An article is only as strong as its headline.
That’s because, unfortunate as it may be, great content can suffocate in the shadow of a really shoddy headline: it’s the doorway to the content, and no one will choose to open the decrepit, tattered door over the flashy, modern one next door.
You don’t want to spend hours brainstorming the perfect topic, then researching, drafting, optimizing, and sharing your article just to have it fall flat on its face, right?
Well, you’ll never have to worry about an article getting underappreciated due to living in the shadow of its mediocre title ever again—here are our top tips on nailing your headline to get that content the attention it deserves.
1. Practice, practice, practice!
First, give your article a working title; it doesn’t matter the quality of the rough draft as this is a placeholder that will serve to spark more inspiration down the road.
You have to get the bad ideas out there to make creative room for the good ones, so get a notepad (virtual or real) and start writing anything that comes to mind until you have nothing left to throw out there.
You should aim for 20-30 titles to have a good amount to work with.
Then, sift through all of them, omitting the worst ones and circling your favorites. If possible, run the finalists by your peers to get an unbiased sense of which is best.
From there, you can go on to A/B test a couple headlines to scientifically identify the best (hooray, data!).
As for the headlines that didn’t quite make the cut, save the best ones for social post captions when you go to share the content on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and beyond.
2. Ask 3 important questions: Who is it for? How does it help the reader? What makes it unique?
Nailing all three of these in the headline will get readers interested in learning something unique that provides a clear benefit to them as a result.
On platforms like LinkedIn, where people go to learn and grow professionally, users don’t have time to mosey on down the newsfeed and go through a bunch of articles, ranging in quality and topic—they’re on a mission to find the best of the best for their benefit.
If you’re not writing for someone, you don’t assist in his specific problem, and the article is just like the rest of them in that topic realm, you miss a huge opportunity to resonate with the reader and get him invested in learning more through your content.
3. Keep the headline simple and direct
Don’t beat around the bush with your title; it should clearly state the offer and allow readers to quickly assess the value of the content in relation to their needs.
Try to avoid abstract references or the long way of saying what the topic is.
In search engine results, you want your whole headline to be legible and enticing; furthermore, social post captions are the place where you can expound upon the topic a bit further, so save the juicy stuff for social media.
When our company attended Denver Startup Week last year, we learned a ton and wanted to share it with those who did not have the opportunity to attend.
To keep the headline simple, the article was titled: Denver Startup Week 2017: What We Learned.
No fluff, no misleading details, no nothing.
4. The shorter, the better
The ideal length for a headline, based on numerous studies that measured resulting clickthrough rate (CTR) and social actions, is about 70 characters.
If you’re going based on the number of words, the ideal average is 5 words per headline—like this one: A Brief History of SEO.
It can be longer, yes, but the shorter you can convey what the content is about and why the reader should care, the better your chances of attracting the right people.
Consider that the headline can get cut off on some mediums, too, like search engine results. So, if you want to give your readers a chance to read the full title wherever they are, keep it short to be safe.
5. Ask a thought-provoking question
If you pose your headline as a question that makes readers take the time to contemplate the answer to it, your chances of those readers clicking through will rise—people tend to want to know if they guessed right, after all.
You write content to help and educate your audience, so asking them to test their knowledge on a topic by “quizzing” them in the headline makes perfect sense, especially if the reader is unfamiliar with the topic and will now be intrigued to go learn something new.
If not, you’re more likely to click the link above to test your best guess and find out why it is that these two pseudo-celebrities add different value to your brand.
Thoughts = provoked.
6. Use numbers first
Using numbers in your title is a great move—in fact, studies have found that a title starting with a number is readers’ most popular headline preference.
So, if most people prefer a post with a number, it’s a surefire way to get more clicks.
List posts are an online favorite due to being a short but information-packed read; they’re also a great way to incorporate a number into your headline.
You know that reading the article 10 Fun Facts You Didn’t Know About Ascend will allow readers to learn some uncommon quirks about our team in a concise manner.
You could also cite a surprising statistic as the headline to turn heads and drive clicks, too.
7. Punctuate appropriately
An Outbrain study found that adding a hyphen or colon to headlines increases CTR by 9%—not bad for adding a single, tiny character.
This style works well when you’re discussing a particular angle on a topic that’s quite broad.
For instance, when I wrote about the growing trend of using live video in marketing, the title was, “Live Video: What's All the Hype About?”
Notice here that I used a colon to expand upon the angle of the topic...and I included a question mark, too—it’s a double whammy if you count the question as a thought-provoking one.
You can also utilize an exclamation point (please, only one at a time ever—this isn’t MySpace) to bring a touch of excitement to your headline, too.
If you’re pumped, your audience is more likely to get pumped and go see what the buzz is all about in the article.
8. Avoid clickbait-y vocabulary
Clickbait worked when it was a new trend and users were naive, easily falling victim to its trickery.
Now, users are hardened with repeat offenses on their trust, and your brand risks getting lumped with the spammy stuff if your language even faintly resembles clickbait-style headlines.
It’s tempting to use the element of curiosity to entice users to click, but more and more people have grown skeptical: they prefer to know what they’re in for over taking a risk with every click.
What vocabulary tends to get unofficially flagged as spam?
Here are the most popular phrases to avoid:
- You won’t believe
- What happened next
- My jaw dropped
- I was shocked when
- One weird trick
- But then this happened
*Tread lightly with this one...combined with other spammy language or a lack of clarity, it’s sure to come off as clickbait. Of course, when not shrouded in mystery, it’s fair game, especially if involved in a common idiom or phrase.
For example: “Facebook’s Declining Organic Reach: This Is Not a Drill” uses the word “this” in an idiom that supplements “organic reach” rather than shrouding the topic in mystery, like: “This is What Facebook is Ruining for Brands.”
See the difference?
9. Get dramatic: create urgency or make promises
If you’re happily scrolling along your preferred network’s newsfeed and see a headline that reads, “[Your Job Title], Here’s What You Need to Know to Stay Ahead in 2018,” I’d bet a pretty penny that you’ll feel the need to go check out what it is that you need to know, right?
That’s the beauty of urgency—our technologically-driven world is filled with fast-paced new products, features, rules, apps, and so much more, and readers indubitably get the whole “keep up or get left behind” reality we live in.
A sense of urgency in your title will help indicate that the article is important to your target audience and can earn you more clicks as a result.
Of course, don’t cry wolf so much that people eventually tune you out: save the urgency for suitable occasions to avoid overdoing and diluting it.
My article on the skills that modern CMOs must have, I add drama in two ways: the word “vital” implies that the unknowing CMO will not survive without these skills, and “must” adds a sense of urgency that will only be ignored by the most foolish of c-suite marketers.
Build the drama by promising some kind of worthwhile gift in your content—whether it’s access to a freebie or rare tried-and-true tricks to the trade, people like to get as much benefit from reading articles as possible and will happily click through to get something out of it.
Just make sure you absolutely will deliver on exactly what you promise; otherwise, you risk stewing distrust amongst your readers.
Here’s a great formula to test:
Number/trigger word + adjective + keyword/topic + promise
And an example of it in action:
23 Easy Headline Tricks to Drive More Traffic to Your Blog
While you can build even more drama by utilizing exaggeration in your title, this can get tricky.
People hate to be led on, so exaggerate moderately so that you’re not unintentionally baiting-and-switching on your readers and leaving them feeling annoyed with your overstated headline promise.
10. Put some ❤️ into it
Adding an emotional touch to your headline can work wonders if the topic allows for that kind of reaction.
People love that stuff—I can admit that my favorite video ads always make me either laugh or cry like a little baby, and that reaction can certainly be translated into text with the right amount of craft and tact.
Emotion-inducing headlines get more shares, too—especially on Facebook.
The social network’s updated reaction options have brought a new sense of excitement to reacting to posts with exactly the right emotion rather than just a “like,” allowing users to further express themselves in a single click.
To give our audience warm fuzzies when reading about Ascend’s (small but mighty) company culture, I included the sentimentally-infused phrase “it’s the little things” in the headline.
It helps paint a picture of the power of small gestures of kindness in a business—something that tends to make people go “aww.”
11. Get specific
So many people out there are writing so many articles on the same topic, making it hard to compete with the biggest dogs in the SERP and on social alike.
What is a microbusiness, startup, or other little guy to do?
All of the overarching topics have been done time and time again, so your goal should be to take a topic, then dig deep into one small subtopic of it in order to stand out from the crowd.
Most importantly, make sure that you mention your angle within the headline so that readers know which specific information they’ll be getting from your article and not mistakenly assume that your article about, for example, optimizing your blog for search engines is really all about SEO in general.
12. Make it personal
Would you be more into an article all about me, the nameless “them,” or one about you as the star?
I’m hoping you chose the latter as our content is here to serve you and your marketing, design, and development needs, not ours or “theirs.”
It’s better to write something specifically designed for someone than try to tackle everything for everyone.
It’s better to write something specifically designed for someone than try to tackle everything for everyone. #contentmarketing
Addressing the reader, not only within your article but in the headline as well, is an easy way to help readers relate and feel more invested in the content.
Besides, titles containing any variation of the word “you” are the second-most popular headline preference among readers.
It’s an easy and foolproof way to grab readers’ attention and retain it.
For instance, my article on passing the marketing torch includes “You” in the headline to speak directly to business owners who are struggling with this dilemma, not the masses.
13. Use “why” to persuade
So you know there are things you need to be skilled at or up-to-date on in your field of expertise, but do you ever wonder why?
Sure, you know you should to market to millennials like almost everyone else does these days, but do you know why this generation is so profitable compared to others?
This type of content, preceded with a strong headline, gives context to why we do what we do.
"Why" is a popular buzzword for titles these days; content marketers crank out article after article explaining the importance of certain topics instead of just giving an overview and leaving readers to ponder why the information is beneficial.
For an added bonus, you can start your article with “# Reasons Why” to nail the number-in-the-headline trick and convey value to the reader through offering a persuasive angle on the topic in one go.
Here’s an example: 8 Reasons Why You Should Pitch Your Ideas to Your Kids First tells readers that the article is persuasive and presented in bite-sized, easy-to-digest list format.
14. Create “how to” guides
Step-by-step walkthroughs are immensely popular because of the convenience they offer: click on an article, read the whole thing, and learn how to comprehensively accomplish something (ideally) from that single article.
Here’s the trick: your headline should include the phrase “how to” in order to provide a guarantee to readers that your article will be their one-stop shop.
Just including those two little words will increase your CTR chances as it is readers’ third-most popular headline preference.
In other words, people like to find all the information they need in one place, so cater to their needs and mention the guide format in your headline to let them know what you’re offering with a single click.
We chose this powerful headline structure for our ebook series on how to drive traffic from social media to your website because it tells readers that we will walk them through every strategy to be successful.
In other words, the search for alllllll the information is over with one click.
15. Use power words
Power words are those that “wow” readers and empower them to think, feel, or act a certain way.
Framing your headline with a power word can garner more attention than using more plain vocabulary, too.
While there is no one ultimate, comprehensive list, it’s easy to find a whole variety of power word lists out there and then collect your favorites.
Here are a few of the most popular examples:
The easiest of these to nail is the powerful idea of “free”—we published a list of free marketing tools and resources because we know these websites will help our audience and will appeal to them more than suggesting paid alternatives, making the headline and article extra appealing.
16. Lean on distrust
With so many sources and articles out there, it can be hard to tell what’s true or not these days.
Instead of letting all your yarns change back into cotton by desperately trying to establish trust in a single and predictable headline, flip the strategy: breed skepticism to gain the trust of your readers.
It sounds iffy, I know, but your role is to forewarn your readers and help them avoid being deceived, manipulated, or exploited by becoming proactive and informed.
Using phrases like “the ugly truth behind [topic]” or “why [topic] doesn’t work” is a great place to start crafting headlines for this angle.
Not only are you serving as the generous herald that saves your dear readers from a terrible mistake, but you’re also building trust by letting them in on a trade secret as a result.
In an effort to forewarn marketers to stray away from industry “hacks” as a means to save their reputation, I wrote an article about the top marketing strategies that are more annoying than helpful—brewing distrust amongst readers who have heard these exact strategies recommended to them before.
As a marketer, I’m letting others in on the real scoop of what doesn’t work, consequently building trust by helping others be proactive before potentially tarnishing their reputation.
17. Use humor or cleverness wisely
If you make a joke and no one gets it, is it still technically a joke?
More importantly, if you make a joke in your headline and no one gets it, will they want to click through to the article?
Humor is great for evoking an emotional response within your readers when done well—it’s best to stick to widely-known jokes or popular references to nail the punchline.
When I wrote about tips on customer empowerment, I made a Star Wars reference in the headline because everybody who has been around since the 70’s onward has heard of the mega-popular film series. And since Yoda is cited as a famous mentor in popular culture, "Be Yoda" seemed to be a fittingly clever metaphor for being a mentor.
Similarly, puns can go well or very poorly, so make sure to verify the pun with your team or peers first before unleashing it upon the world. If it distracts or confuses more than it elicits a chuckle, reel it in a bit.
Of course, keep your references and humor appropriate to avoid evoking disgust in your readers, as few people will be persevering enough to read an article from an author with seemingly poor taste...and judgment.
One safe bet that’s sure to please the English enthusiasts (that sounds much nicer than grammar nerds, doesn’t it?) is alliteration. I personally cannot get enough of it (as seen from my article on intrapreneurs)—plus, it can serve as a sign of the writer’s ingenuity when done well.
Alliteration has the added benefit of being more memorable and rhythmic, so you can potentially score some extra engagement and readers via organic word of mouth marketing fueled by pleased readers.
18. Take the road less traveled
Creating content for your brand is a unique opportunity to position yourself as original and creative, so pick a new angle on your topic of choice instead of writing about it from the perspective that most other articles take.
Be bold—write the unpopular opinion, do some informed speculation, share insider secrets, or inform readers on why something isn’t what they may think it is.
The best way to go about this is to pick a topic, look up existing articles surrounding it, and then strive to be dramatically different by thinking outside the box.
Headlines with a dramatically different angle will help your content stand out.
Try phrases like “what the experts don’t want you to know about [topic],” “why [topic] is actually…” or “[topic] is not as important/good/necessary as you think.”
An example of this in action is my article on why a fast no is better than a slow yes—it’s counterintuitive to our typical perceptions of what “yes” and “no” mean in terms of positive and negative outcome.
19. At the very least, use the SVO structure
If all else fails or you’ve fallen into a major creativity void, you can at least rely on the basic subject + verb + object sentence structure to help you come up with a good headline.
It’s nothing flashy, yes, but if your topic is simple and you’re scrambling for something—anything—to slap on the top of your article, this combination will do.
This structure is very common in news, so if your brand shares company happenings on your blog, the SVO route will surely serve you well.
Here are some examples:
Verizon Acquires Yahoo
Instagram Dominates Social Media
Nike Ad Turns Heads
Algorithm Updates Distress Marketers
It’s important to try your hand at some other strategies before settling on this one, or you can even pepper in some of the other tips into your SVO title to jazz it up—but keep it direct nonetheless.
Here’s a near-perfect example from our design blog: Fonts Have Feelings Too.
Note that the “Too” is an extra twist, touching on the principles of tip #18.
20. Use 1-2 adjectives
There is such an exquisite vastness of marvelous adjectives out there that are ready to take your headline from basic to brilliant, so use them!
This trick is easy to combine with others, such as when utilizing alliteration or adding some drama, and it’s ideal for adding excitement to virtually any topic—even the driest of industries can sound more hip with a few adjectives tossed in there.
Adjectives also help provide more context or emotion to your headline, and the more specific you can get, the better.
When I wrote an article about some outstanding CTA examples I’ve spotted, I spiced up the headline with the adjective “killer” to add thrill to a sometimes dry realm of content marketing.
My content marketing best friend, especially for hunting down the most terrific of adjectives, is powerthesaurus.org.
I’ve converted many-a-marketer to this beautifully simple tool and hope that you, too, find the adjectives you seek over there.
21. Do some keyword research before getting creative
The best way to increase the CTR on your article is to use the terminology that your ideal readers search with.
It doesn’t have to be a guessing game; follow these steps to nail your headline and rank well in the search results for the topic:
Jot down a list of terms that relate to your topic. Try to come up with general and specific keywords to get an all-around experiment going for the topic of choice.
Grab a keyword research tool of your choice and plug in the main keywords.
Take the most relevant keywords with the highest search volume and throw them in a spreadsheet. Be sure to include important factors, such as keyword difficulty, competition, and search volume.
Identify the keywords that fall in the perfect zone by sorting your list by lowest competition to highest search volume. Those that are not very competitive but commonly searched are your best bet.
Plug the ideal keyword or two into your headline, and voila! Your headline is optimized for best results.
When I was struck with a shadowban on Instagram, I wrote an article compiling all the necessary information about the mysterious crisis plaguing many-a-user.
I conducted keyword research to determine that this problem is most commonly referred to as an “Instagram engagement drop,” used the exact phrase in my headline, and now rank at the top for a lot of search results on the topic.
22. Use a headline analyzer tool
If you don’t have access to a good keyword research tool or abhor doing the research so much that you’ll take practically any other route first, look up a headline analyzer tool to utilize instead.
You just plug in the headline, hit the button, and get a report of how your good headline is in terms of length, vocabulary, sentiment, and more.
If your heart is not set on a clever headline or you’re just wanting a fast analysis of how you’re doing, this is the best way forward.
It’s more unbiased than consulting your peers (because, duh, they like you and tend to give you the benefit of the doubt), trusting your gut, or imitating a similar headline structure from another author.
While there are tools out there that boast the ability to write your headline for you, here’s the thing: you’re a strong, independent, young marketer who “don’t need no tool” to tell you how to write.
I believe in you, and you should believe in your own headline-writing skills (especially after reading this article), so just do it...and then use a tool to check your work.
23. A/B test
Science makes everything better, and headlines are no exception to that fact.
The very best way to know which headline format resonates with your audience is to test each one by creating two versions, releasing them to your audience with all other factors controlled, and measuring the number of clicks that each yields.
While you can measure other social proof, like comments, shares, or likes, you really want people heading over to your brand’s blog to read the whole thing as your ultimate goal.
The Bottom Line
Give your article the exposure it deserves by stirring curiosity in your readers through a stellar headline.
Remember: the prettier the packaging, the more compelled people will be to unwrap it in order to discover the contents.
While it’s impossible to utilize every single trick in the book at the same time, experiment with each of these strategies to find what resonates with your audience per article you throw at them.
Better yet, keep rotating through the best of these tips to keep your audience on its toes for good.