The following post was written by Noya Lizor, who was Director of Content at Viola from 2014-2019.
You know that intoxicating aroma that hypnotizes you when you walk past a bakery? My reaction is almost cartoon-like: My head spins around sharply and I allow my nose to lead me – as though in a trance – to the source of that divine yumminess. Well that’s pretty much the effect that headlines need to have these days in order to earn a click, because with so many headlines flooding the web, anything less than head-spinning-irresistibility (not to mention a genuinely crappy headline) could doom the content you worked so hard to create to eternal invisibility.
The internet has become a massive online smorgasbord of content in which publishers, bloggers and brands both big and small are all vying for the attention of passers-by, and if they’re particularly adept at online marketing, then not just any passers-by but specific audiences that are carefully targeted.
Whether you’re browsing through endless social network feeds or your overflowing inbox, googling for something specific, or just surfing for fun, you are invariably faced with a barrage of infinite content choices. If you exclude the gazillions of items of content shared via social networks and consider stats from just WordPress alone (which accounts for about 19% of all websites, and that stat is a year old so it’s probably way more by now), it’s mind-boggling: Around 50 million blog posts are published each month and the number just keeps rising.
Consequently, human beings have started to evolve from yesteryear’s content-hungry creatures that would devour any online fodder dangled before them, to extremely time-poor, fussy, content-fatigued digital consumers. As a new breed of evolved online beings we have no time for irrelevant content so we have become skilled online scanners who can determine within split seconds whether we want to click on something or not.
The average adult’s attention span is less than that of a goldfish (just 8 seconds) so if the thing that’s supposed to convince us to click on something doesn’t manage to do it in an instant, then we move on to the next item with ruthless indifference, and that’s because we have evolved into content snobs by pure necessity.
There are 2 things that can convince us (or fail to convince us) to click on an item of content when we’re in scanning mode: An image (which is a subject worthy of a whole other post) or a headline.
While 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, only 2 out of 10 will read the rest, so a blog post’s headline is at least as important to its success as the post itself. Some people argue that it’s even more important, like renowned direct marketer Drayton Bird and legendary adman David Ogilvy who have both opined that headlines should be written with the Pareto principle in mind (also known as the 80/20 Rule). Headlines, according to them, are so crucial to “selling” your post, that you should be spending 80% of your time writing the perfect headline in order to generate maximum readership.
These days a headline means very little within the context of the blog itself (although obviously it should always aim to be interesting and inviting) – it’s how it performs outside of the blog which is the key consideration for bloggers, because when they promote their posts online they are competing with hundreds (if not thousands) of other posts on similar topics that are also being promoted at the same time. The headline is essentially an advertisement for the post and it needs to communicate a few key things instantly so that it not only appeals to the right people but that they also feel compelled to click on it.
Because the internet is so overloaded with content and getting people’s attention is becoming increasingly difficult with so much competition, writing headlines that compel the right people to click on them has become both a science and an art. It involves more than just playing around with what “sounds good” (although that’s an important factor): It requires a calculated approach, the use of proven techniques and an understanding of best practices in writing for the web.
Here are some techniques and best practices to consider if you want to craft a highly clickable headline:
1. Be relevant.
Relevance is important because it helps readers ascertain very quickly if your post is worth reading. Remember, people’s time is scarce and they are very selective about what they’ll take the trouble to read, so if it’s not immediately apparent to them what benefit, reward or other worthwhile reason there is in reading your post, they probably won’t.
2. Be specific about the subject matter and the intended audience.
Certain subject matter can be discussed in many different contexts so a headline should be indicative not only of the specific content to follow, but also what type of reader stands to find it useful.
For example an article about fishing can be told from the perspective of “which fish are most suitable for an outdoor barbeque”, or from the perspective of “tips on fishing gear for deep sea fishing”. The first example would target people who are interested in recipes, cooking tips or outdoor entertaining, whereas the second example would target fishing enthusiasts who fish either as a hobby or for their livelihood. If the headline doesn’t imply anything specific about the post’s content – for example, if it read “The Best Fish, The Right Way” – then it may result in two possible outcomes.
It will be overlooked or ignored by the audience that it was intended for because its specific relevance to them wasn’t spelled out obviously enough.
If the headline is too vague, certain people may click on it but quickly realize that the post isn’t relevant to them after all (for example the fishing enthusiasts looking for fishing tips won’t necessarily care for recipes, and the outdoor entertainers won’t necessarily care about fishing gear) and they’ll bounce off the page quickly, which is bad for your website’s performance (more on that in Tip #14).
A more specific way to word the headline so that each audience knows instantly whether the post is relevant to them would be “The most delectable fish to serve up when you cook outdoors” and “Everything you need to know about deep sea fishing gear” respectively. Headlines that indicate at least to some extent who the post is suitable for as well as what the post is about not only boosts the likelihood of a click but also that the post will actually be read.
3. Being truthful.
Writing truthful and accurate headlines is far smarter than resorting to embellishment or click-bait (the practice of sensationalizing headlines or knowingly using misleading copy in the headlines in order to entice people to click).
Most of us are curious creatures by nature so a sensationalist or misleading headline may earn a click, but we also hate being fooled into doing something we might otherwise have chosen not to do if presented with truthful and accurate information, so this tactic will not only backfire with readers bouncing off the page feeling annoyed and misled, but it can also damage your online reputation. If you consistently write headlines that fail to live up to their promise in the post itself, people may eventually avoid clicking on any headline that is attributed to you as its author or to your blog, and this can take anywhere between a really long time to forever to rectify. Don’t write misleading headlines. Full-stop.
4, Use a relevant keyword or search phrase to help your target audience zero in on your blog post.
There are some who will argue that the use of keywords in headlines no longer carries the value that it used to, and they may be right to the extent that it’s not a “must follow” rule for every single headline you write, but in some cases, using a keyword or better yet a highly searchable long-tail phrase that’s trending among your target audience can work wonders if you want to attract a very specific niche.
Think of the keyword or search phrase as a beacon for people who are looking for a post that’s exactly about your subject matter. It helps the right people to zero in on the precise posts they’re looking for. Just use your common sense to determine whether using a keyword or search phrase in your headline is likely to boost its appeal for your target audience.
5. Be entertaining by upping the level of intrigue, humor or wit.
Many copywriting experts warn against trying to be “clever” when writing headlines, implying that using metaphors, analogies, cuteness or cryptic nuances don’t work as well as writing something straightforward. But there’s a difference between trying to do all those ‘clever’ things badly (resulting in crappy headlines that don’t work) and doing all of those things really well.
Perhaps inexperienced writers might try this technique and find it difficult, so they should forego it in favour of other effective techniques. But if you’re a skilled copywriter who can pull it off with relative ease, then why the hell not?
Online readers are bombarded with SO many headlines on a daily basis that a genuinely entertaining headline is a welcome breath of fresh air. Plus, if done well it can also be endearing, so readers may be more inclined to give your post a chance, merely as a reward for having managed to put a smile on their face.
Just a little caveat on writing entertaining headlines – some people mistake being ‘entertaining’ for being ‘sensationalist’ or ‘over the top’, but as I have already discussed, if a headline sounds too much like click-bait, it could backfire on you if the content on the other side of that link fails to live up to its over-the-top claims. So while it’s okay to emulate click-bait appeal when crafting your headline, just keep it honest and classy and you’ll still succeed in delivering entertainment value without polluting the internet with yet another click-baiting headline.
6. Capitalize on urgency, trending topics and newsworthiness.
The one undisputed constant in this world, is that things always change. There’s always something new popping up and if it’s appropriate for you to be writing about it for your blog, then adding your take on it is a great way to contribute to the mix of content that’s being created to fuel the rising demand for it in the blogosphere.
If you don’t feel that your expertise is extensive enough to venture your own original thoughts about a particular trending issue, you could also write a post that curates the best information available so far on that topical issue and get your hat in the mix that way.
7.Solve a problem or offer a clear benefit.
Whether you imply that you have a solution by phrasing the headline as a question or as a ‘How to’ tip-style article, chances are that it will be particularly appealing to the people who need that problem solved, but with a small caveat: This technique has been done to death, and whatever solution you’re offering has probably already been written about many, many, many times before.
So if you know that you’re probably going to be piling more tips on top of lots of similar, existing tips out there – try to find a unique angle or edge to your version and make a point of highlighting this unique angle in your headline.
For example, you could say “How to set a table for a formal dinner party”, but you’d stand out more with “How to set a table for a formal dinner party even a Downton Abbey Crawley would approve of”. Downton Abbey is watched by an estimated 120 million viewers worldwide so chances are that your target audience will appreciate your angle and even be curious to see how you follow through in your post (which should be a fun one to write). Even if the reader hasn’t got a clue about what Downton Abbey is, the added ‘twist’ at the end of the headline still makes it more interesting than without it.
If you’re not actually solving a problem or offering tips but still have something else of value to offer, like a piece of news or exclusive insights to share, be sure to make that the ‘star’ of your headline and of your post. For example, “Why setting your table properly at a formal dinner party is as important to impressing your guests as the food itself.”
8. Use a numbered list.
Some writers who take their artistry very seriously consider ‘List posts’ a little beneath them, possibly because when humans see a List Post they flock to it as though under a spell. There’s almost no challenge in writing a winning headline if it features a list because its click appeal is so high anyway. Nevertheless, since they are so popular, most bloggers have tried them at one point or another, and if they haven’t yet, it’s probably just a matter of time.
So what makes ‘list’ headlines so clickable? Hubspot’s Dan Lyons consulted “a few shrinks” to weigh in on the psychology behind the appeal of list posts, and some of their answers included the notion that they restore order in an otherwise chaotic world, that an author with superior expertise has managed to narrow the points down to ‘the most important’ ones rather than you having to do it yourself, and that they help us remember the items more effectively thanks to the use of a number (odd numbers seem to be more effective, according to McKinsey & Co. and other consulting firms).
Maybe there’s another inexplicable reason, and maybe list headlines are somewhat of a cop-out in terms of writing effort required, but love ‘em or hate ‘em, the damn things work.
9. Pose a question, use controversy, or try to trigger an emotional reaction.
Posing the headline as a question or a statement that suggests controversy or intrigue can really make a reader sit up and take notice if it happens to strike a chord. This one isn’t always appropriate because not all topics are capable of stirring emotion, but if it is appropriate to write a headline that triggers emotion and it’s written well, then it stands a good chance of being clicked.
10. Add an irresistible hint.
This is a technique widely used by websites that are renowned for using click-baiting, sensationalist headlines. Basically they include a lame lure, along the lines of “you won’t believe what happened next” or “what happened next will blow your mind”. This type of headline has been so overused to the point of screen-punching annoyance, and I believe (well, I pray…) that this type of phrasing will go the way of the Dodo bird very soon.
However, the concept of presenting a ‘regular’ headline and then adding a mini-teaser at the end can be extremely effective at piquing people’s curiosity. As long as your ‘irresistible hint’ refers to something specific in your post without being too cryptic or overly sensationalist, then your headline will be deliciously intriguing while remaining perfectly respectable. For example, “14 Tips for Writing Totally Irresistible Headlines (#10 is a psychological winner)”.
11. Use Data.
If you’ve ever wondered how your headline would fare if it included a statistic backed by research as opposed to not including it, wonder no more. Groove’s Alex Turnbull has done the experiment for all of us (comparing “The Simple Test That Increased Our Referrals” with “The Simple Test That Increased Our Referrals by 30%”) and found that the headline that included the statistic performed 40% better than the one without it. That’s an insane result! Also, there is evidence to suggest that sometimes using statistics to make a point can be more effective than telling a story.
So the moral of this story is that
you’d be 100% insane not to experiment with using research-backed data in your posts (and headlines) if the subject matter warrants it.
12. Consider word length.
There have been many studies on how the length of a headline affects its effectiveness, with usability research showing that people scan not just large chunks of text but also headlines. The consensus of these studies seems to be that the parts of the headline that resonate most with readers when they’re in ‘scanning mode’ are the first and last 3 words, suggesting that the ideal length of a headline is 6 words, but as Bnonn Tennant explains, it’s difficult to write a specific headline when limited to just 6 words:
“As a rule, if it won’t fit in a tweet it’s too long. But let me suggest that rather than worrying about length you should worry about making every word count. Especially the first and last 3.”
In another study by popular content discovery platform Outbrain to better understand how headline length impacts on engagement, their data team analysed 8 months’ worth of click-through data on over 100,000 English headlines that ran in their network.
“We found that moderate length performs best, with engagement declining as headlines approach either the shorter or longer end of the spectrum. Headlines with 60-100 characters earned the highest click-through rates and these rates declined as headlines decreased below 60 characters or increased beyond 100 characters.”
Similar findings were also found in relation to word length as opposed to character length:
“The highest click-through rates were again achieved at moderate headline lengths, with 16-18 word headlines performing better than headlines of any other word length.”
The astounding thing is that of the 100,000 headlines tested only 2% were in fact 16-18 words long (and generating the highest click-through rate), or in other words,
only 2% of writers are “getting headlines right” based on the Outbrain study.
A more recent study conducted by Outbrain together with HubSpot found similar results with regard to word length. Some of the other findings in the study have been labelled by some as ‘controversial’, especially with regards to which keywords are ‘proven’ to be effective and ineffective (some of the words deemed ‘ineffective’ in the study have actually been proven by other thought leaders in the industry to be the ‘most effective’, for example). But as the writers of the report explain, “Keep in mind that conversion rates will vary depending on your particular industry and audience. Which is why you should always test, test, test to determine what works and what doesn’t. ‘Best practices’ are simply guidelines to help provide you with a data-driven direction however they’re not certain for every audience.”
Nevertheless, if you combine all of the research, the conclusion is that
it’s best to try to keep the word length of your headline to a minimum – as long as it doesn’t compromise on your ability to deliver the necessary ‘punch’ in order to maximize its relevance, specificity and overall appeal.
13. Consider the goal of your content.
Are you offering social, viral style content or classic information-based content? Moz’s Rand Fishkin talks about the importance of considering ‘viral appeal’ versus ‘searcher intent’ when writing headlines. If your goal is to rank highly and drive lots of traffic or if the subject matter is light-hearted with high entertainment value, then a headline that feels viral will probably be most effective. Alternatively, if you’re offering informative, educational content that people might be searching for specifically, then thinking about searcher intent should be a top priority and you should consider writing a more search-optimized headline.
There’s a third type of content too which is more promotional in nature, where the marketing goal is for the readers to perform some sort of action, and this could fall into either category depending on the subject matter. Only rarely does a single headline nail all possible scenarios perfectly, so you need to write your headlines for maximum performance based on your goals and priorities.
14. A clickable headline shouldn’t be your only goal: Make sure that your content delivers on the headline’s ‘promise’ in order to maximize dwell time.
One of the reasons that click-bait headlines are so counterproductive is that it’s not enough to just get people to click on a headline anymore. Once they arrive at the page, if they can see that the content fails to live up to the claim of the headline, they will realize that they’ve been duped and leave the page within seconds. And if this is how most of the people who arrive on the page feel, then you’ll be left with a horribly high bounce rate, and that can reflect very poorly on your site, damaging not only its ranking in search results but also your credibility as a ‘worthwhile’ source of content.
The problem with Bounce Rates is that it can sometimes be a misleading metric to judge the quality of content, because bounce rates actually refer to the percentage of people who visit a page in your site and then leave the site without visiting any other pages, and it doesn’t distinguish between people who stay for a few seconds and leave, as opposed to people who spend 15 minutes reading a riveting post (which is obviously highly engaging) and then leave.
That’s why factors like dwell time and Adjusted Bounce Rates – which also take into consideration the time that visitors spend on a page – are becoming increasingly important for search engines in their determination of a site’s content quality.
The more accurately your headlines describe the content that’s about to follow after people click on it, the less chance there is that they will feel ‘surprised’ or ‘let down’ by the content they actually find and the more inclined they will be to read and engage with it.
So there they are, my 14 tips to help you write headlines that smell of freshly baked pastries rather than sweaty socks. It’s a lot of, um, food… for thought and it doesn’t necessarily make the task of writing headlines any easier because it still takes a lot of thought, creativity and practice, but hopefully these tips will help you consider which technique is most relevant for each post depending on your subject matter, your intended audience and your overall goals.
As a reward for making it all the way to the end of this post, here are a few curated links to headline-writing formula guides for ‘emergencies’ (a.k.a. when your deadline is looming and you need to ace your headline in a hurry):
1. 30+ Ultimate Headline Formulas for Tweets, Posts, Articles, and Emails (via Buffer Blog)
2. 10 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas That Work (via Copyblogger)
4. How To Write Award Winning Blog Headlines (via Entrepreneurs-Journey.com)
5. 13 Types of Blog Headlines That Will Get You More Traffic (via HubSpot)
14 Surprising Statistics About WordPress Usage by Tom Ewer via ManageWP Blog
A live look at activity across WordPress.com via WordPress.com
Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say by Michael S. Rosenwald via The Washington Post
Attention Span Statistics via Statistic Brain
Writing Headlines That Get Results by Brian Clark via Copyblogger
Pareto’s 80:20 rule in Marketing by Dave Chaffey via Smart Insights
It’s All in Your Head: 9 Reasons You Can’t Resist a List by Dan Lyons via HubSpot Blog
Install This Anti-Upworthy Plug-In. What Happens Next Will Make Your Face Melt and Your Kidneys Burst by Jennifer Miller via Fast Company
How and Why To Write Persuasive, Research-Backed Content by Alex Turnbull via Buffer Blog
Can You Write a Better Headline Than This? Not Using Old Headline Formulas You Can’t by Bnonn Tennant via KISSmetrics
How Headline Length Impacts Engagement by Alex Bennett via Outbrain blog
Headline Writing and Title Tag SEO in a Clickbait World by Rand Fishkin via MOZ blog
How headlines affect your blog’s dwell time and why you should care by Noya Lizor via Viola Notes
Tracking Adjusted Bounce Rate In Google Analytics by Alexey Petrov via Google Analytics blog
Understanding the Impact of Dwell Time on SEO by Neil Patel via SearchEngine Journal
Death to Pageviews. All Hail Engaged Time, the New King of Content Metrics by Paul Fredrich via Contently