“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” -Henry David Thoreau
Headlines are so short; they should be easy to write…right?
Wrong. It’s exponentially harder to write short copy. Your words become increasingly more important and impactful when they are short. And, a headline is short copy that just happens to be the gateway to your content. So if you don’t get them right, why bother creating content at all?
To prevent me from making this introduction longer than it needs to be, here it is:
16 Headline Writing Tips to Finally Get Your Articles Read
1: Choose a Headline Objective: Descriptive or Vague
It has become incredibly popular lately to try to create “viral” content with irresistible headlines. But vague, mysterious headlines like “This Unbelievable Kid Does the Unthinkable, And His Mom’s Reaction, WOW!” doesn’t exactly look very professional for a small town accounting firm.
The purpose of these headlines is to get the meandering internet browser with time on their hands to click and spend a few minutes looking at their generic content that’s somewhat surprising or unusual in order to get eyeballs on ads. They’re not looking to get targeted customers for a specific product or service. Deep engagement, learning, or changing of perceptions isn’t often the goal.
Contrast that with a descriptive headline like “5 Tips to Get Your Accounting in Order Without Hiring a Firm”. You know exactly the format (list), the topic (accounting), and the benefit (cheap). Not to mention, this headline looks professional and is aligned with someone’s problem that you can help solve. Along with problems comes search, and descriptive headlines also align themselves better with the way people want to find content on Google. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for that first example of headlines, but be very careful, despite their obvious rock star status in our 21st century social world, they don’t fit with most businesses at all.
The choice is ultimately yours. I would urge you to consider a more descriptive headline, but it depends on your goals so consider them first.
2: Be Intriguing
However, the Buzzfeed-style headlines do have some merit, and we can take away one main point – curiosity. Your descriptive headlines can also inspire the imagination if you don’t giveaway everything. Generally, you’ll still want to describe the type of content, the topic, and the benefit, but adding a level of curiosity can come later. To continue with our earlier example with the accounting firm, we could take that headline and add an addition to it. “5 Tips to Get Your Accounting in Order Without Hiring a Firm – And Why We’re Okay with It!” It leaves the reader with a little more intrigue.
3: Write Short (Ish)
Again if you’re going after the generic viral headline, length doesn’t matter so much. But if you’re hoping your evergreen content is going to be found in search for a long time to come, you better shorten it up. According to other posts I’ve read, Google search results show a maximum of 70 characters in the title, but I’ve seen some shortened to 60, so to be on the safe side use the latter. It’s still plenty to play with.
Part 2 of keeping it short is looking at your word count and where your keywords are. The optimal length is 6 words. Why? Because a headline usability study showed that users are more likely to remember or internalize the first 3 words and the last 3 words of a headline, so just make it simple and take out anything that would’ve been in between.
For you longer headline writing folks, when it’s not possible to write a short headline, keep your focus keywords, the topic, in the beginning. This article by Jakob Nielson suggests that the first 2 words, or 11 characters to get specific are of the utmost importance. They studied a list of headlines and links (social media streams are basically lists too), and found that when scanning to find the content they needed, they were more likely to choose the ones that had the topic at hand in the beginning of the headline. This goes for short and long headlines. Instead of starting your headline with “This Just In: The Amazing Guide To Always Being Able to [Keyword]” -> Front load it with a headline like “How [Keyword] Can Be Improved With Something”.
4: Don’t Mislead
You have to recognize the negative impact, if not outright frustrating effect when being drawn into a piece of content for a headline, and getting no such content on the matter. It’s just human nature to be put-off by this, and the grey area of emphasizing a small point, or slightly twisting the focus might have a bigger impact than you think too.
A study a few years back by the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, referenced in an informative article by T.J. Anderson, proved that when an article contained two opinions, the headline swayed the readers perception one way or the other. In their study they presented an article that offered two sides, GM (genetically modified) foods are either good or bad. When the title presented that “GM foods are safe”, that is the information the reader focused on, remembered, and sided with when asked later. When others read the exact same article but with the headline “GM foods may pose long-term health risks”, they sided with that opinion.
The moral of the story is that your readers will focus on what your headline tells them to focus on. This is important if you want to teach someone something, mold their opinion, or give them some news that you want them to remember, and most importantly, share! So be direct with your headlines.
5: Use Numbers
There are so many list posts…why? Because they work. Our brains love numbers for a couple of reasons. When you’re presented with a number in a headline it provides you with some expectations. “If I open this article, I know there will be 5 main points in it around this topic.” And that’s perfect because we’ve all regretted reading articles that ramble and meander through different ideas all the way to the end. With a numbered list we understand the author will be focused and organized.
A list post also provides us with reference points when we’re reading. They help us to scan the content for headings more easily, and they allow us to know exactly where we are in the article at any point. “I’ve read down to point 4, there’s 8 in total so I can assume I’m half way.”
Also they give you an understanding of how lengthy an article will be, or how simple the writer decided to make their points. You know a 3 step guide is going to be fairly easy, and will also be scanned very fast (only 3 subheadings to read to get the ideas), and a list of 73 tips for headline writing will be a daunting read, but potentially have a lot of value you could save for later.
I’m an advocate for smaller is usually better when it comes to list posts (despite this article), but use the golden rule of communication, “say as much as you need to, and nothing more”.
6: Answer the WWWWW
There’s no doubt that your reader has some questions before clicking. They might be:
- Who is this article for? Who is this article about?
- What is this article about? What format is this article in?
- Where am I going to go to read this article? Where is this article applicable?
- When was this article written? When is it still useful?
- Why should I read this article? What’s in it for me?
Of course we’re trying to keep these headlines short, but try to answer as many as possible. You’d be surprised how many of these can be answered in a single sentence. Take this for example:
4 Timeless Marketing Email Tips to Improve Your Opens Immediately
- “4”: It’s a list post, it’s been organized, planned, and it’s easily scanned.
- “Timeless”: It doesn’t matter how old this post is, they’re broad theories that will always help.
- “Marketing Email”: Addresses who as well as what. It’s for marketers, and it’s about emails.
- “Tips”: Partly an answer to format, as well as helpfulness.
- “Improve Your Opens”: This is what’s in it for the reader.
- “Immediately”: The expectation of when the benefit is expected.
7: Use Emotionally Driven Words
We all know we’re humans. We don’t click on links because it’s logical, something emotional usually drives us. You need to connect with that emotional side in your headlines if possible. Don’t use soft, fluffy words that don’t have any meaning. Use power hungry words that engage the psyche of everyone devouring them.
But instead of just choosing strong emotional words because you feel like it, I’ve recently come across Bushra Azhar’s 3 step method to ensure you get the right action out of your words:
- Step One: Determine the desired action you want your prospect to take (e.g. like, share, read, subscribe, comment, buy etc.)
- Step Two: Determine the exact emotional state that will drive that action (e.g. curious, relaxed, fearful, inspired etc.)
- Step Three: Choose some of the words from this list and sprinkle ‘em throughout your content.
Her thoughts are directed towards all content, and we’re just talking about headlines here, but of course these principles absolutely still apply.
Free Tool: Ever wonder how you can see the emotional factor of your headline? This Headline Analyzer will tell you exactly the percentage of emotion in your headlines. I was shocked when I found this, and I’ll use it a lot going forward.
P.S. The headline for this article received a 40% rating on the analyzer
8: Use Active Instead of Passive Voice
The difference is often unnoticed by most, at least consciously, and many people, including myself until a little while ago, don’t even know what it means.
Active Voice: Your subject (Joel) does something to the object (dog) of the sentence.
- Joel walks the dog.
Passive Voice: The subject (now dog) doesn’t do anything, it has something done to it.
- The dog is walked by Joel.
If you’re still confused about this there is a lot of content online explaining passive and active voice.
Active voice is much more direct, appears more confident, and it presents your message in a simpler way. If applicable, use this tone in your headline, as well as with your other writing.
9: Incorporate Your Keywords
You have to keep in mind we’re in this for the long haul. You should be creating a mix of timely and “evergreen content”, and if you want your content to have a lasting effect, you have to consider how it will be found.
Adding keywords to your headline might happen naturally when you opt for the “descriptive” style and are trying to include an answer to “what’s this about?”. However, when you’re writing, also consider how your audience will be searching in google. Sometimes a simpler title with a syntax exactly as they would type in Google is very effective. For example, “The Best Free Social Media Schedulers.”
BUT, before you settle on this type of headline do some research. What comes up in search results right now? Using a keyword tool like Google’s you can also see the search volume for your phrase. If there aren’t many searches for your exact phrase, you’ll probably be better off with a flashier headline using some of the other tips in this list.
Pro Keyword Tip:
Using a WordPress SEO plugin like Yoast gives you the ability to have a visible headline for your readers, and a page headline for SEO. This way you can have the best of both worlds, a catchy headline that intrigues readers, but you’re also likely to be found in search results if someone types in their simple question.
10: Ask A Question
Have you ever read a dumb article just because the headline asked you a seemingly very accurate or direct question? Yes. We all have. Internet psychologist Graham Jones cites a study that compared fact-based and question-based headlines, and the questions were notably more successful.
He also notes that self-referencing, that is questions directed specifically to the reader, are even more impactful. Graham explains, “The crucial thing about a self-referencing headline is that it triggers emotions. And it is emotion that leads to click throughs, rather than questions themselves. They are just one way of producing emotional connection.”
11: Address Your Reader Directly
Uncle Sam Wants You! It’s famous, and it speaks to me. It speaks to anyone. Because it addresses an individual, “you”, not just an idea. Use direct words and commands like “Don’t Try This Until You…” Pretend as though you have come across the ideal person to read your content, and you spoke the headline directly to their face. This will help you connect with your audience at a more personal level.
12: Describe A Benefit
We already mentioned answering the 5 W’s earlier, and the “What’s in it for me?” was in there, but it’s such an important factor that it needed its own line. If you don’t care about the other W questions, DO care about this one.
Every single reader that sees your headline will subconsciously, or consciously think, “what will I get out of seeing this content?” If you don’t answer that nagging question, there’s a million other people that will.
Example: 10 Secrets to Creating Engaging Content that Will Attract Readers
13: Surprise! Go Against the Norm
When someone reads a headline like “Animals in Captivity Are Good for Humanity”, it sparks curiosity because it is the opposite of the reader’s expectations. This can be a powerful tactic in getting someone to click through and read your content.
HOWEVER, going back to point number 4: Don’t Mislead. If your title says Animals in Captivity Are Good for Humanity, you article better be about that exact thing and have that opinion. The “bait and switch” is a common trap with these kinds of counter-intuitive headlines so be careful on this slippery slope.
14: Use Sub-Headlines to Add a Second Thought
The general idea is to keep your headline short, but when you have more to say you can also add a fake sub headline. One way is to add a hyphen after your initial headline, so that you can add an additional note, but your reader understands the first few words are what to focus on.
Example: 10 Time-Saving Ways to Water Your Lawn – Tips from The Pros
Now your reader knows that the title of your article is, 10 Time-Saving Ways to Water Your Lawn, but if they are still curious they can read the end-note to know that these are tips from professional lawn care experts. It can increase the value and the detail of the message, but it helps the title appear shorter than if you added those words inside your initial phrase.
15: Use Language Like a Lyricist
Songwriters and poets use tools like alliteration, similes, metaphors, cacophony, euphony, rhyme, and rhythm to capture the attention and engage the minds of their audience. These writing styles can all impact how well a headline can be read, remembered, or engaged with too. I know there are a lot of musical content marketers out there so get started and use those magical and emotionally moving motifs to accelerate your people into action!
16: State a Confident Position
The worst position to have is one that doesn’t choose a side. Your reader is interested in the first place because they either agree with you and want to know more, or disagree and want to understand your position (or simply argue with it). If you sit on the fence and argue both sides it appears unconfident, and doesn’t appeal to the human nature of wanting to be led. A “this product is okay, it has it’s good and bad” type of attitude will not get you clicks or readers.
Instead, formulate a position on your topic. Or a couple. State them clearly, be prepared to face opposition, but also be respectful of others’ opinions. Once you’ve done that, keep that position in mind when creating your headline to keep it congruent, descriptive, and meaningful to your reader.
The Cliffs Notes Version If You Skipped Down to the Bottom of this Article (I Saw You!):
- Choose a Headline Objective: Descriptive or Vague – Buzzfeed style headlines are popular, but they’re designed for maximum eyeballs not engagement and they don’t look professional for businesses, use descriptive headlines instead.
- Be Intriguing – Try to promote curiosity among your reader by teasing about something unusual you can answer in the article.
- Write Short (Ish) – 6 Words is ideal, focus on the first 11 characters and maximum 60 characters to avoid being cut off on Google results.
- Don’t Mislead – Your headline directs your readers to focus on something. If you want to inspire action, change behaviour or beliefs, or anything else it must be congruent with your content.
- Use Numbers – Our brains like numbers because they indicate structure, thoughtfulness of topic, expectations, and amount of value included.
- Answer the WWWWW – Who What Where When Why can be answered in fewer words than you think. Try to indicate as many as possible to inform your reader.
- Use Emotionally Driven Words – Facts don’t inspire people to click, the emotion of what the facts mean inspires us, elevate that meaning with emotional words in your headline.
- Use Active Instead of Passive Voice – Active voice provides simplification, clarity, and confidence to your message.
- Incorporate Your Keywords – Making your article searchable starts with keywords in your headline. Focus on trying to keep them to the beginning of the line to grab attention early, or simply go with common Google search phrases.
- Ask A Question – The stats show questions intrigue readers to continue, especially self-referencing questions.
- Address Your Reader Directly – You’re not talking to robots, refer to your reader as “You” in your headlines.
- Describe A Benefit – Everyone wants to know what’s in it for them. Why should they spend their precious time on your article? Give it to them early on.
- Surprise! Go Against the Norm – Breaking the convention and expectation of readers creates curiosity, which leads to action.
- Use Sub-Headlines to Add a Second Thought – Short headlines are great. When they’re not possible, use a hyphen to break up your headline so that the more important first part appears shorter.
- Use Language Like a Lyricist – Poetic tools like alliteration and rhyme etc. can grab attention and are pleasing to read.
- State a Confident Position – No one wants to read an article that sits on the fence on a topic and if your headline does they’ll never continue.
Clearly, you can’t follow every single one of these tips on every headline. They aren’t all compatible with each other, but you don’t want all your headlines to be the same either so it’s a good thing. You’ll heave plenty of articles to vary your headlines and try some of these different tips out.
Time to Practice:
Give it your best shot in the comments below. If you have an idea for your next article or piece of content, share your headline in the comments below and we can all try to help make it mind-blowingly good!