growth hackers).
Knowing the way people discover new articles and news, how does this change our strategy?
Regardless of where a user is (on Facebook or the WSJ) they will be in one of two modes:
- Browsing mode – They’re not looking for something specific and may click on anything that catches their eye.
- Searching mode – They’re actively looking for something specific that they want, whether it’s to buy something or to get information.
Usually people browse more on facebook and search for stuff on google, while on youtube people do both. It’s important to consider each channel and how your audience may behave on each one, s you can adjust your strategy accordingly.
Now, you’re not the only one doing this. So the question is: with so many headlines in front of them, how will they decide which ones to open?
How to write a great headline
It doesn’t matter how good your content is, if you don’t have a compelling headline that grabs your reader’s attention and gets them to click, no one will read it. In order to write a great headline, we must first be clear on what a great headline is. Generally, a great headline:
- Gets clicked – does the headline alone make people want to come in and speak their mind?
- Gets shared – you did your research and you know people are sharing similar headlines, and also yours is good enough (and unique, remember 4U’s) for them to share yours as well
And if the content delivers on the promise made by the headline, then it also:
I’m going to explain each one and show you step-by-step how you can accomplish each goal for:
- Social media
- Search engines
- Email marketing
- Social media
Upon reaching 1 million blog post headlines in their system, the folks over at CoSchedule were curious about what all this data could tell them about growing traffic and writing better headlines. Specifically, they wanted to know:
What is it that makes one headline more shareable than another?
They sorted these headlines and split them into three groups: Those that got less than 100 shares, those that got between 100-1,000 shares and those that got over 10,000 shares. And what they found out was surprising: 89% of the content out there gets shared less than 100 times!
What was even more interesting was the content that did get shared more than that. They found that 3 types of posts did particularly well:
- List posts
List posts made only 5% of the total posts in the study, and yet they got the most shares. This just shows how much readers prefer posts that are visually easy to read or skim through. Lists also tell readers what to expect from a post, and can sometimes break down complicated ideas or strategies into easy to follow pieces.
According to research by RJMetrics, numbered lists ending in 5 or 0 get more views than other numbers. Hubspot did their own study concluding that odd numbers work best, especially numbers 7 and 9. Yet again, these are just guidelines based on what worked for a few big companies, there’s no rule or ‘secret recipe’.
- Posts that use “You” or “Your” in the headline
This shows how speaking directly to the user can cause them to share more frequently. Although in a different study, Hubspot found quite the opposite: Headlines that address the reader with “You” decreased CTR/were below average. This just stands to show that you must always test these assumptions yourself and find out if you get the same results.
- Free downloads & Giveaways
Who doesn’t love winning something for free? Especially if it’s relevant to your audience, by giving away something for free, whether it’s your own product or somebody else’s, you will generally see a short-term boost in traffic and conversions.
What’s interesting is that based on research by Hubspot and Outbrain, headlines that mentioned [Free ebook] often decreased click-through rates, but in turn increased conversions. Showing that while those who aren’t interested in your offer will ignore it, more of the people who are interested will click and convert.
There’s another type of post, not included in the study, that does a really good job at increasing not just clicks, but conversions also:
- Using brackets
Outbrain found that using bracketed clarifications like [Infographic] or [Free ebook] not only increased CTR and engagement, it also increased the average conversion rate from 0.29% to 0.51%.
- Optimizing your headline and URL for Search Engines
Here’s what you should know: Google is a bot.
It doesn’t read headlines and articles like we, humans, do. The way Google is able to show you results when you search for something is by sending an army of robots to crawl the web, going from link to link, saving the links in its database so they can bring it up when someone searches for a relevant term or phrase.
I will automatically find the pages that contain the term you searched for, whether it’s located in the headline, the body of the page or in the link itself. Usually, however, any type of search you do will return millions or at the very least hundreds of such results, so how does it decide which ones to display first?
By looking for SEO signals like how frequently the keyword is used in that page and how much others are linking to it. We won’t go into all that now, since we’re only interested in headlines, but you should consider optimizing your content as well.
As for the headline, there are several things you can do:
Step 1: Mention your target keyword, preferably at the beginning of the article
According to Moz, the closer to the start of the title a keyword is, the more helpful it will be for ranking – and the more likely a user will be to click them in search results.
Step 2: Don’t make it too long. Specifically, try to keep it between 50-60 characters and no more than 512 pixels wide. Anything longer than that will be replaced with three dots.
Step 3: Consider search intent.
What is the user looking for? Are they making a commercial search or are they looking for information on a subject? If I am doing a commercial search like “hotel prices” and the first two results are “Hotel prices are going up” and “Hotel prices by country” which one am I more likely to click? Most people searching for hotel prices want to know the actual prices, not some news about how hotels are getting more expensive.
A headline that is optimized for SEO won’t rank you #1 on Google but it sure will help you rank better and get more clicks.
- Email marketing
Email remains the most widespread form of communication in the business space. Last year, over 108.7 billion emails were sent and received every day, according to Radicati. And they estimate by 2018, this number will have grown to 139.4 billion.
And these are just business emails. Consumer email traffic stood at 87.6 billion, totalling a whopping 196.3 billion emails per day. Ok, we get it. Email is huge.
What I love about email is that unlike social media, you can a/b test your headlines so you know what gets the most clicks. This works by sending, for example, 25% of your subscribers one email, and 25% of them a different email, and after 1-2 hours looking at which one got the most opens, and sending that same email to the remaining 50% of your subscribers.
So what tests should you run? Let’s explore some ideas:
- Test the From name
Here are some of the emails I received today in my Promotions tab in Gmail:
Some of those are good. The second one, however, comes from Eric Sherman who says “About to Expire!”. First of all, I have no idea who Eric Sherman is and what is about to expire. I definitely know Sidekick by HubSpot which is a great tool that I love using, and it’s also what he’s emailing me about. So why not send the emails from Sidekick?
Version A: Adam Franklin & Toby Jenkins
Version B: Bluewire Media
Unexpectedly, the winner was Version B by 10.3%, 6.9% and 31.4%.
While this post talks mainly about headlines, the medium is equally as important for your open and click-through rate, and it must be taken into account. For social media, a great headline is necessary but one important aspect is the image that accompanies it. Similarly, for email, the From name is important as well as the first line of your email.
- The subject line
Because of the huge variety of emails that you can send, for different purposes, there’s equally as many things that you can test. We’ll look at some ideas:
Idea #1: CAPITALS vs. Normal vs. lower case
Neville is known for his personal sounding, lower case subject lines:
The usually do pretty well, averaging between 21% to 31% open rates. This may also work because of his funny personality and the value he’s known to provide to his readers.
BlueWire tested these two subject lines by sending each one to 1,000 of their email subscribers:
Version A: Bluewire News – Most popular e-book, content marketing tips & Twitter guide
Version B: BLUEWIRE NEWS – Most popular e-book, content marketing tips & Twitter guide
Version B won by 13%. This probably relates to how blog posts that use brackets in the title perform better than those without brackets. If you make it clear to your readers what they are getting, they are more likely to open and click.
The takeaway here is you should find your voice. Are you building your personal brand and people subscribe to a real human being? Maybe lower case subject lines will work better for you. Are you, on the other side, running an email campaign for a company or big name brand? Lower case might not be a good idea, try normal case instead. And so on.
Idea #2: Long vs short subject lines
According to Retention Science’s analysis of over 260 million delivered emails and 540 campaigns, they found that subject lines with 6-10 words perform best, generating a 21% open rate. Meanwhile, subject lines containing 5 words or less ranked second with a 16% open rate.
However, a recent study by Marketing Sherpa which analyzed over 9 million subject lines showed different results. They found that while subject lines that while 9-14 words is the most commonly used amongst marketers, using more than 14 words will yield you higher open rates.
Conclusion: Run your own tests to find out.
Note: Neville Medora recently shared the open rates of different newsletters, I highly recommend you go check those out.
Idea #3: Be honest and straightforward
Nothing hurts your open rates more than vague, unclear subject lines. And using clickbait headlines to get more clicks in the short run can damage you even more in the long run. Your subject lines need to clearly communicate what your email is about, that’s the whole reason we have subject lines.
We’re Throwing a Party
Is better than this:
Gift Certificates – Easy & Elegant Giving – Let Them Choose
According to MailChimp’s analysis of over 40 million emails, straightforward subject lines vastly outperformed ‘salesy’ ones.
Idea #4: Use Power Words
Some words can trigger certain emotions in your recipients’ mind and persuade them or influence them to take action. Such words as:
– Their name: Compare using their first and last name against only using their first OR their last name only.
– Time-sensitive words: Urgent, Breaking, Important, Alert, Live, Last Chance and Closes Tonight.
– Say ‘Thank you’
– Build excitement: Sneak Peak, Look Inside, Announcement, Invite, Invitation, Be the first, etc.
Idea #5: Give something away for free
To find out what led to the highest open and click rates, Bluewire Media tested different types of content by emailing their list of 6,300 subscribers. The top 3 winners where:
- Useful templates: 26% to 66% click-through rate
- E-books: 10% to 33% click-through rate
- Feature blog posts: 5% to 14% click-through rate
This is not surprising. Your subscribers love receiving templates and ebooks, especially since they’re free. This is one cool way of providing value to those who think “What’s in it for me?”.
Actionable tips from UpWorthy
UpWorthy has eight rules for writing headlines. Here they are:
- You HAVE to write out 25 headlines for every piece of content.
- You WILL write some really stinky headlines.
- Once you start getting desperate you start thinking outside the box.
- So you HAVE TO WRITE 25 HEADLINES.
- #24 will suck. Then #25 will be a gift from the headlines gods and will make you a legend.
- Accept that not every headline will be perfect.
- Then write 25 headlines
- With practice, you’ll be writing 25 in 15 minutes. Only then do you have permission to lower your limit.
So what do you do when you are left with two headlines that are so good you can’t decide which one to use? Use them both! The New York Times Innovation Report suggests adoption of A/B testing and similar practices is necessary to compete with fast-moving, digital-savvy rivals.
Get Inside Your Audience’s Mind
When working with a new client, Eugene Schwartz, one of the greatest advertising minds who ever lived, would spend the first 5 weeks researching, and only a few days creating the ads themselves.
Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You To Be Rich also talks about how he and his team would spend 6 months researching their audience before creating and launching a new product, because it’s so important to get it right.
It’s not about the product itself or the content of the article, it’s about the WORDS your readers use to look for and describe a particular problem or need. If you know this and use it properly, they will instantly see you.
John Caples outlined four elements of a successful headline:
- Quick and easy
With self-interest being the most important, and for good reason. Early marketing pioneer Claude Hopkins would test nearly 2,000 headlines for just one product during his time at Lord & Thomas. According to him, the most powerful type of headline you can use is a benefit-driven one because it appeals to the reader’s self-interest.
One way of appealing to your audience’s self-interest is to use audience-referencing strategy
Find out what appeals to their self-interest, what conflicts do they have in their life. The best example off the top of my head is Mel Martin’s famous headlines:
Mel Martin used points of maximum anxiety by identifying what makes his readers stay up and night and then making their worries disappear. This can be done today in several ways:
- Monitor social media to see what your target audience is complaining about
- Look at your customer support platform for worries and questions people have
Then, make a list of these problems and worries, and start writing your headlines in a way that peaks curiosity and builds anticipation.
One thing you want to make sure of before writing a piece of content is that it will be shared and found by your audience. Here are a few tips on how to do this:
- Use Google Trends to identify “hot” opportunities
- Find the most shared content on a topic by using BuzzSumo
- Look for the most popular tweets on Topsy
- Look into your own Analytics to find top content
- Use social media and PPC to A/B test your new headlines
This is something most marketers skip on and can give you unique insight into what people are talking about right now and what headlines work (or don’t).
The Most Powerful Words You Can Use In A Headline [Infographic]
Tweaking one word in your headline can have a dramatic effect on the reader. I put together a list of “power” words from different studies on top words used in viral headlines as well as recommendations from some of the world’s best copywriters, and this is the result:
Stuck? These Headline Generators Are Guaranteed To Fuel Your Creative Juices
- Portent’s Content Idea Generator
- Hubspot’s Blog Topic Generator
- Topical Brainstorm Article Idea & Headline Generator
- ContentIdeator: Blog Topic, Title & Ideas Generator
- Inbound Now’s Blog Title Idea Generator
- Tweak Your Biz Title Generator
- The Blog Post Ideas Generator
+250 Winning Headline Formulas (+Downloadable Templates Included)
I included a list of over 250 headline writing formulas and templates at the end of this post. Feel free to download it and use it to write your next headline.
How Tweaking Your Headline Can Increase Conversions By 30%
Highrise ran an a/b test on their sign up page to see how changing the headline would affect conversions. This is the headline/subhead they originally had:
And this is what they changed it to:
They tried 5 different variations and this was the winner, causing a 30% increase in signups.
Pro Tip: Have A Swipe File. I always take a screenshot when I see something that catches my eye, like a brilliant headline or an interesting popup or ad. By having a swipe file for headlines, combined with the headline formulas and headline generators I mentioned above, you will NEVER run out of ideas.
Blog post title Generator
A good tool to use for ideeas and blog post titles is this one from Fatjoe.
– Remember the 4U’s: Unique, Ultra-specific, Useful, Urgency
– Understand your target audience and what makes them click
– Incorporate psychology into your headlines
– A/B test your headlines on social media and via PPC ads
– Find successful content and make something better
– Use headline idea generators and headline formulas to get ideas when you need to
– You can’t go wrong with List posts and How to posts
– Use power words
– Always be testing