Are Your Headlines Missing These Precise Psychological Triggers?

how to write headlines

how to write headlines

Have you been told that in learning how to write headlines – the process is more of an art form? Well it is more science than art.

Here’s why.

No matter what kind of website or blog you have, you do need to write headlines. It’s the headlines that are always really important.


They are the first thing that make an impression on your readers. Without a compelling promise that turns a browser into a reader, the rest of your content may not as well exist.  Headlines affect conversions, SEO, readability and engagement. So from a content, content marketing or even a copywriting stand point the one essential skill needed is that of being able to write great headlines that entice your audience to find out more.

Still not quite convinced? Consider this

The headline accounts for 50% to 75% of an ad’s success.

Only 20% of people will read an entire post while 80% just read the headline copy.

The difference between a good headline and a bad headline can be as much as 500%.


Answer this quickly – when you look at an email or a website for the first time, what attracts you to articles you click on and actually read.

I am pretty sure your answer would be because of the headline or the subject line (assuming that the author did not play a significant factor or was unknown to you). It is worth putting in the time and effort into crafting a great catchy headline. Companies like the Huffington post, Upworthy and Buzzfeed certainly do take the time to get it right.

What do you want your headline to accomplish?

There is no perfect headline but in learning how to write headlines, you need to look at what you want your headline to achieve. What your headline achieves is going to be based on 3 key elements.

1. Your objective

2. Your audience

3. The platform on which the headline will be promoted


Let’s look at these 3 elements by asking the right questions.

Your objective or the question what do you want your headline to do for you?

Your headline can be created for SEO purposes, to boost your social presence or even to convert browsers to become part of your audience or community. Which ever the case, you will need to decide accordingly whether to insert viral or linkbait elements, long tail keywords or conversion generating language.

Your audience or who is the headline meant to address?

Content always needs to be written with the audience at the forefront of your mind. Who are they and what are their likes and dislikes? What do they gravitate towards and how do they think? What are their hobbies and interests?

You need to know how to write headlines that targets them in much the same way as a personal letter does to an individual.

Finally ask where am I going to promote this post?

This has to do with the platforms on which the headline and post is going to be promoted. Twitter for example has a 140 character limit which would prevent long headlines from being posted. Google+, Facebook and Instagram posts do better with image embeds.


Why do your headlines fail?

Think about this. As you read your email, browse a site and documents, what determines what you read or what parts you read?

Yes, it’s headlines.

So headlines are really nothing other than attention grabbing statements. No matter what you do in sales, marketing or advertising this is a skill you will need.

You may have read that you need to create engaging headlines but what does that really mean?

Simply this – it needs to disturb or move a persons brain to cause them to want to know more by highlighting an information gap.

The best way to ensure your headlines don’t fail is to understand the psychological reasons as to why headlines work.

how to write headlines

3 psychological triggers that can help create better headlines

These psychological triggers can help us learn how to write better headlines. Let’s examine them.

Question based headlines

When tested, a question like -

“Do you know where you fail in your financial strategy?”

gets much more attention than a question like -

“This is where you are failing in your financial strategy.”

So why does the brain react differently when faced with a question based headline.

Because the questions cause the brain to shift gear. The sight of a question mark literally forces the brain to want to know more due to the information gap that it believes exists.

Problem based headlines

Consider questions like -

“Is the time your computer takes to boot up driving you crazy?”


“Is your investment portfolio missing out on a vital tax benefit?”

These questions combine the power of a question but also bring to the fore in your brain, an unresolved problem or pain point. So if you find your brain is taking you down a path that you had not intended a minute ago its because the headline is causing you some real grief and you are the intended audience.

The fact is you identify with the problem and are keen to solve it. The survival instinct has kicked in and the brain becomes fixated on solving the problem. See part of the brains function is to keep you alive and solve problems. When it sees the problem in the headline, the brain makes a beeline for the article in an attempt to solve it.

So using a problem and question based combination in writing headlines is more likely to make your headlines succeed.

Curiosity based headlines

The headline to this article is - Are Your Headlines Missing These Precise Psychological Triggers?

The word these implies there are certain triggers, and how will you know which ones they are if you don’t read it. Even if you are an expert on the topic, there is no way you’ll know you that you haven’t missed anything unless you read on.

A skillful communicator knows that he or she must get enough of the curiosity factor into the headline to suck in their audience. Once that’s done your ability to keep the audience engaged and mesmerized boils down to the quality of your content and the way the content flows to keep their attention.

Curiosity works because as people we are intensely curious. Our brain needs questions to be answered or else they rattle around in our heads. It is what keeps us glued to puzzles, games and book or even magazines for great lengths of time. But despite the intensity it can develop, the emotion can be quite fickle and is often mishandled in copywriting. It is easy to make a mistake and loose your audiences attention.

George Lowenstein, a psychology and economics professor conducted research and discovered that a combination of the following were required to trigger a high level of curiosity.


1. Violate the right expectations

The headline which reads:

Increase conversions by driving more traffic than other people

Doesn’t really give us reason to pause as it fits in with our expectations. The headline quite simply makes sense and leaves nothing to the imagination.


How to increase conversions 60% with 3 simple website tweaks

Violates expectations by suggesting something simple that can create dramatic results.

You have probably already come across websites like Copyblogger and Buzzfeed that routinely violate expectations in their headlines. There is something in the headlines that readers do not expect creating disorder in one’s brain which requires investigation to find answers and restore sense and meaning.

Curiosity headlines are difficult to write because it isn’t enough to turn something on its head and expect your reader to take action. The right expectations need to be violated.

The way to do that is by highlighting a gap in someones knowledge particularly when it relates to a topic that is of interest to them.

For example Amy Porterfield’s readers are interested in becoming better Facebook advertisers and marketers so that they can attract more traffic, subscribers, links and profits. So if Amy ran a headline like:

How Your Advertising Is Like an 8 Foot Pineapple

It might violate expectations. However most readers probably won’t feel like they can’t live without this knowledge.

However if she ran a headline like:

 Why Bad Advertisers Are Eating Your Lunch and What To do About It

Would this be more successful?

It would be more effective because:

  • It violates that expectation that bad advertisers can be successful and make profits
  • It suggests that advertisers who don’t know it all know something that you don’t which may hamper your own success
  • It promises a benefit – solving this problem for you.

david ogilvy quote

2. Tickling the information gap with curiosity

Curiosity is a fickle emotion even if you violate the right expectations.

You need to stop your reader from thinking that this is probably because of X, Y and Z and I know that already.

To keep a readers curiosity, Lowenstein suggests using feedback to quash this thought before it arises.

Tests revealed that most people think they know more than they actually do. So the last thing you want is to loose readers who think they know what you’re going to tell them.

For example, a Amy Porterfield reader who sees this headline:

7 Facebook Advertising Lessons You Can Learn

Might assume that they already know those 7 Facebook advertising lessons and so may not feel compelled to read the article.


7 Facebook Advertising Lessons You Can Learn From a Weird “Real World” Business

Is going to be more effective for her audience. Why?

There is the use of a curiosity inducing word of “weird” which will get people thinking that this will violate expectations.

The words “real world” indicates that this maybe new or unexpected for an online audience.

Finally the headline seems to say to people who have expertise – that you may know a lot, but you don’t know this. This allows the curiosity emotion to really peak and compell readers to devour the post.

3. Knowing when to stop

Lowenstein discovered that the emotion of curiosity peaks and declines if left unsatisfied for too long.

A common problem in sales copy is believing that readers will stay interested forever.

It’s true that your headline is important in getting the attention of your reader, but it doesn’t guarantee continued interest.

The headline should get the reader to read the first line and each line thereafter should get the reader to read on to the next line until the end.

So how does this work for online copy? Regardless of whether you are writing a sales page or a blog post, your opening paragraph needs to acknowledge the curiosity you highlighted in your headline. You don’t need to reveal everything up front but telling them to read on to the end of the post to discover what they want to know can edge them on into the body of the copy. You can then rely less on curiosity and more on benefits, rich imagery coupled with storytelling to keep their attention and encourage them to take action.


How to create powerful irresistibly gorgeous head turning headlines?

how to write headlines

Traditionally there have been 5 types of headlines called high level headline types.

1. Normal or News – This is used in traditional newspapers and magazines with a title like – Ways to make Brussels Sprouts More Delightful for Kids.

2. Question – This as we have covered above have been used with the assumption that it will the readers attention long enough for him or her to read the article and their question answered. An example would be – What are ways to make Brussels Sprouts Delightful for Kids.

3. How to – this headline takes the problem solution approach and does work well. In fact WikiHow and eHow are built on this how to idea. Example – How to make Brussels Sprouts More Delightful for Kids.

4. Number – the numbered headline is still quite popular and sites like Buzzfeed continue to use it with great effect. Example – 23 Ways to Make Brussels Sprouts More Delightful for Kids.

5. Reader-Addressing – these headlines addresses the readers alleged needs and quite often start with a “why”. Example – Ways You Need to Make Brussels Sprouts More Delightful for Kids.

Conductor conducted tests on these high-level headlines and found that -


36% of respondents preferred headlines containing numbers. This rate goes up to 39% for women.

Takeaway: use a combination of a list and related number where appropriate. is a great tool to help with this.

21% of respondents preferred headlines that literally talk to them.

Takeway: Craft headlines that use the word “You”, thereby addressing your audience. Just remember there is a caveat which is that your content must be written in the second person.

17% of respondents preferred headlines that show them how to do something.

Takeaway: This is a popular way that people use to search for information, so craft your headline to attract potential readers interested in learning from you.


So how do you craft a headline guaranteed to maximize readership and shares?

Here are 22 tips on how to write headlines in 140 characters or less:


  1. Forget everything you know about headlines and learn from Upworthy, BuzzFeed and Business Insider
  2. Write breathless headlines to set the bar for content high.
  3. Tell people enough to get them interested but not too much that they don’t need to click
  4. Craft headlines that create an itch you need to scratch
  5. Readers like to be told what they’re going to feel by a headline. Example – Finally, Pictures Of Gorgeous Women That Make You Feel Better About Yourself Instead Of Worse 
  6. Do people want your headline to show in their Facebook or Twitter feed with their name next to it?
  7. Do your headlines use active language that shows movement and commands attention? Example – Conquer your sugar cravings with this simple step
  8. The word YOU in headlines let readers know they’re important.
  9. Headlines that have 4 to 9 words make for compelling titles for skimmers and scanners.
  10. Don’t have a sense of action or dynamism in your title? Add a verb
  11. Add words to your title that make it stand out and convey its fit for your audience. Example – XYZ launches productivity app for entrepreneurs
  12. Add mystery and emotion to your headlines to tease people to click. Example – XYZ Gets Investment By Branson to Launch Productivity App for Entrepreneurs.
  13. Write a headline that tells the reader what the post is about
  14. Google has stopped telling us what keywords work so stop obsessing over exact matches
  15. Cosmopolitan Magazine has been using numbered headlines since the ’60s. Why? Because they work.
  16. Create shareable headlines by answering questions or giving information that the reader cares about.
  17. Headlines that help readers feel, hear, see, taste or smell engages more brain power and attention.
  18. Addressing mistakes or fears in headlines make people curious, compelling them to check if they’re not making the same mistakes.
  19. Insert intrigue in your headlines with unusual words or unexpected contrast like shockingly good.
  20. Deliciously seductive headlines also use the power of lust and being irresistible.
  21. Evoke emotion by appealing to the 2 key drivers of behavior: achieving pleasure or avoiding pain.
  22. Earn friend status with headlines that show your reader you care and understand them.


Perhaps the best tips come from those who consistently come up with winning headlines. Upworthy and Jon Morrow fit the bill.

Upworthy has had quite a bit of success by following 3 headline rules.

1. Spend 50% of your content creation time on headlines. A focus on headlines drives the way the rest of the content will be presented. “People put way too much emphasis on the specifics of the piece of content and not enough on the packaging. We’ve seen the case where a headline made the difference between 1,000 views and 1 million views,” says Koechley.

2. Craft headlines worthy of appearing on your audiences social feed with their name next to it. Jay Baer says that in todays world we are competing not just against other businesses and media companies but also against your audiences social circles. The headlines need to be personal, engaging and informal.

3. Craft headlines that evoke the strong emotion you decide upon. Eli Pariser from Upworthy says that the key to viral content is really due to the fact that -

“a huge part of sharing is being passionate about something, about shedding light on what really matters.”


Jon Morrow of has a 3 point checklist to craft and test whether headlines are powerful. Jon himself has writtern 3 blog posts that have generated over 1 million views each. How to Quit Your job, Move to Paradise, and Get Paid to Change the World was the most popular blog post on Problogger. Its easy to see why – who wouldn’t want to do all 3 of those things?


1. Answer not ask WIIIFM (Whats In It For Me). In other words does the headline answer what the reader is looking for and not what you want to talk about?

2. Does it pass the 2am test. What keeps your reader up at 2:00 am in the morning? Focus on their pain, problems, challenges and frustrations.

3. Use power words. Power words or words that engage a persons emotions and feelings will compel readers to want to know more. Jon has a list of power words which is a good place to stimulate your thinking when crafting titles.


Learning from trends: Going from traditional headlines to emotional headlines


More recently though a new headline trend has emerged which combines emotion as well as intrigue.

These are headlines that Viral Nova and the like use and use first person style and shock value language to make you want to click.

how to write headlines

A blog post headline on Viral Nova

Viral Nova in the space of a few months has used emotional intrigue headlines to acquire more than 100,000,000 unique visitors. The site leverages social media platforms like Facebook, Reddit and Twitter to leverage viral activity, but it is the headlines that serve as the basis for such activity. The Atlantic was able to get a screenshot of their analytics as shown below.


viralnova analytics

Screenshot of ViralNova analytics


Headlines that tug, question,offend or humor us enough to make us stop, click, look and share.

how to write headlines like viralnova

ViralNova headline examples


How to write headlines and test for powerful yet shareable titles that sell?

david ogilvy quote on how to write headlines

There are a number of ways to learn how to write headlines but perhaps the one most important lesson we can learn from Upworthy is to test for powerful yet shareable headlines that resonate with your audience. 

If you are wondering whether the post and possible headline will be of interest to your audience then perhaps we can learn from Andrew Chen.

This is how he validates the topics of his posts and potential headlines as well. (Tip: A tool like Buffer will help provide the scheduling of tweets and analytics you need for these tests)

Step 1: Tweet an insight, quote or idea

Step 2: See how many retweets you get

Step 3: If it reaches the minimum viable number, then write a post elaborating on the topic.


Now if you are testing for headlines here is how you can simply employ some A/B testing.

Step 1. Create 2 headlines that you believe will perform well.

Step 2. Tweet the headlines at roughly the same time once a day and across different times of the day. (Tip: You can use Tweriod in conjunction with Buffer to help determine the best times to tweet out to your audience)

Step 3. Compare the number of retweets and favorites to decide on the headline.

You can employ the same tests on other platforms like Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn.


Headline time

Now its your turn. What sort of headlines have worked well for you? What is a surefire way to trigger your audiences curiosity? Are there headlines that you have clicked on only to come away disappointed? Have you used similar methods with success? Let us know in the comments below.

Also please do share this post with your marketing, copywritter or blogger friends and colleagues. To get more insights and learn how to write headlines and copy which convert prospects subscribe to the free Sproutworth updates here.

Photo Credits: Derek E-Jay , WillVision Photography

How to Increase Online Sales with the Psychology of Scarcity

psychology of scarcity as applied on Threadless

increase online sales

What if you could make one simple tweak to your business and saw an immediate increase online sales? How would you feel?

That’s a silly question, I know. It would feel great.

In fact you would probably use it straight away. Right?

Right! Who doesn’t want to be able to increase customer desire and sales?

Before we get into the how we increase online sales, let’s get a better understanding of human behavior in order to understand how people respond to scarcity and abundance.(Photo Credit: armigeress)

Researchers Worchel, Lee and Adewole in 1975 conducted an experiment to see how people would value cookies in 2 identical glass jars. The only difference was that one jar had 10 cookies while the other had 2. The results showed that people valued the ones in the near empty jar more. It seems the scarcity of cookies had somehow affected the participants perception of value.

The result could be attributed to the possibility that people who chose cookies from the near empty jar were thinking that others know something that they didn’t and hence is the yummier choice. In reality there may be more to it.

Context is vital to increase online sales with the psychology of scarcity

Much like the above example marketers are becoming increasingly aware that context matters just as much as the product itself. The near empty jar of cookies conveys valuable information to consumers.

Joshua Bell increase onlines sales experiment

Joshua Bell

Joshua Bell a famous violinist decided to play a free impromptu concert in the Washington DC subway. Bell usually sells out venues like Carnegie Hall with ticket prices going for hundreds of dollars. However in the context of the subway station, people ignored one of the most gifted violinists in the world despite his free performance. Few people stopped to listen. However in the context of a music hall or theater, his music is treated like a rarefied commodity with thousands of people vying for tickets. (Photo credit)

Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Sharif authors of the book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much say that -

“Scarcity captures the mind”. It promotes tunnel vision, helping us focus on the crisis at hand but making us “less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled”. Wise long-term decisions and willpower require cognitive resources. Poverty leaves far less of those resources at our disposal.

Their most arresting claim is that the same effects kick in – albeit not always with such grave implications – in any conditions of scarcity, not just lack of money. Chronically busy people, suffering from a scarcity of time, also demonstrate impaired abilities and make self-defeating choices, such as unproductive multi-tasking or neglecting family for work. Lonely people, suffering from a scarcity of social contact, become hyper-focused on their loneliness, prompting behaviours that render it worse. In one sense, Mullainathan and Shafir concede, scarcity is so ubiquitous as to be almost meaningless. But the feeling of scarcity – of not having as much of something as you believe you need – is something more specific and agonising. To use the authors’ favourite metaphor, life under such conditions is like packing a tiny suitcase for a trip. It entails a ceaseless focus on difficult trade-offs: the umbrella or the extra sweater?


So how can the principle of scarcity be used to increase online sales in a business context?

Simply by creating an environment that promotes temporary tunnel vision. As humans we generally attribute the following emotions and narrow time frames when we encounter scarcity:

  • Hate missed opportunities
  • Give more value to things that are rare or things we cannot have
  • Love having control over circumstances
  • Love instant gratification or having things happen now
  • Examples of companies applying the psychology of scarcity

While Facebook is used by over a billion people today, in the early days the founder of Facebook, according to this video intended to keep the service available to college kids alone. While the scarcity strategy may not have been intentional it did work in helping increase the appeal of having and using a Facebook account in the early days.

Threadless incorporates scarcity in its live stock indicator which runs under each size available. In fact the company is known to produce just enough of its limited runs of products available so as not leave regular customers disappointed but gives plenty of warning if a t-shirt is selling fast.

psychology of scarcity as applied on Threadless

The psychology of scarcity as applied on a Threadless product page

Threadless does a great job of trying to keep frustration and disappointment out of its scarcity marketing by providing so much choice that it would be hard not to find something that appealed to your tastes and to email (those who sign up for the service) people as soon as a t-shirt they missed out on is back in production.

Quibb founded by Sandi MacPherson is also another example of a company that has applied the scarcity heuristic quite effectively. Quibb is an online discussion board that is frequently visited by a select number of technology professionals and entrepreneurs. Sandi MacPherson decides who gets access and who doesn’t. It is the exclusive nature of this community that appeals to people. It is a community that was designed to filter out the noise in open communities like Reddit and Hacker News whilst allowing people of noteworthy reputations to communicate with each other. The scarcity of the invites is a virtue of the service.

Scarcity can go wrong for businesses

The above are examples of the scarcity heuristic applied to increase customer desire and in turn increase onlines sales and signups. However if the psychology of scarcity is applied incorrectly it can go horribly wrong.

Mailbox and Tempo are 2 examples of just this. Both companies produced iOS apps that are productivity related and released the apps to a small group of users. However if you weren’t at the front of the line then you had to wait indefinitely before you could possibly get access. These users who had to wait took out their frustration on the companies by writing poor reviews even though they had never actually used the app.

To these potential customers the scarcity tactics of Mailbox and Tempo backfired. The companies tried to address the issue by providing reasons of technical limitations due to load testing. However to the potential users the message they were hearing was this is being available to those that the company views as important and the rest of you will just have to wait.

The difference with Facebook and Quibb was that the products started out as scarce and the companies ensured the perception that the service would remain so.

Why did it go so wrong? Why does scarcity increase customer desire in certain cases and make customers livid in others?

The second part of the cookie jar study in 1975 holds some clues. In this part of the experiment researchers wanted to know what would happen to people’s perception of the cookies if they suddenly became scarce or abundant.

Participants in the study were given either a jar of 10 cookies or a jar of 2 cookies. People with the jar of 10 cookies then suddenly had 8 taken away. Those who were given the jar with 2 cookies had 8 more added to their jars. The study showed that people’s perception mirrored the scarcity heuristic. Those who initially got the jar with 2 cookies rated them to be more valuable. However those who got more eight cookies and experiencing sudden abundance valued the cookies the least, in fact they valued them lower than those who started with 10 cookies in the first place.

In other words the study showed that a product can decrease in perceived value if it starts off as scarce then becomes abundant.

How can you apply the psychology of scarcity to increase customer desire in your business?

Here are a few examples.

If you have a SaaS business or an app development business, then you would need to justify your scarcity and ensure that you do not expand to the masses in order to reinforce the scarcity perception. Employ scarcity to reinforce trust with your users not break their trust. A unique way you could use this is to release it to a handful of people and give them the power to invite others to join. Google did this with Google Plus. Access was limited at first and effect it had on people who were in was that they felt like they had power because they could invite whoever they wanted. For those who were left out, it was like being left out of the party making them want to get in even more. So much so that people end up begging for an invite even before they know what the product is about or how it works.

If you have an e-commerce store then having time limited special offers on select products may be the way to go. However doing this on a regular basis can destroy the sense of expectation and desire that customers with the initial offers.

A service based company could offer a specialized personally tailored service to those who meet certain criteria much like the HSBC Premier account level of service.

The key takeaway in applying scarcity to your business to increase online sales is that you need to determine the best way to apply it and how often to apply it by taking into consideration your customer expectations. For example a daily deal site like Groupon sets the expectation of a discount environment.

Groupon deal

An example of a Groupon deal

People who sign up know what they are going to receive and Groupon works with retailers to deliver just that. However this won’t work for a real estate agency as it would raise questions about the quality of the properties they are selling. The last thing you want to do is abuse this technique because it will damage trust and once you loose their trust your audience won’t listen to you.

Scarcity increases customer desire because it forces action. You can’t really be a fence sitter if the product is not going to be available tomorrow. In other words, if you want it, you have to take action now. Consumers quite easily tend to put off buying something until later. They come up with endless reasons like – I don’t need this now, I ‘ll buy it when I have time or when I get my tax return etc. Procrastination is one of their biggest reasons, so you need to provide them with a reason to take action now.

People are continually faced with the daily emotions and challenges of life. A good marketer however knows how to sell to people using emotions. You cannot please everyone all of the time but if you consider your product or service as having the potential to make a positive impact on peoples lives, then you owe it to yourself to use psychology and the selling techniques available to you.

Applying the psychology of scarcity sends a powerful signal, at the same time ending scarcity also sends a powerful signal, so don’t switch from scarcity to abundance without careful consideration.

Over to you…

How will you apply the psychology of scarcity to increase online sales or sign ups on your blog or business? What challenges have you encountered in applying scarcity? Let us know in the comments below.

Also please tweet or share this post with your friends and colleagues who could benefit from an increase in sales.

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