No matter what kind of a website you have, the one thing that is always true is that your headlines are really important. Headlines affect things like user engagement, readability, conversions, SEO, social sharing, and even click-throughs.
- 80% of people will read a headline, but only 20% of people will read the article. Whether or not you snag that extra 80% depends on the magnetism of your headline.
- A really good headline can spike your traffic by 500%.
It’s worth putting the time and effort into crafting a beautiful headline! I’ve studied headlines very carefully and learned this powerful truth. Success lies in creating masterful headlines.
So, before we get into how you can create and leverage magnetic headlines, let’s first go over what’s changing.
What’s changing in headline creation?
You’ve probably read a thing or two about developing a great headline. Beware of anyone who tells you that headlines have to be a certain way. Web content is an evolving entity. Even so-called “magnetic” headlines have changed over its short history.
In 1998, a “how to write headlines” article from Jakob Nielsen dictated that you should never use “‘cute’ or ‘clever’ headlines.” Tell that to Viral Nova. They shot up from zero to seventy million unique visitors in just a few months. Why? Headlines. And, yes, most of them are cute and clever. Their headlines are nothing like the web has seen before. I’ll talk about them below.
It just goes to show that what’s popular and trending in headlines is always changing. Headlines are like trends in fashion — they come and go, changing and shifting with popular sentiment and contemporary concern. In order to capitalize on popular headline trends, you’ve got to stay aware.
Takeaway: Keep up with the trends in headline creation.
What do you want from a headline?
What is the perfect headline?
That question is impossible to answer. Instead, you need to ask the question “what’s the perfect headline for my situation?” Headlines are going to vary based on three things:
- Your goal
- Your audience
- Where the headline will be promoted
First, let’s answer the question “what’s the goal of this headline?”
In other words, what do you want your headline to do for you?
If your headline is intended to boost your social presence, it needs to have viral and linkbait elements. If your headline is for an SEO-centric content marketing strategy, the headline needs to contain the right mix of long tail keywords and engaging language. If your goal is conversions, then you’ll need conversion-generating language for your headline.
Second, ask “who is this headline for?”
Your audience needs to be at the forefront of your mind when you write a headline. Who are these people? What do they like? How do they think? What’s their favorite drink?
You will have to write a headline that’s basically a personal letter to your target persona. Think of them; write for them; target them.
Finally, ask “where is this going to be promoted?”
The final factor has to do with where the headline is going to be promoted. For example, Twitter’s character limit prevents you from posting long headlines. Google+ and Facebook use easy picture embeds. Twitter’s picture may or may not appear in a Twitter feed, depending on the app. These key differences mean critical alterations to the headline, associated image, and any preview text.
Look at how Viral Nova implements these small but important alterations across three different platforms:
The headline remains largely the same, but there are additions of a teaser (Facebook), and a picture.
You want to make sure that you’re utilizing all the channels, but you may wish to adapt your headline slightly to maximize all the features of a particular social channel.
Takeaway: Write a headline that meets your goals, connects with your audience, and matches your promotional strategy.
What’s changing in headline creation?
In the field of headline creation, there are five traditional types called the “high-level headline types.”
- Normal (Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful) – you’ll see these just about everywhere. Traditional newspapers and magazines practice this kind of headline creation.
- Question (What are Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful?) – strategic or scintillating questions have been a staple of headlines for a long time. It’s assumed that these questions will interest the viewer enough for him or her to read the article to get the answer to the question.
- How to (How to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful) – the “how to” headline style is a great way to offer something directly to your readers that they are interested in. It’s a problem-solution approach, and it works great. WikiHow and eHow are popular sites that are built on the how-to idea.
- Number (30 Ways To Make Drinking Tea More Delightful) – the numbered headline is probably the most popular to-date. Have you read BuzzFeed recently? You will get an eyeful of numbers. (And you will desperately want to click.)
- Reader-Addressing (Ways You Need to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful) – there are plenty of article titles that confront the reader with an alleged need. These headlines often start with “why.”
Though Moz’s list above covers the main headlines, recent trends have created a new category.
I call it the “emotional intrigue” headline.
Apparently, this model works. The Atlantic snagged a screenshot of Viral Nova’s analytics. This site, a pioneer in the emotional intrigue headline, somehow accomplished getting north of one hundred million unique visitors in just a few months.
The site is run by a guy working from his living room in Ohio. It’s popular, in part, because of its attention-grabbing headlines.
The headlines are pure bait, but they’re also sheer genius.
Already, other sites are catching on.
These headlines leverage human curiosity. They use first-person style and shock-value language to make you want to click.
They’re getting more popular. An author at TheGuardian.com writes, “Here are three headlines I found recently when I visited Viral Nova, a curation site I’ve got a horrible feeling may represent the future of the web.”
Sites like these use social fuel — Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc. That’s where the reading, sharing, and viral activity really happens. But such sharing can’t happen without the headlines, serving as catalysts for your readers’ actions.
Raw, shocking, intriguing, curious, and racy, these headlines tap into something deep within the human psyche. They tug, question, offend, or humor us enough to make us stop, click, look, and share.
These are powerful headlines.
Takeaway: To cash in on the power of headlines, use a combination of these methods.
How do I create a powerful headline?
So, we come to the clutch question — how do you do it? How do you write these brilliant, psychologically moving headlines that create a 500% traffic upswing or claw their way to worldwide recognition?
Let me give you four simple tips.
- Dominate your niche – don’t expect to be the next Buzzfeed, Upworthy, or Viral Nova. I’m all about shooting for the moon, but I need to provide caution. Are you trying to be the next viral social sharing information aggregator? Then, go ahead; duke it out with Viral Nova. But ideally you should focus on dominating your own niche.
- Imitate what’s good – as I mentioned, keep a pulse on the trends in headline writing. You want to find out what’s working and then go out and do it for your audience. Go ahead and employ the strategic techniques used by the winners in the industry. The saying “good artists copy; great artists steal” has some merit, even in headline creation. Genius is imitation.
- A/B test the heck out of it – the most reliable information comes from your own investigation. Conduct A/B testing as early, as often, and as aggressively as possible. Viral Nova’s headlines show every sign of rigorous A/B testing. Upworthy editors have to write 25 headlines and then use a testing software to select the best one. I’m an inveterate tester and have discovered massive traffic and conversion increases from simple A/B tests. I recommend conducting at least one new A/B test every other month, although more frequently is better.
- Own your language – headlines boil down to this: words. You’ve got to have an expert ability to express yourself in the language in which you are writing your headlines. Since your article’s success depends on the headline, spend plenty of time tweaking words, trying iterations, and testing your versions on friends and unsuspecting colleagues. Words, sounds, definitions, synonyms, verbs — these are the ingredients of headlines. Create something amazing.
If you want to become a master of social media, of content strategy, or indeed of digital marketing itself, you will first have to become a master of smart headlines.
There is nothing more satisfying than looking at your analytics and seeing that brilliantly-strategized headline delivering explosive traffic and unbelievable share metrics. This kind of satisfaction is completely within your reach.
Go for it.