How to write headlines that make people read your content

Sharon Tanton

Did that headline get your attention? I hope it did. Writing effective headings is not easy. This one is very much of the “it does what it says on the tin” school — and that’s often no bad thing.

But when your audience is skimming through hundreds of emails, posts, tweets and blogs, how do you write headlines that grab their attention?

Simple can be effective

More often than not, a simple headline will work better than an obscure one. You’re telling the reader in a few words why they should keep reading. But there are many ways to make a simple headline more powerful.

The best approach is to address your audience directly, using “you” and “your” and, if your content is being seen on social media or via email for example, then really talk to your audience as if you are having a one-to-one conversation:

  • I can show you how to write better headline

You can also use questions to show you understand the challenges facing your audience:

  • Are you struggling to write great blog headlines?

Show that you have the answers

Most of us skim-read online content looking for useful stuff. We all have areas we need help with. So content that provides valuable advice is extremely popular. But again, in a noisy world, how do you make sure your advice is heard

Start by demonstrating that you are helping in your heading. “How to” is a tried and tested headline opener:

  • How to write brilliant blog headlines

Another option is to use “why” to persuade your audience that they need to sit up and take notice:

  • Why your headlines could be losing you business

But you can make your headings even more compelling by indicating what your advice can actually deliver — results:

  • How to write email newsletter headlines that will seriously improve your click-throughs

And you can boost interest even further by using your heading to show that your advice will be clear and easy to read:

  • Three simple ways to make your website headlines deliver conversions
  • Ten ideas for blog headlines to boost your social following

Intriguing headlines can really fly

Headlines don’t always have to do what they say on the tin. But there’s a world of difference between obscure headings and intriguing ones.

One way to create intrigue and tell your story is to use a two-parter heading. Strategic use of a colon or dash can give you the chance to create drama:

  • Copywriting crimes — five blog headlines that failed

There’s also no harm in being controversial from time to time — we recently wrote a blog entitled Bored with content marketing? that really got people talking.

Using real examples is also a good idea:

  • How one simple white paper headline brought us three new clients

It can also be effective to use famous people or events as a hook. But there are two dangers here. Firstly, you don’t want to jump on the same bandwagon as everyone else (people quickly tired of Olympics-themed content in 2012 for instance).

Secondly, don’t promise something you can’t deliver — your content has to live up to the headline. If you cry wolf, people will stop reading your content. But if you make an interesting connection and see it through, then you can write a heading that will really excite curiosity:

  • What Lady Gaga can teach you about writing headlines

Think about the context

These days, headlines travel — they don’t just appear on your website or blog, they can be the subject line in your email newsletter, they appear in tweets and they have to work hard in other social media settings such as LinkedIn and Facebook. And what works in one place may not fly in another.

Fascinating research by Dan Zarrella into what words encourage retweets shows that the top words are: you, Twitter, please, retweet, post, blog, social, free, media and help. It’s clear that on Twitter, generous offers to help as well as polite requests for help are greatly appreciated.

This research also confirms that the word “you” is incredibly effective — it’s always a good idea to directly address your audience.

However, email newsletter headlines with the words “free” or “help” in are a massive turn-off. They just shriek spam. So don’t be afraid to tweak your headings and change your approach depending on the context.

Don’t guess — test

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to headlines — everyone’s audiences are different. It’s always worth conducting A/B testing with your email newsletters, trying two different headings to see what gets the best response.

You can also test different lengths of heading — although a good benchmark is about 50 to 80 characters, well within the 140-character length of a tweet.

Using keywords in your headlines is sensible — as long as the heading works in its own right and doesn’t come across like a list of words purely aimed at driving SEO.

Headlines that have worked for us

Above all, notice what works yourself. We’ve published 200 blogs in the past three years and these are the ten that have attracted the highest responses:

  1. How Lorem Ipsum makes your web project fail
  2. How to keep in touch with potential customers until they are ready to buy
  3. How to create a lead generating, high performance website
  4. Top tips for successful business newsletters
  5. What makes great web design?
  6. Ask your clients for feedback
  7. 5 things you can do to promote your company better
  8. Are you content with the word ‘content’?
  9. Valuable marketing predictions for 2013
  10. A quick introduction to content marketing

That’s what has worked for us. How about you? We’d love to know.

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4 Comments

  1. Yes thanks Eli. I’ll give it a whirl!

    Reply
  2. I’ve started swearing in my headlines. Maybe it turns people off, but I’m tired of writing the same boring stuff I see on every other website out there.

    Reply

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