People like to say, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” even though they do it all the time.
Well-written, well-researched blog posts aren’t enough- they need an equally captivating headline. Besides a featured image, they’re the first point of contact between your content and your intended audience.
With the pace of social media and technology, our attention span for long, written content is fleeting. That’s why some headlines are called “clickbait”- they’re literally designed to entice a click.
Learning from Clickbait, Without Writing Clickbait
Buzzfeed is one of the great masters of clickbait, known for their minimal content, usually in a listicle format, combined with some captivating headline. Their post, “25 Ways To Tell You’re A Kid Of The 90s” has over three million views, and they produce dozens of articles daily.
On the flipside, Buzzfeed’s content has been criticized for a number of reasons, from low-effort and plagiarism to poor research and sensationalism. So despite Buzzfeed’s reputation, what makes these headlines so alluring that people continue to click on their posts?
In this article, we’ll analyze what makes clickbait headlines effective, and then see how we can use those same techniques for our own blog posts without questioning our integrity.
Tips for Creating Effective Headlines
Find some inspiration.
Which articles have you clicked on recently? How were their headlines written? Which emotion or need did it appeal to? Ask yourself these questions as you go about browsing news on Facebook, Reddit or, Apple News. It’s a good exercise to start getting into the headline-writing mindset.
Also, be sure to check out HubSpot’s Blog Ideas Generator, which allows you to plug in a few nouns and then generates some headline ideas worth experimenting with. Don’t use what they suggest, they’re usually generic and overused anyway. Use it as a stepping stone.
Draft something bad, then edit until it’s good.
One of the first things a writer has to learn that a bad first draft is better than no draft at all. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t great to start with, you don’t have to show anyone until it is. But writing it down will help lead you in the right direction. Write down a rough idea of what you want to write about, and then brainstorm some headlines.
Think of your audience.
Are your readers professional or casual? Are they wealthy or modest? Sophisticated or simple? Answering these questions will not only help you tailor your content, it’ll also help you write your headlines.
If you’re writing for a blog on investment, it may be best to develop a formal tone, enhancing your authority and credibility. If you’re writing about pop culture events and sharing it on social media, including more casual language, humor, and exaggeration.
Ask yourself about your audience’s wants and needs, as well as their biggest challenges. This should give you an idea about which stories or keywords you need to emphasize. If you need a little guidance, Xtensio has a useful user persona creator with the typical traits, characteristics, needs and challenges that persona profiles attempt to address.
Not too short, not too long.
Headline length is important because it sometimes acts as a measure of someone’s attention span. Write too long of a headline and people get confused or bored, too short and people won’t have enough information to seek more.
CoSchedule has written an extensive post on headline length, and it generally varies depending on the channel and purpose. But according to their research, the optimal characters for a headline for the following are:
Facebook: 40 characters
Google SERP: up to 70
Overall, a headline of about 70 characters seems to be the sweet spot for both social media and search purposes. If anything, these character limits will force you to become a more succinct writer.
Include a target keyword or keyphrase.
There’s actually a lot that goes into targeting a specific keyword or phrase. In fact, we could write a whole new post on that alone.
The best thing to remember is that you want to target a keyword that accomplishes three things:
Indicates search intent
Helps your page or website’s rank (without too much difficulty)
Relates to what your business can offer
For blog posts, it’s usually best to come up with a long tail keyword which contains multiple words. This is because they are more likely to indicate search intent, which means they are more likely to convert. There are dozens of different tools available that can help suggest the right keyword to select, such as keywordtool.io or SERP’s Keyword Research tool, which suggests similar phrases to a keyword you enter.
Your best plan of action is to use Google’s Keyword Planner. You just need to enter your website, a keyword or phrase for your service, and a category. Google will then pull a list of keywords like below:
In this image, “financial service” was typed in as a service for a fictional website. It then populated the list with search volume, competition difficulty, and suggested bid. As you can see, we organized the list by Average monthly searches, from the most searched to the least searched. You can download this as a spreadsheet and highlight the keywords that are high in monthly search volume, but medium to low in competition. This will make it easier to rank for those particular topics.
There are far more detailed and powerful apps such as Ahref’s Keyword Explorer, which some agencies have access to, but they’re a little more complex and require more experience. We’ll cover in-depth keyword research another time, so stay tuned.
Convert it into a list.
Have you noticed that a lot of articles start with numbers or lists? That’s because people on social media are typically flicking through articles and comments, they’re not invested in reading. Lists provide quick, simple information and immediate gratification. They’re essentially content for people who like to skim and only read the headers and paragraphs. Even if you don’t want to do this to your content, consider starting the headline with a number.
In a study of over 100m online article headlines conducted by content insights agency, BuzzSumo, the top headline phrase was “will make you,” with 8961 average Facebook engagements, and the top starting headline phrase was “x reasons why…” at 5121 average engagements (followed by “x things you…” at 4690). X referred to a number.
In the same study, BuzzSumo found that “10” was the most common number to start a headline with.
So just picture the headline, “10 Reasons Why ___________ Will Make You ______.” It already sounds like a template you could use and modify. In fact, it sounds like a majority of Buzzfeed’s articles!
If you do turn your post into a list, don’t pad out the length by adding a bunch of irrelevant points, or by separating each point into a page of its own. Readers want a convenient experience, not a complicated one.
Add a little emotion in your titles. Nothing gets people to act faster than introducing fear and desire.
Here are a few examples:
“5 Steps to Website Security You Can Trust” from CopyBlogger – This headline is simple but strikes a simple chord: fear. Is your website safe? Can you trust your web security? The answers can only be discovered by clicking on it (Note, it has a number at the start!).
“The iPhone 8 reviews are out and here’s what people are saying” from CNBC – iPhones are always a hot topic, but when you time it with an announcement and “what people are saying,” there’s a sense of intrigue and curiosity that you just can’t escape.
“Anna Faris Thinks Being a Guys’ Girl Is Overrated” from Cosmopolitan – Magazines are masters of manipulating words in a headline. Usually, this is accomplished through a celebrity or influencer, their opinion on something, and then twisting their words just enough to elicit a little controversy.
Try a few adjectives or phrases to explore various emotions in your headlines. Combine fear with a physical health blog. Or empathy with a pet adoption blog. What can you come up with?
Entice and exaggerate.
So you may not want to write clickbait, but you can still formulate engaging headlines! How do you do this? By teasing certain information, and withholding it in the blog page content. This may require exaggeration through adjectives or bold claims.
“Why Strong Customer Relationships Trump Powerful Brands” from Harvard Business Review – HBR has some fantastic headlines and starting one with “Why,” followed by a trend or observation, coupled with adjectives, resulting in some attractive writing.
“Fat Shaming vs Body Acceptance: Is it okay to be fat?” from Nerd Fitness – Sometimes the best way to entice is to ask a question. People will naturally want to seek out the answer.
“Which Of The 10 Types of Girlfriends Are You?” from POPxo – Everyone wants to learn more about themselves, especially if it relates to their behavior or their psychographic profile.
BONUS: Match with imagery.
While not a secret to writing a headline per se, having a powerful image that supports or reinforces the themes in your headline can go a long way. Consider hiring a professional photographer, or purchasing a stock photo license. Simply pulling images from Google comes with a risk of copyright infringement, or just looks plain and tacky.
Let’s imagine for a second that you want to write a blog on staying productive during work. If you had to choose an image below, which would you choose? This one:
Or this one?
Both are free stock images from Unsplash, but each one carries a different connotation. Both seem like minimalist setups, but the image on the bottom suggests a little more playfulness with the headphones and the tilted coffee cup. Whichever one you choose, try to match it with the tone and intention of your headline.
Beyond the Headline
Headlines are just one aspect of your blog post or article, but they carry such significance because of how busy your readers are, and how much little time you have to capture their attention. Remember to provide valuable, relevant content in a simple and engaging way. There are a million ways to do this, but if you continuously think of your reader and how to improve their reading experience, the headline writing becomes easier and easier.
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