Your headline may be the most important thing you write, even for a 10,000-word long-form blog post or an academic white paper.
It’s your first point of contact with a reader.
Your headline or title lets people know what you are going to talk about, and hopefully why it matters to them.
David Ogilvy, a famous advertising tycoon, was famous for writing over 100 headlines for one advertisement. Upworthy uses this practice and weaves it into their editorial process. They tell their content creators: “You HAVE to crap out 25 headlines for every piece of content.”
When your headline is done right it can lead to millions of social media shares, massive click-through rates for targeted landing pages, and create a viral buzz around just about any topic you want to discuss.
What’s more, a great headline can save you truckloads of money.
Ogilvy also said that five times as many people read the headline as the copy of your article or post. Writing an effective headline means you’ve ostensibly spent 80 cents out of your marketing dollar. You may as well make it count.
Jeff Bullas gives a few examples of headlines that went viral (on Buzzfeed, Viral Nova and Upworthy):
- “This Short Film Shows Just How Terrifying Life is for LGBT People in Russia”
- “Where in London Should You Actually Live?”
- “22 Messages from Creationists to People Who Believe in Evolution”
- “What’s Your Hidden Talent?”
- “Why Are You Single”
So, what’s the secret code? Can you tell by looking at these sample headlines?
BuzzSumo analyzed more than a million headlines and found that the best-performing ones had these traits:
1. They Contained These Phrases:
- Will Make You
- This is Why
- Can We Guess
- Only X is
- Are Freaking Out Because
- Tears of Joy
- Is What Happens
- Give Your Goosebumps
- Shocked to See
- Can’t Stop Laughing
- Melt Your Heart
- Talking About It
Notice that many of these phrases are emotion-instilling and action-oriented.
2. They Provoke Curiosity
Headlines that provoke curiosity or voyeurism do the best on Facebook, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start a blog post with a headline like, “What Happened After This Woman Ate a Meatie Dog Will Shock You” to sell vegan hotdogs.
3. Headlines that Appeal to a Particular Tribal Identity are Highly Engaging
- 17 Things Only Moms Will Understand
- 22 Poses Only a Yogi Could Love
- 15 Things Only a Bro Can Share with Other Bros
- 19 Things Only Gen-Xers Really Get
4. Awe-inspiring Headlines Use Superlatives Like “Great,” “Awesome,” “Terrifying,” or “Unforgettable”
Just be sure to back up these bold claims within the article or social media share’s content to prove what you are saying.
5. Amazing Headlines are Never Click-Baity
While you may get people to click on your site with click-baited titles, you will also drive traffic away once they start reading and realize that the title is over-exaggerated or has nothing to do with the information being presented. It’s also not going to build trust, which is what Harvard Business says is the most important factor in marketing today.
6. Great Headlines are Creative
They’re super creative, but awesome headlines don’t make you say, “Hmm, that’s so creative.” They make you say, “Wow, I need to try that” because what is presented is so interesting FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) kicks in.
7. Viral Headlines May Shock You Into Action
Check out this one from the British Columbia Lung Association:
What effect does this headline have on you? Do you think it works better than just talking about the dangers of smoking? You know it does. It elicits a visceral reaction.
8. Clickable Headlines are Written for a Very Specific Demographic
In the banking industry, they have KYC laws, otherwise known as “know your customer.” In marketing, it’s just called demographics. If you want to write great headlines, you’ve got to target your perfect audience. If your primary demographic is 26-45-year-old men who love sports, you’re going to write very different headlines for them than you would for 33-40-year old mothers who want to green their homes before a new baby arrives.
For assistance in targeting your ideal audience, there are now even AI learning programs that help. Using gender, age, race, religious beliefs, geographic location, and past purchasing habits, AI can help you take the guesswork out of who you need to be targeting. Demografy is one example, but many other start-ups with AI tools come out almost weekly.
9. Great Titles or Headlines Aren’t Vapid or Petty
Assume your audience is a wise old woman. She wants to know all the reasons why something is the way it is or works the way it does. Empty promises or stupid slogans aren’t going to go viral.
10. Great Titles Use Language that Everyone Understands
There may be a time to use highly technical or dazzling literary terms that would be lost of most folks, but don’t do it for 99.99999% of all the articles you write. The most-read posts on the Internet are written on a 9th-grade-level, and your titles usually should be too. If you think it’s beneath your genius to do so, consider that Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is written so that a 4th grader can understand it.
11. The Most Rocking Titles Draw Blood. They Go for the Jugular
Have you ever read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War? He says, “If your opponent is of choleric temperament, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.” While your target audience is not your enemy, you can bow to their baser needs like sex, food, hunger, answers like cause and effect, etc. (we all have them) and go for the jugular with your title.
Speak to their reptilian brains.
This is the part of the brain that controls our behavior even without our conscious awareness.
The reptilian complex in the brain motivates us to move toward pleasure, and away from pain. Since this is such a massive evolutionary drive in most of us, don’t fight it. Be smarter than the person who doesn’t realize that they are driven by these base needs, and speak to them. Either tell them what they will lose if they don’t act on something or tell them what pleasure can be had if they do go for something. It works in the same way, on both sides of the motivation spectrum.
Summing it Up
The most clickable, viral headlines are worth more than any other piece of content that you ever write. Make sure they go for the base desires and needs of the right demographic, and you’ll see click-through rates and engagement with your content soar.