The Power of the Headline

by Mintent Staff on Oct 25, 17

You’re not one of those people who just knock off a headline in a minute or two, right?

You’d never do that. At least I hope not.

Because, you know, “those people” who toss out just any old headline…?

They’re missing out. Big time.

Neil Patel  says, “The headline accounts for up to 50% of your blog post’s effectiveness.”

He might even be underestimating that. Because this is the difference between a headline that just gets tossed out and a headline that nails it:

David Ogilvy himself, author of what are considered to be several of the most valuable books on marketing said,

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

Know why headlines are so epically powerful? It’s simple, really.

We’re lazy.

I know, I know – you’re not lazy. But those other people (not just the ones who slack off on their headlines) they’re lazy. Most people – most readers – are lazy.

They – as the saying goes – judge a book by its cover. They judge articles by their headlines.

We’re all so lazy, in fact, that most of us aren’t reading the stuff we share online. We just see the headline, maybe see who published it, and voila: That piece of content gets shared.

And even if we do read an article (or watch a video, or listen to a podcast), what the headline says will shape our entire experience of consuming that content. The headline “frames” what we’ll experience. This is why if you can nail your headlines, you’ll get massively more results from your content. It’s possible to literally double your clicks and traffic.

If you’ll just spend a few minutes thinking about how to get that headline right.

Here’s how we propose you spend those minutes (or maybe even a whole hour):

 

  1. Try.

It’s obvious, simple… and nobody wants to do it. But if you just put a little work into your headlines, you’ll write better ones.

Many excellent content marketers and writers (including Pamela Wilson of Copyblogger and the writers at Upworthy) have a rule that they write 25 headlines for every piece of content they write.

It sounds like overkill. Like it would take an hour to come up with that many headlines.

But it’s not that hard. And it doesn’t take that long. Only about ten minutes.

  1. Cheat.

Think you can’t write 25 headlines on your own? You can, but if you’re going to be stubborn about it (or you want to cheat), fire up BuzzSumo and enter the primary keyword for the piece you’re writing the headline for.

You’ll get back the most-shared articles and other content formats for that keyword. “Borrow” phrases from those headlines, or just use them to loosen up your fingers as you type those headlines.

 

That’s just the first way to steal some good ideas. An even better trick is to start your own “swipe file”. That’s an old copywriting term for pieces of content you admire and would like to swipe from for later projects.

Please take note: We do not advise plagiarism. We advise inspiration. For inspiration on getting inspiration from other people’s work, read the marvelous book, “Steal Like an Artist”. There are also dozens of “headline formats” blog posts and resources online. This one from Copyblogger is good, and there are more like this.

Just use these templates like salt – a pinch rather than a pound – or your content will start to sound stilted and too “me too” over time.

There’s also the lists of “most popular content we published this year” that almost every major website puts out. Do a quick search of “our most shared blog posts” plus a keyword and you’ll turn up some lists. Or just paste a site’s URL into BuzzSumo and they’ll show you what did best. (This is also excellent for snitching ideas from competitors.)

  1. Delegate.

If you really hate the idea of writing 25 headlines, delegate it. Task an intern or an in-house writer or a freelancer to write you 25 headlines for a piece you’ve just finished. Somebody new on Fiverr who doesn’t have a long wait list might be able to help out, too.

You won’t be getting an ace copywriter, but that doesn’t mean that one of those 25 headlines won’t be an accidental gem.

Just check their work a little.  The Advanced Marketing Institute’s Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer is a helpful tool. Use the results you get back from those tools as a guide, not the definitive assessment of whether the headline is good or not.

  1. Be Specific.

 

One common mistake of newbie headline writers is to try to be, well, literary. This often results in a headline that does not include the one essential thing every headline for a piece of content on the web must have: A keyword.

Why must you have a keyword in your title? Because if you’re like most content marketers, you’d like some organic search traffic to come to your new piece of content.

Even if that doesn’t happen, there’s the recognition factor: People “surf” the web – skim in – scan it. They don’t read it. If your headline sounds nebulous, they’re likely to skip right over it.

If they can only get one thing from your headline, they want this: Clarity.

Here’s an example of clarity, plus a lovely diagram of many of the elements that make headlines work. It’s based on data gathered and crunched by BuzzSumo:

 

We’ll talk about some of the other elements that make this particular headline work, but let’s get back to clarity and ease of recognition. Especially when it comes to search engines.

Namely, the very powerful title tag.

This is the HTML tag that showcases the title of your page. It is the first and most prominent line of the search engine listing your page shows in the search results. And so your headline should ideally fit within the space allowed for that headline… or it should at least be understandable and even compelling even if it gets truncated in the search results.

Like this:

The title tag with the arrow pointing to it has used the pipe symbol to help make their title tag work at different lengths. Still… many would not consider that truncation a good thing. They’d prefer to be like the first search result. Others might want to use every character of the 70-character space, like the fourth listing here as done.

Ninja trick: Thanks to Brian Dean’s Yo Rocket WordPress Plugin, it’s possible to split-test your title tags. This alone can double or triple your organic traffic, and as it’s so closely related to headlines, it’s another headline hack you might want to try.

One final piece of advice about clarity: Avoid clickbait. Those are headlines that make huge, impossible to resist promises… but don’t deliver on those promises once you click through. This annoys readers, and, increasingly, social media platforms are actively working to stop the practice.

  1. Test.

It’s all theory until your piece gets published. So if you want to keep improving your content even after publication, test.

There are a few WordPress plugins (like Title Experiments Free or KingSumo Headlines that make it quite painless if you’re on that platform.

 

  1. Use others peoples’ research.

We’ve mentioned the tools available to come up with headline ideas, but that’s hardly the only resource available to you.

There have also been a slew of headline research studies over the years. Marketers have crunched up to a million headlines at a time to try to develop a scientific formula for the ideal headline.

They haven’t achieved that, of course. But they have identified some very interesting trends.

One of the most recent and comprehensive headline studies is from BuzzSumo. It’s focused on social media headlines, but it probably applies to websites, too. It particularly focused on “trigrams” – three-word phrases.

There’s also older research (and more than one study) that found “list posts” tend to get the most shares and engagement:

 

According to that same BuzzSumo research, including the numbers 10, 5, 15 or 7 in your posts will boost engagement.

And some words seem to attract people’s attention more than others:

As with any study, take this all with a grain of salt. But definitely use these as data points when you’re working through that list of 25 headlines.

  1. Check for duplicates.

Did you discover the most epically perfect headline ever penned? Good for you. Now, go run an exact match search for it on Google (i.e., search the title in quotes, as in “The Sound and The Fury of Facebook Analytics”).

Hold your breath, because there’s a real chance somebody’s already used it. We are, after all, cumulatively publishing about 2 million blog posts plus per day. Many excellent headlines have already been used.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use them again, though. So long as your editorial policy spells out when it’s okay or not okay to use already-published headlines.

 

Further thoughts

Headlines are a mystery mix of psychology, data, language, and technology. That’s what makes them fun. But it’s also why it’s so hard to quantify which headline will perform best.

You can never really be sure until you test. And until you bend the rules a bit. So use the tools. Read the studies. Steal from the best headlines as ethically as you can. But let your heart play as much of a part of this as your head.

That’s what your readers are going to do.