Scan. Dismiss. Scan. Dismiss. Scan … click!
This is what your audience is doing today. This is what we’re all doing today. In our inbox, on social media and on blogs, we scan through headlines, dismissing most and clicking a few.
Winning that click depends on the headline, more than anything else. It’s impossible to overstate their importance. We are all judged instantly and ruthlessly by this short set of words.
The average Internet user sees 1,300+ headlines each day and dismisses 99.7% of them.*
*Totally fabricated, but a great headline.
Even if you do everything else right, blogging your fingers to the bone, everything will fail if you get this one thing wrong .
So here are headline best practices. But first, let’s look at all the places they appear and how the success factors vary…
So a great headline isn’t just one thing. A single article may have different headlines in different places. It’s adapted for each context. Do not try to make one size fit all.
Now on to the checklist for writing great headlines.
1. Make a promise. Be specific.
The key to the click is to understand this: Before any of us click anything, we do a split second cost-benefit calculation.
Is the benefit of clicking (the value of the content) higher than the cost (two seconds of my time) ?
Here’s what’s happening in your visitor’s brain…
The job of the headline is to indicate the benefit and to make a promise to the visitor that it’s worth it. And to do it in less than a second .
The more specific the benefit, the more likely the visitor is to click. Great headlines make specific promises.
Ask yourself as if you’re the reader. “What’s in it for me?” The answer should jump off the page. If it doesn’t, get ready to hear crickets. You’re about to fail.
The ability to imagine the readers’ perspective is the key to success in writing headlines. Empathy is the greatest marketing skill.
2. Use power trigrams
A few years back, Buzzsumo did a study to learn what makes effective headlines, and what correlates with social media engagement. Their research was different in two ways. First, they looked at a LOT of data: 100,000,000 headlines. Second, they looked at trigrams, which are groups of three words.
As it turns out, certain trigrams have huge correlations with social engagement.
This chart shows the average number of Facebook likes, comments and shares for headlines that include these trigrams.
When these trigrams appear at the beginning of headlines, the headline is much more likely to get social engagement…
Warning! No clickbait!
If your first reaction is “this is clickbait” please keep reading. You shouldn’t write clickbait headlines. Do not try to trick the reader. Your article must deliver on the promise in the headline.
But look closely at these trigrams and you can see why they work so well. They all make promises. If you’re writing blog headlines that include these trigrams, you’re offering specific benefits to the reader.
3. Use numbers
List posts are popular for a reason: they set expectations about the amount of content, about scanability and variety; if you don’t like one thing, you’ll be able to scan down and find something else.
Numerals, not just numbers, are part of the magic. In a line of letters, numerals stand out . So don’t write a headline with “Eight Things,” write a headline with “8 things.”
Headlines with numbers aren’t always list posts. Numbers can also be data and statistics, indicating that the article is supported by research. LinkedIn tested headlines with and without statistics and found that stats had a big impact on click through rates.
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You get the idea.
Don’t buy the argument that “those headline formulas don’t work any more”. These headlines can still be remarkably effective. Make sure there’s a benefit to the reader in the headline — something that person will get out of reading the content. Numbers in the headline still work. List posts still work.
4. Ask a question
Question headlines have two benefits. First, they leverage a psychological effect, causing the reader’s mind to take the next step: answer the question …or wonder. The lack of completeness inherent in questions causes tension and interest in readers.
Search is the second benefit. Google is focused on the meaning of a search query, not just combinations of words. It’s called “latent semantic indexing” and it’s key to Semantic SEO. The natural language of a complete question helps Google understand how the article is useful.
People are using their voices, not just fingers, to search these days. And naturally, they’re asking complete, full-sentence questions. Complete questions and answers help Google connect people to your content.
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5. Put impact words at the front of your headline
In the mobile inbox, subject lines get truncated after just 45 or so characters. In search results, title tags get truncated after around 60 characters. Podcast titles have the same issue.
Consider these examples. These are really the same headline:
- 10 Simple Communication Tips That Can Help You Ace Your Job Interview
- How to Ace Your Job Interview with These 10 Simple Communication Tips
But here’s how they look in the mobile inbox:
One subscriber sees the impact and benefit of clicking right there in the inbox: “ace your job interview.” The other would have to open the email to see that benefit statement.
Even when truncation isn’t an issue, readers will scan your headline from the beginning. So put those thumb-stopping words toward the front make them more likely to be seen, more likely to get tapped.
6. Write very long headlines
So it’s front-loaded with impact words and benefits, but that doesn’t mean that the headline itself is short. According to research, long headlines are winning, at least in Facebook.
This chart shows the average number of Facebook engagements based on the number of words in headlines.
That’s right. 15-word headlines had the highest average number of interactions. Most marketers have probably never written a headline that long. Try it and you’ll find yourself writing long, complete sentences. Or maybe two sentences.
Check out these examples from some viral content sites:
- It is now legal to breastfeed in public in all 50 states. Just now. In 2018. (16 words)
- Incredibly Unfair: Even Though Billionaires Work Way Harder Than Everyone Else, Then Only Earn 4,000 Times As Much Money (19 words)
- Devastating: Kid Makes the ‘Pull Horn’ Sign But the Trucker Accidentally Pulls the Self Destruct Cord (16 words)
It makes sense since the longer the headline the more likely the reader is to find and understand the benefit to clicking.
Give it a try. Go long wherever truncation isn’t an issue.
7. Put the keyword first
Using the target keyphrase at the beginning of the title tag <title> and header <h1> gives it “keyphrase prominence” helping to indicate its relevance to search engines. This is not important for subject lines and social posts.
An effective headline works for both search engines and readers. To create headlines that rank and capture attention, use a colon. This lets you separate the search-friendly keyword from the social-friendly triggers.
It gives you keyphrase prominence but still leverages human psychology in the rest of the headline.
Check out these examples:
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See the pattern? Each post is optimized to rank for the phrase at the beginning of the headline (with perfect keyphrase prominence) followed by a number or words to connect with visitors’ hearts and minds.
So here’s the formula for headlines:
Target Keyphrase + Colon + Number or Trigger Word + Promise
Final tip: Write lots, choose one.
The pros aren’t writing a headline. They are writing lots of headlines. For any article, you should write a dozen or more. Write several options for each location: title tags, headers and subject lines.
Once you’ve got a dozen or more, you can pick one and put the rest in the trash.
Here are a few final examples of headlines. These are the ones considered for this article but not chosen…
- A Quick Guide to Killer Headlines That Readers Can’t Resist
- How to Write Headlines That Won’t Get Ignored (Our 7-Point Checklist)
- 7 Headline Writing Rules For More Clicks, Traffic and Shares
- X Catchy Headlines, And 7 Tips for Writing Powerful Headlines Yourself
PS. A good rule of thumb: assume your audience isn’t interested . Write a headline that spotlights the most compelling, most irresistible part of your content.