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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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. List.ly 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:
- Forget everything you know about headlines and learn from Upworthy, BuzzFeed and Business Insider
- Write breathless headlines to set the bar for content high.
- Tell people enough to get them interested but not too much that they don’t need to click
- Craft headlines that create an itch you need to scratch
- 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
- Do people want your headline to show in their Facebook or Twitter feed with their name next to it?
- Do your headlines use active language that shows movement and commands attention? Example – Conquer your sugar cravings with this simple step
- The word YOU in headlines let readers know they’re important.
- Headlines that have 4 to 9 words make for compelling titles for skimmers and scanners.
- Don’t have a sense of action or dynamism in your title? Add a verb
- Add words to your title that make it stand out and convey its fit for your audience. Example – XYZ launches productivity app for entrepreneurs
- Add mystery and emotion to your headlines to tease people to click. Example – XYZ Gets Investment By Branson to Launch Productivity App for Entrepreneurs.
- Write a headline that tells the reader what the post is about
- Google has stopped telling us what keywords work so stop obsessing over exact matches
- Cosmopolitan Magazine has been using numbered headlines since the ’60s. Why? Because they work.
- Create shareable headlines by answering questions or giving information that the reader cares about.
- Headlines that help readers feel, hear, see, taste or smell engages more brain power and attention.
- Addressing mistakes or fears in headlines make people curious, compelling them to check if they’re not making the same mistakes.
- Insert intrigue in your headlines with unusual words or unexpected contrast like shockingly good.
- Deliciously seductive headlines also use the power of lust and being irresistible.
- Evoke emotion by appealing to the 2 key drivers of behavior: achieving pleasure or avoiding pain.
- 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 Boostblogtraffic.com 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.
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.
Headlines that tug, question,offend or humor us enough to make us stop, click, look and share.
How to write headlines and test for powerful yet shareable titles that sell?
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.
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.