Have you ever heard the phrase “scan the headlines.” It’s a dated reference — you know, back when we actually unfolded newspapers on the breakfast table — but it’s still relevant. If you don’t use the best techniques for writing headlines, you risk turning off your reader.
Here’s what you need to know to make your headlines sing.
Headline Statistics and Curious Facts
Every day, businesses, organizations, and individuals publish 2 million blog posts collectively. That’s a ton of content.
It’s also a ton of competition.
Furthermore, only 20 percent of your readers, on average, will make it past the headline. If the headline copy doesn’t grab them, they’ll click away in search of juicier content.
Finally, headlines can influence traffic by as much as 500 percent. Let’s say that you currently drive 10,000 unique users to your website per day. What if you could increase that number by 500 percent?
You’d get 50,000 visitors instead.
What is Headline Writing?
Headline writing is the process of crafting a compelling headline that communicates a distinct benefit to the consumer. Many writers spend more time on their headlines than any other piece of copy.
And for good reason.
Your headline’s like the gateway to your content. It appears in search results, links, social shares, and more. If it doesn’t entice the reader to click, it hasn’t done its job.
How to Maximize Results With a Great Headline
If you struggle to apply techniques for writing headlines, you’re not alone. Many times, the right headline doesn’t come to me right away.
However, I also use tools to help me grab my readers’ attention. Hello Bar, for instance, allows you to maximize the visual impact of a given headline.
For instance, you can make your Hello Bar whatever size you wish. Sometimes, bigger really is better because it grabs your readers’ attention.
Consider A/B testing different sizes, and let Hello Bar calculate the results of the test for you.
It’s important to consider several factors before you even start to write your headline, which means it might take some effort. Following are a few to consider.
Study your audience
The more you know about your audience, the more effective your headlines become. Do they like listicles (articles based on a list of items, tips, strategies, etc.)? Q&As? Tutorials?
Review the traffic to all blog posts you’ve written in the last six months. Look for patterns. You might find, for instance, that you get the most clicks when your headline includes a number or statistic.
Share personal benefits
Headlines perform best when they convey a personal benefit to the reader. In other words, what can the reader take away from the rest of the content?
This is why listicles work so well:
- 11 Ways to Shed Weight Quickly
- 15 Steps to Become a Better Runner
- 7 New Strategies for Healthy Cooking
In each of these examples, the benefit and the takeaway are present in the title.
Follow the 4 U’s
Acronyms might seem cheesy, but they work — not least of all because they’re easy to remember.
The 4 U’s of writing effective headlines are pretty simple:
Make sure nobody else has used a headline like yours. Not only will you struggle to compete in the SERPs, but if someone has already read your competition’s article, they probably won’t click on yours.
It’s easy to craft a unique headline if you know the content that already exists. Run Google searches for permutations of your primary keyword. When you write your own headline, make sure it doesn’t look similar to those in the search engine results pages.
Consider using unique words, too. They shouldn’t be too obscure — you want to get your message across — but consider using a word that wouldn’t normally be paired with the content you’ve created.
One of the best techniques for writing headlines is to drill down on your topic as tightly as possible. It’s kind of like narrowing your niche. You want to let the reader know exactly what he or she will get.
Consider these two headlines:
- How to Run a Marathon
- 77 Steps to Running Your First Marathon in High Humidity
The second one is far more specific, right? It tells the reader what will be delivered and narrows down the subject matter to show that it isn’t going to contain fluff and filler.
Don’t be afraid of using extra words. If you keep your headline to about 77 characters or fewer, you’ll do fine.
This sounds obvious, but if you scan many of the headlines on some of today’s blogs, you’ll see that it isn’t. Many creatives get a little too creative with their headlines — and confuse their readers in the process.
Furthermore, every piece of content you write should have a specific purpose. It needs to tell a story, provide value, and allow your reader to accomplish something, whether it’s reaching a goal or solving a problem.
Urgency is a marketer’s best friend. If you can convince your reader that he or she needs to act now, you’ll have done your job well.
Time-bound headlines can work well, but only for a short period of time. For instance, Black Friday articles often pop up in droves in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. Articles like these enjoy only seasonal popularity.
However, you can incorporate urgency into the article’s goal. Check out a few examples:
- How to Prep for Your First Marathon in 6 Weeks
- Why You Should Start Training for Your Marathon Today
- 17 Runners’ Tips You’ve Been Missing Out On
These headlines entice clicks because the reader wants to know what he or she is missing.
15 Effective Techniques for Writing Headlines That Are Proven to Work
Now that we’ve covered some of the basics, let’s dive into the good stuff. Learning new techniques for writing headlines can help you become a better writer all around.
For instance, you can use these same strategies on your subheadings and even in your body copy. They can help keep your readers moving through the piece until the very end, which improves metrics like time on page.
Following are 15 effective techniques for writing headlines that work.
1. Use strong words on your headlines
Believe it or not, words can be classified as strong or weak. The difference depends on the impact the word has on the reader.
Study the headlines of the articles you enjoy most. What words did the author include in the headline? And in what order?
You’ll start to pick out patterns in the best headlines. They use strong verbs that convey action, motion, and achievement. They also eliminate stop words (words like of, for, nor, a, the, etc.) unless they’re necessary for the headline to make sense.
2. Make creative and bold statements when writing a headline
There’s no reason to put your creativity on a leash when you’re writing headlines. In fact, I find writing easier when I don’t censor myself at all.
Feel free to make a bold or controversial statement. Maybe your opinion differs from the other movers and shakers in your industry. Don’t be afraid to take a stand.
You can also use the negative approach to garner clicks. For instance, I could have changed this title to the following: Why You’re Not Writing Good Headlines.” In other words, tell your readers what they’re doing wrong — and how to fix it.
3. Ask a funny or uncommon question
“How Many Headlines Can You Write in an Hour?”
That’s a great headline for an article on this kind of topic. It gets the creative juices flowing not just for the reader, but also for the writer.
“Why Do Your Headlines Suck So Much?”
That’s another one that incorporates a dollop of humor. Just make sure you don’t offend your audience if you employ sarcasm or wit as part of your headline.
4. Use interesting adjectives that people will remember
Lots of writing experts argue against using adjectives. I beg to differ. Adjectives are meant to clarify the noun in a headline or sentence. They can also add color and interest.
Let’s look at one of our headline examples from above: “17 Runners’ Tips You’ve Been Missing Out On”
How can we spiff this up and make it more compelling for readers.
I might change it to this: “17 No-Nonsense Runners’ Tips You’ve Been Missing Out On”
It suggests that the article will be filled with valuable, actionable material. I could trade out that adjective for many others:
- 17 Fascinating Runners’ Tips You’ve Been Missing Out On
- 17 Foolproof Runners’ Tips You’ve Been Missing Out On
- 17 Actionable Runners’ Tips You’ve Been Missing Out On
Each of these adjectives help clarify the noun “tips” for the reader.
5. Use superlatives when suitable
Superlatives (words indicating the best, highest, greatest, etc.) can make or break your headline. If you use them when they’re not applicable, you’ll generate more eye rolls than clicks. However, if you can back up your statement, go forth and use superlatives.
- 17 Best Runners’ Tips You’ve Been Missing Out On
- 17 Most Effective Runners’ Tips You’ve Been Missing Out On
- 17 Hottest Runners’ Tips You’ve Been Missing Out On
6. Be concise to write a powerful headline
Writers — especially newbies — sometimes produce verbose copy. That’s fine, but when you’ve finished your first draft, go through and pare down the verbiage.
Let’s look at two examples of passages I might write for our fictional article about marathon running:
- In order to stay in shape, you need to run a minimum of at least three days out of the week. On another two days, focus on keeping your body limber through stretching.
- To stay in shape, run a minimum of three days per week. On two days, focus on stretching instead to stay limber.
In these examples, we have a wordy passage (number one) and a more concise one (number two). I edited 33 words down to 22.
How? For the most part, I removed unnecessary phrases. “In order to” becomes merely “To.” I didn’t need to say “a minimum of” and “at least” because they say the same thing. I removed unnecessary words and rephrased to make the second sentence clearer.
This is never more true than when you’re crafting your headline. An overlong or wordy headline will either confuse or irritate your readers. They might not even understand what you’re trying to communicate.
7. Create urgency in your headline
Urgency. It’s like a magic wand you wave in front of your audience. When executed correctly, urgency leaves readers with no choice but to click.
Urgent headlines can come in many forms, such as the following:
- You Can Start a New Business in 2 Weeks or Less. Here’s How.
- Learn the Fastest Way to Shed Baby Weight Safely
- I’m Sharing My Best [Topic] Secrets. Limited Time Only.
It works best for an article that can help your reader accomplish something faster. You’re offering shortcuts, workarounds, or better strategies.
In the last example, I’m teasing a revelation. People who don’t click right now won’t get to learn my secrets.
8. Incite readers’ curiosity with your headline
BuzzFeed does this really well. The publication has recently featured headlines like these:
- Choose Your Favorite Breakfast Foods And We’ll Reveal If You’re A Jedi Or A Sith
- This Person Got Totally Duped By The Online Photos Of A Hotel They Booked And People Can’t Stop Laughing
- Can You Figure Out The Deep Meaning Behind This Comic About Social Media?
The headlines work because they inspire curiosity. The content itself might not be life-changing, but the headline gets the click.
You can do the same with more serious pieces by asking an evocative question:
- What Type of Runner Are You?
- Which of These Marathon Training Mistakes Are You Making?
- We Trained for a Marathon in 3 Weeks. Here’s What Happened.
9. Create humor playing with some words
Did you ever watch the HBO television series “True Blood”? When vampire Bill Compton tells Sookie the name of the vampire bar in Shreveport — Fangtasia — she does an eye roll.
Compton replies, “You have to remember that most vampires are very old. Puns used to be the highest form of humor.”
Far be it for me to disagree with a fictional vampire, but puns are still funny. And they still work in headlines.
If you can turn your headline into a play on words, you’ll incite immediate curiosity.
10. Include a hyphen on colon in your headline
Yes, punctuation matters! It sounds silly, but it can drive reader interest. It might also help with SEO.
You’ll notice that the headline for this article uses a colon. You could also replace it with a hyphen or em-dash to get the same effect.
Let’s look at three headlines:
- Training For Your First Marathon: The Complete Guide
- Training For Your First Marathon — The Complete Guide
- The Complete Guide to Training For Your First Marathon
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the last headline. However, it won’t grab the reader as quickly.
We focus on the first part of a headline. So does Google. If you can get the primary keyword at the beginning of the headline, you have a better chance for clicks and better rankings.
Essentially, hyphens and colons allow you to break up your headline into two parts. You can communicate more information that way and arrange your headline for both reader interest and SEO.
11. Use rationale — a strong reason to click
A rationale is simply an inducement to click. It gives the reader an excuse to see what the article has to offer.
You find rationale words in many listicles and tutorials. Some of the most common include the following:
- Tips: 17 Tips for Better Marathon Performance
- Strategies: 17 Strategies to Improve Your Marathon Time
- Lessons: 17 Lessons You Can Learn From Famous Runners
- Ways: 17 Ways to Improve Your Running Times
- Types: 17 Types of Running Exercises to Try
- Times: 17 Times Famous Runners Have Surprised Us
12. Make your headline simple and easy to understand
While puns and adjectives can make headlines more clickable, you don’t want to go overboard. When in doubt, keep it short, sweet, and simple.
In other words, communicate a benefit to the reader and the reason you’re writing the article. That’s it. If it takes 10 words, that’s fine. If it only takes four words, that’s fine, too.
13. Address the reader as “you”
You’ve heard of personalized marketing, right? It’s a way to make every communication with your followers feel like it’s meant just for them.
You might include your subscribers’ first names in your mass emails to them, for example. Your email sounds less like a marketing message and more like a missive from a friend.
For instance, if you’re educating people about marathon running, your email subject line could look like one of these:
- How to Train For Your Next Marathon
- Are You Ready to Start Training For That Marathon?
The second one is more inviting, right? It’s more casual, and it sounds like it’s written just for the recipient.
However, you don’t need first names to personalize a headline. Just use the word “you.” Even though it’s meant for public consumption, it sends the subtle message that it’s for that particular reader alone.
14. Include specific numbers and data in your headline
Numbers are kind of like magic for headlines. They automatically attract attention.
My business partner, Neil Patel, recently published an article about how much he’s spending on YouTube ads:
That’s a big number, right? It catches your attention right away.
Statistics can serve the same purpose. For instance, if you have the data, you could write an article with one of these headlines:
- Why 68 percent of runners hate [brand name] shoes
- Did you know that 89 percent of runners use this stretch before every run?
- Study finds that only 20 percent of runners have knee problems
15. Telegraph emotions with your headlines
Making your readers feel a deep emotion in just a few words is tough, but it can be done. It’s much easier if you’re writing about an emotive topic.
For instance, let’s say you want to write about runners’ safety out on the road. You could write an article about wearing safety gear, using reflective badges, and other tips.
Your headline can seal the deal: “Runners, You Don’t Have to Get Run Over. Read On to Protect Yourself.”
It sparks emotion. Nobody wants to get run over during a run. They also want to protect their friends and family members who run.
Headline Writing Metrics
When it comes to headlines, the same formulas or strategies won’t work on every audience. You have to figure out what your specific readership responds to best.
Maybe your audience devours listicles. Deliver what they want to read.
But first you have to examine the data. Following are three metrics you should follow when employing techniques for writing headlines.
More clicks or page views
Clicks and page views tell you how well your headline works. People won’t click or visit if they aren’t interested in what your headline promises.
Social media sharing
Sometimes, people share articles on social media without ever actually reading the piece themselves. They might know people who would benefit from those pieces.
However, they won’t share if they aren’t moved by the headline. Measuring social shares over time can help you nail down the best headline formulas and types.
Comments and questions about what you are promoting
Great headlines can also promote conversation. You might get comments on your blog posts or social media about the articles you’re writing, the products you sell, or the services you offer. Track these interactions to see if they correlate to certain headline types.
Headline Writing “Formulas”
I’m not a huge fan of the word “formula,” so I’m using it loosely. When I think of a formula, I imagine a process or recipe that must be followed to the letter.
Headline formulas are a little different You want to exert your creativity over the process.
SHINE is an acronym that boils down to these five words:
S – Specificity
H – Helpfulness
I – Immediacy
N – Newsworthiness
E – Entertainment value
You don’t have to pack all five of these qualities into every headline. However, if you can hit at least one or two notes, your headline will probably perform better.
Basic headline formula: Problem, solution, promise
This is one of the best techniques for writing headlines because it allows for plenty of creativity.
- Introduce a problem
- Suggest a solution
- Promise a result
Let’s build one from our marathon runner example article:
“Sick of Sore Feet? Try These 12 Tips to Banish Aching Feet for Good”
Can you pick out each element?
- Problem: “Sick of Sore Feet?”
- Solution: “Try These 12 Tips”
- Promise: “Banish Aching Feet for Good”
You can use this formula for just about any headline or topic.
“Little-known ways” formula
There’s one great way to immediate capture interest from your target audience. Introduce “little-known ways” to solve a problem or reach a goal.
The formula works because it suggests that the reader won’t have heard of the tips you’re going to suggest. Of course, you need to back up the headline with a slam-dunk article.
“Who else wants” headline formula
The Neil Patel homepage is the perfect example of the “who else wants” formula in action:
The headline asks, “Do you want more traffic?” It implies that Neil can deliver results for that goal if you follow through by entering your information.
You don’t have to use the exact verbiage “who else wants,” but you can:
- Who Else Wants Better Running Shoes?
- Who Else Wants to Run a Marathon?
- Who Else Wants to Beat Your Last Marathon Time?
These are great for community building, too, because they encourage conversation.
“Get rid of” headline technique
We all have things we want to get rid of — telemarketing calls, inflated gas prices, bed bugs, whatever.
(To be clear, I don’t have bed bugs. There are no bed bugs in my home.)
The point here is that a “get rid of” headline promises a solution to the problem your audience faces. Think about what they might want to get rid of.
For my runner example, my audience might want to get rid of those stubborn last five pounds, calluses, shin splints, or leg cramps. If I can help them resolve the issue, I’ll have won a fan.
The best techniques for writing headlines help you connect with your audience. They evoke an emotional or automatic response to the subject matter.
However, you need a tactical approach.
Try each of these techniques for writing headlines, then come back and tell me which one(s) worked best for you. Don’t forget to carefully study your favorite headlines, apply the four U’s, get to know your audience, and offer personal benefits.
If one headline structure doesn’t work, try another. You can always re-engineer content that doesn’t meet your expectations.
Do you have a favorite headline formula? Share it with the class!