You’ve heard the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover”. That doesn’t apply online where your headline is your book cover. Whether it’s a sales page, blog post, email subject or even a tweet, your headline determines whether or not your audience will actually read your content. So knowing how to write a powerful headline is an essential skill for online marketing success.
With the internet awash with content screaming out to be read, there’s far too much to process. So people scan ruthlessly, picking out the content that attracts and interests them the most. A disheartening fact for anyone adding to the content mill is that on average, eight out of ten of people will read your headline, but only two of them will bother to read the rest.
It’s quite simple.
Your headline is the first (and often only) impression you get to make on your reader.
The better your headline, the better your chances of achieving your end goal. Especially when you’re trying to sell something, because it’s your headline that will get your foot in your prospect’s door.
“The opportunity to sell something – or build a relationship – or both – starts and stops with your landing page headline.”
– Joanna Wiebe, Copy Hackers
Write better headlines and you’ll get your content read by more people. Write better headlines and you’ll:
- Increase your click-throughs
- Increase your traffic
- Increase your social media engagement
- Increase your shares
- Increase your email open rates
- Increase your conversions
Clearly, your headlines play a huge role in the effectiveness of your digital marketing. But how do you create powerful headlines that capture your reader’s attention?
Read on to learn how to start creating better headlines for all your:
- Blog posts
- Sales pages
- Web pages
- Page title tags
- Email subjects
- Other social media posts
- Other headlines
The 4 U’s – Instantly Improve Your Headlines
The 4 U’s is a really useful and easy-to-use framework to help you write headlines that better connect with your audience. Use it to write new headlines, and to check existing ones to see if they make the grade.
Your headlines should be at least one of the following (the more you can achieve, the better):
Why should anyone bother to read what you have to say if your headline isn’t communicating anything useful to them? Make sure your headline provides value to your reader by including a benefit, a solution, or some other kind of advantage.
This is the most important U of all – every headline you write should be useful to your target audience. Read that again. It should be useful to your target audience. So make sure you’ve done the necessary research into your audience so you know exactly who you’re writing for!
Why should someone read what you have to say right now? What will they gain – or lose – if they don’t? Depending on your subject, it won’t always be possible to include this one, but in general, a headline conveying a sense of urgency will almost certainly win over one without.
People like novelty. Remember, there’s no shortage of content and if your headline is no different to all the rest, it won’t get noticed. Do a Google search to scope out your competition. What does your content offer that no one else’s does? Make sure this is included in your headline.
What if your content is the same as all the rest? (And let’s face it, that’s probably quite likely.) Then you need to find a way to present your topic in a manner that hasn’t yet been done in order to make your headline stand out and get your visitors’ attention. For example, you could try using a shocking fact, an unexpected statement, or an unusual twist on your subject. But don’t be gimmicky.
If your headline is not specific enough, how will your readers know whether they will be interested in or will benefit from your content? An ultra-specific headline tells your readers exactly what to expect and gives them enough information to decide whether or not they’re interested in reading on. The more specific your headline, the more useful it will be to your audience (although a specific headline isn’t always useful – which is why ‘useful’ is the most important U of all!).
Above all – your headline must be clear and easy to understand. Don’t try to be clever. Clear headlines get more click-throughs.
13 PROVEN FORMULAS FOR WRITING CLICK-WORTHY HEADLINES
Great copywriters don’t pull winning headlines out of thin air. They use tried and tested formulas that have been proven to work. No matter what topic you’re writing about, you’ll find it a lot easier to craft a click-worthy headline with these formulas:
1. How to [Achieve a Desired Outcome]
2. [Do Something] Like [World-Class Example]
3. The Secret of [Blank]/Little-Known Ways to [Blank]
4. How to [Desired Outcome] Without [Unpleasant Action]
5. Get Rid of [Problem] Once and For All
6. What Everybody Ought to Know About [Blank]
7. Have a [or] Build a [Blank] You Can Be Proud Of
8. [Number] Proven [Actions/Ways] to [Achieve Desired Result]
9. No/Yes, You [Pre-empt Objection] to [Achieve Desired Result]
10. How/This [A Seemingly Inconsequential Action] Could/Will [Undesirable Result]
11. These/This/Find Out Which [Thing] Could/Will [Desired Outcome]
12. [Audience]! Are You [Undesirable/Desirable Outcome]?
13. [Claim That Goes Against What Most People Think is True]
SETTING CLEAR EXPECTATIONS IN YOUR HEADLINE
It’s absolutely vital that what you say in your headline accurately reflects what your visitors are going to find when they click that link. If it doesn’t, they’re going to hit the back button right away, sending your bounce rates rocketing and signalling to Google that your page has been ranked incorrectly. Not good.
Yes, you want lots of people to click through to your content, but you also want them to stay on the other side of the link. And that’s only going to happen if you set clear expectations in your headline.
Avoid the clickbait and make sure your content fulfils the promise that you make in your headline.
So if your headline is “Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Building Muscle”, you’d better make sure that your article or guide really does contain every single thing that people could possibly want to know about building muscle – and more.
One way of setting clear expectations is to use a clarification such as [Infographic], [Podcast] etc., at the end.
In their blog post “How to Write Catchy Headlines and Blog Titles Your Readers Can’t Resist”, HubSpot reported that, in a study of over 3.3 million paid link headlines, those using the above type of clarification performed 38% better than those without.
Here’s an example of a headline that could have done with some clarification:
When you click through to this post you’ll see the following:
At first glance this article appears to consist of just two paragraphs which are supposedly going to tell me “everything I’ve ever wanted to know” about yoghurt. So my immediate response is disappointment because the promise the headline made me has fallen way short. It’s only after several seconds that you realise that this isn’t an article or guide at all. It is in fact, SoundCloud audio content. Which is something the headline could have clarified for me to set my expectations.
For even better expectation setting, the subtitle “including how to make it at home” which appears on the page only after you have clicked the link to view the page is something that could have been included in the meta description.
HOW LONG SHOULD YOUR HEADLINE BE?
This answer to this could fill an entire article in itself. But the short answer is that it depends on what your goals are and where your headline will appear.
Kevin Lee from Buffer wrote an incredibly (long) useful post “The Optimal Length For Every Social Media Update and More”. It’s worth taking the time to read it if you want to discover the optimal length of just about anything you can write online.
Here’s a summary of the post’s key findings on optimal lengths for various platforms:
- Blog headline: 6 words
- Email subject line: 28-39 characters
- SEO title tag: 55 characters
- Twitter: 71–100 characters
- Facebook: 40 characters
You should take into account any character limits before you write your title. For example, you want to make sure that your blog headlines can be seen in full in the search results. In the example below, both Quick Sprout posts cover the same topic, but the first headline is cut off mid-sentence, lessening its impact. The second headline, which is shorter and much more concise, draws attention and sets expectations more effectively, and is seen in full in the search results.
Although you should always try to adhere to the character limits of whichever platform you are using, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for headline lengths.
For example, content discovery platform Outbrain found that headlines with eight words had a 21% higher click-through rate than the average title. That’s more than the six-word recommendation in the above list. So while you can use these findings as a guide, you should consider running your own tests to discover what works best for your audience.
HOW LONG SHOULD YOU SPEND WRITING YOUR HEADLINE?
It’s incredibly easy to get lazy with your headline. When you’ve just spent hours, days, or possibly even weeks creating a great piece of content or copy, the last thing you want to do is spend longer than you have to writing a headline to go with it.
I’d bet that you probably currently spend at most a couple of minutes on your headlines? I’ve been guilty of doing the same at times. But it’s vital to understand that no matter how amazing your content is, it’s useless if no one reads it because your headline totally sucked.
So how long should you be spending on them?
Here’s two different rules you can try out:
The 50/50 Rule
Created by advertising legend David Ogilvy, the 50/50 rule recommends that you should spend 50% of your time writing your headline. Brian Clark from Copyblogger explains it like this:
“According to some of the best copywriters of all time, you should spend half of the entire time it takes to write a piece of persuasive content on the headline. So if you have a blog post that is really important to you or your business, one that you really want people to read, you should downright obsess over your post title.”
Ogilvy knew all about obsessing over headlines. He rewrote the below headline more than 100 times to get it right. It went on to become the most successful ad of all time.
Master copywriter Gene Schwartz would often spend an entire week on the first 50 words of his sales copy – the headline and the opening paragraph. The copywriting greats knew better than anyone that the first words are the most important part of the entire content. If your headline can’t get people to read the first paragraph, and your first paragraph can’t get them to read the second, your message simply will not be heard.
The 25 Rule
Not digging the prospect of spending an entire week on your headline or writing 100 different versions of it? I don’t blame you. I confess, I’ve never actually tried the 50/50 rule myself. I understand how important a headline is… but it just seems like a bit too much effort doesn’t it?! And if that’s coming from a professional copywriter, than I know you’re even more unlikely to follow it than I am!
Still, you should definitely be giving your headlines their due level of importance by spending more than 60 seconds on them.
Here’s an easier (and slightly less time-consuming) one to try from viral content master Upworthy:
Write 25 headlines for every single piece of content – no exceptions.
The above image is from their excellent “How to Make That One Thing Go Viral” Slideshare and if you’re serious about improving your headlines, you need to try this process. Writing 25 different versions of your headline for every piece of content you create sounds like a drag at first (admittedly, I only managed 13 for this article) but as point number 8 above claims, with practice you’ll be cranking out 25 headlines in no time.
BEFORE OR AFTER – WHEN SHOULD YOU WRITE YOUR HEADLINE?
There is much debate over this. Google the question and you’ll even find two different articles from Copyblogger in the top five results, one arguing “Why You Should Always Write Your Headline First”, and the other arguing “Why You Should Always Write Your Headline Last”.
The argument for writing your headline first is that it helps you keep your content focused on the topic at hand – on the promise your headline has made. On the other hand, it’s precisely because your content can grow and develop as you write it (and sometimes even ends up being about something else entirely!) that others argue you should write your headline last.
I always write several draft headlines first, and then finalise and perfect a final one once I’ve completed my copy.
Joanna Wiebe from Copy Hackers gives the best advice I have come across for when to write your headline: “Write a headline first, write the headline last”.
HOW TO FORMAT YOUR HEADLINE TO GET MORE ATTENTION
It’s not all about the words you use. You also need to present your headline in a way that will make it stand out from the others and make people notice it. Here’s how to do that:
- Centre it
- Bold it
- Use a large font (bigger than the rest of your text)
- Use title case (capitalise the first letter of each word)
- Don’t end it with a full stop (which signals your readers to stop reading)
The more people that notice your headline, the more people will read it. And if you’ve written a strong enough headline, the more people you will draw into reading your main piece of content.
RUN YOUR FINISHED HEADLINE THROUGH THIS 8-POINT CHECKLIST
So you’ve finally got your headline. You’re not quite done yet. Before you hit ‘publish’, run it through this checklist (based on everything you’ve learned from this article) to make sure you’ve covered all the important stuff:
- Does it include one or more of the 4 U’s?
- Is it relevant to your target audience?
- Does it set clear expectations for your visitors?
- Does it fit any relevant character limits?
- Is it formatted correctly?
- Is it clear and easy to understand?
- Did you spend enough time writing it?
- Would you click on it if you came across it?
Now try running it through this headline analyser from CoSchedule and see what happens!
Now you’re ready to publish!
And it’s time for me to come up with a good enough headline for this article!