If someone told you to spend more time crafting the headline for your next blog than actually writing the copy itself, would you take them seriously?
We live in a world where two million blog posts and 294 million emails are written every day. Competing for your readers’ time has never been more of a challenge, and writing quality content is only half the battle. If you don’t have a stellar headline at the top, chances are your next article could largely go unread, no matter how well it was written.
Just ask advertising legend David Ogilvy, the man who rewrote his infamous Rolls Royce headline from 1958 a total of 104 times. Roughly 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, and only 2 out of 10 will read the rest of your article. In fact, traffic can vary by up to 500% based on the headline alone according to Upworthy co-founder Peter Koechley, so make your headline count!
A simple search for “writing headlines” yields over 60 million results on Google. Where do you even begin? Here are a few easy tips we’ve plucked from the masses to get you on your way to headline heaven.
1. Negative Nancy
You might not think it, but words with negative connotations can make your headlines that much more compelling. Negative words like “no”, “shouldn’t”, and “stop” in headlines result in more reads and more shares on social media since they tap into human insecurities. Sometimes they can even get your readers to feel like they’re clicking and reading something that they shouldn’t.
In a study of roughly 65,000 paid link titles conducted by Outbrain, they contrasted the use of positive (e.g. “best”, “always”) and negative (e.g. “worst”, “never”) superlatives in headlines and the results are pretty interesting, as illustrated by the graph below.
In fact, they found that the average click-through rate on headlines with negative superlatives was a staggering 63% higher than that of their positive counterparts. Explanations as to why this is can vary, but one theory Outbrain had was that negative information may be more likely to be perceived as impartial and authentic.
2. The Dark Side
Over at Startup Moon, Iris Shoor studied and reviewed posts from over 100 technology blogs and one of her findings was rather surprising. Headlines that contained darker words such as “kill”, “fear”, “dark”, and “war” performed better on social media. As Shoor explains:
“A significant number of posts which were ranked as most shared had these elements and I could hardly find any posts which used these expressions at the bottom of the list.”
Now it’s important to note that these were technology blogs after all, and there was no actual killing or war involved. A few examples of the most-shared headlines that Shoor pointed out included:
- “Oracle makes more moves to kill open source mySQL”
- “Big data is dead. What’s next?”
- “Oracle is bleeding at the hands of DataBase rivals”
3. Keep it Short
If you can, removing as many unnecessary words as possible from your headline is the way to go. Fewer words make more of an impact, as the extra whitespace with a shorter title focuses the attention on the words and it’s easier for your readers to digest. The less there is to read, the lower the chance of laziness striking your readers.
To keep your reader’s attention, the ideal length for a headline is six words. Obviously it’s hard to be specific in such few words and, as a result, six-word headlines are both rare and hard to write! There have been many articles with long headlines that have generated great traffic as well, so instead of focusing solely on length, prioritize the start and finish of your headline. According to KISSmetrics, people scan headlines just like body copy, so focus on your first three words and the last three words for maximum effect.
The shorter the headline, though, the better, as keeping headlines short helps with search engine optimization as well. Google search results only show the first 55-60 characters of your headline in their results, so if you have a long-winded headline you run the risk of having a substantial portion of it getting cut off.
4. Ask Questions
While Betteridge’s law — that any question can be replied to with a simple no and that it’s better to reword headlines to eliminate the question altogether — doesn’t support the use of question headlines, other studies suggest that asking questions can yield positive results. Tapping into a reader’s curiosity and emotions definitely helps getting them to click.
5. Follow a Formula
The classic saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, applies perfectly to headline writing. With so many effective and proven formulas already out there, why try something new? Copywriters use headline formulas all the time and don’t need to spend precious time trying to reinvent the wheel.
Whether the formula you choose to use is SEO-heavy, comes across as providing secrets or insider knowledge, or solves a problem, there are countless options for you to test out when trying to craft that perfect headline. Consider a few examples from Copyblogger’s 10 surefire headline formulas that work:
- [Do something] Like [world-class example]
- Now You Can Have [something desirable] [great circumstance]
- What Everybody Ought to Know About __________________
6. Consider the SHINE Method
Speaking of headline formulas, the SHINE method from the folks over at KISSmetrics is one of the best. It expands on the following five components that you should factor into any potential headline while brainstorming:
- Specificity: Be as specific as possible, using concrete facts, names, or descriptions
- Helpfulness: Let the headline imply that reading the body text will help your reader
- Immediacy: Your headline should captivate your reader and make them want to click right away
- Newsworthiness: Try to say something in your headline that your reader hasn’t heard before
- Entertainment Value: Promise your reader that reading your article will be entertaining
7. Practice Makes Perfect
By now, you’ve probably seen Upworthy’s SlideShare, “How to Make That One Thing Go Viral”. If not, it’s a hilarious, informative presentation that’s easy to read and gives all kinds of headline writing tips, showing why they’ve been so successful in such a short time.
One of the key bits from the presentation is a highlight on their editorial process, which includes crafting 25 potential headlines for every article on their site. Think about that for a second. Every single piece of content published on Upworthy has had an editorial team circulate 25 headline possibilities and has had the winner handpicked. By the end of the process, you should have a headline that makes people want to click on your article and stay to read all of the words you poured so much time into writing.
Since we’re talking about headlines, why not go a bit further in depth and look at capitalization preferences? In a Conductor study over at The Moz Blog, an overwhelming 64 percent of respondents preferred title case, or the capitalization of the first word in any heading or subheading (as well as all “major words” and any proper noun in the headline). Note that in the study and graphic below it writes sentence case, but the correct term for that method is title case, according to the APA blog and otheronline resources.
With this being just a minuscule sample of what’s out there in terms of headline writing advice, it’s easy to see how there have been e-books and in-depth guides written solely on the topic. Incorporate your own personal spin on a headline formula, think of the psychology behind what strategy you use, and have fun!