5 Ways to Write Killer Headlines from 5 Experts

As an online writer, you’ve surely come across many a post about how to create a stellar headline. And you’ve likely found that it’s not as easy to do as prescribed.

Should you go for the sexy headline that invites clicks? Or for the one that is sure to position in the search engines with optimization? Or perhaps the one that is choice for social sharing?

But…what if you could accomplish all of the above with one headline?

We called on five copywriting wizards to share their strategies for writing an amazing headline, posing this question:

Obviously, a “good” headline should clearly convey to readers what they can expect from a post and serve their interests. Given that, what is your strategy for writing a headline that captures clicks, leverages SEO and invites social sharing?

Their illuminating responses are as brilliant as their headlines…

larry-kim

Larry Kim (@larrykim), Founder & CTO of WordStream, Inc.

 I optimize for insanely high social sharing that in turn, generates the links that will make this asset rank very highly. Months later, after the links have been acquired, I can revisit the content and do some on-page SEO tweaks. Take this recent article about working mothers, for example:

larry-kim-example

This thing got 23 thousand shares in just a few days – why? Child rearing is an INSANELY powerful emotional trigger. You can bet that every mom that saw this thing wanted to confirm or defend their life choices by sharing this thing. You really do only get milliseconds to grab a reader’s attention and convince them to share or click through and read the rest of your article.

Do your research. It’s totally pointless to spend an hour or more writing something and then slap whatever title you came up with off the top of your head on it. I do the opposite: I use BuzzSumo to see what else is most popular right now and research a topic that I know will do well. From there, I just fill in the article. Meaning, the title comes first, not last.

Leave a “knowledge gap” to pique the curiosity of your readers; this is why those crazy “You Won’t Believe What Happens…” titles work. You need to find your hook — that unusual, different, original take on it that makes your content really awesome — but then don’t forget to highlight that in your title.

Of course, you want to use relevant keywords, but watch the length, too. Keep it short and punchy. If there are any unnecessary words, cut them out. Resist the urge to be too descriptive; you don’t want to give away the whole article in the title. Most importantly though, make sure your content delivers on the promise of your title so you can keep that engagement and sharing high.

Take a look at this tweet that leverages the curiosity gap idea and got over a thousand retweets, which then generated hundreds of thousands of pageviews:

larry-kim-twitter

 

See how that works? Boom!

 

ian-lurie

Ian Lurie (@portentint), CEO of Portent

Here’s my shot:

  • I start by writing a headline that’s fully descriptive. It has to tell the reader exactly what they’ll see when they start reading.
  • Then I work to provide a ‘hook.’ That may mean including one of the basic power words: What/how/win/lose etc.
  • Then I think about my audience. This sounds backwards, I know, and I don’t mean that I ignore my audience at step 1. I mean I look for inside jokes, hot buttons, pet peeves, etc. that might help me connect more directly with them.

That’s it. I try to keep things simple. But I do quite a bit of work tweaking and changing. I believe the content matters a lot, but the headline is the entry point into the larger piece, so I really want to get it right.

 brian-massey

Brian Massey (@bmassey), Founder of Conversion Sciences

 Headlines are hard because they are burdened with great responsibility. We think a great conversion-oriented headline must do the following:

1. Keep the promise. Whatever was promised in the ad, link, email or social share should be reiterated in the headline. If the page is receiving organic traffic, the keyword is the promise. Be sure your headline contains the right words for searchers.
2. Chase away the wrong visitors. Writing a great headline means knowing who you want to draw in to the page. By definition, this means letting go of almost everyone else.
3. Include the phone number. If you want visitors to call, including the phone number in the headline is a great way to entice that.
4. Test and retest. You will be surprised by what works for you.

Questions?

glenn-murray

Glenn Murray (@divinewrite), Founder of Divine Write

 Headlines are a creative thing for me. So it’s hard to describe how I craft them. I don’t follow rules or even have a conscious strategy. That’s not to say I don’t have a strategy at all; I’ve just never tried to articulate it. Indeed, I wasn’t even able to answer this question without deconstructing some of my old blog headlines. You may as well see that deconstruction…

Here’s a collection of some headlines I’ve written that seemed to drive traffic and prompt people to comment on the headline itself. Along with each, I’ve written a quick description of why I think it was successful.

  • Why I prefer ass – This would be confronting for a lot of people. And it’s completely unexpected in a copywriting context. Some people will click on it because they want to see what it’s really about. And some will click because they’re hoping against hope it’s sexual.
  • The second-most important copywriting rule – Everyone talks about the number 1 rule for things. Rarely about the number 2. So that’s kinda unexpected. It also suggests that the post will be understated (people get sick of overselling and sensationalism).
  • For 13 years my website was missing one critical ingredient. Is yours missing it too? – Even after running my copywriting business for 14 years, I still make mistakes. Some of them quite big. And I’m more than happy to admit it when I do. People are engaged by self-effacing headlines or headlines that expose your weaknesses and vulnerabilities. It draws people closer. Plus readers might worry they could be making the same mistake themselves.
  • I’m no Don Draper. So am I still a copywriter? – I think every copywriter has wondered this. I just voiced their insecurity. So they’d be curious to hear my answer. And again, they could be drawn closer by my vulnerability.
  • Some writing that’s so good it made me cry – All copywriters love good writing. So curiosity will get the better of a lot of people here. And again, there’s the vulnerability thing.
  • Kate Toon & Belinda Weaver asked what my copywriting fetish is. Bet you can’t guess the answer… – Like the ‘ass’ headline, this one is sexually suggestive. Especially if you know Kate and Belinda. Some people will be drawn to it for that reason alone (that often works on me!). Others will be curious to get an insight into a copywriter they see as an old dog of the industry.
  • If working with your copywriter was a breeze, you just wasted your money – This is counter-intuitive, which will intrigue readers.
  • Get off your high-horse. You only hate clickbait headlines ‘cos you wish you wrote ’em – Confrontational. Many copywriters have a thing against clickbait headlines, and I insulted them for it. They’ll click through to see how I could possibly justify that insult and maybe even argue with me (if only in their heads).
  • Dead scribe a-thinkin’: How Missy Elliot’s hips cured my writer’s block – The incongruent elements here are a bit surprising (intriguing). How could Missy Elliot’s hips even be relevant to copywriting, much less cure writer’s block? Also the sexual innuendo will get a few people curious.

So if distill the summaries above, here’s what I end up with:

  • confronting
  • unexpected
  • sexual innuendo
  • unusual headline approach
  • understated
  • self-effacing
  • expose your weaknesses / vulnerabilities / insecurities / private personality
  • imply the reader might have the same weaknesses as you
  • curiosity
  • counter-intuitive
  • confrontational / invite argument
  • incongruence

Obviously you can’t just treat this list as a recipe. It has to be appropriate for your audience (even if confronting) and it has to match your personality. Perhaps a good litmus test is to ask yourself if you’d say it at a party with friends and kinda-friends (for me, that’s a party with the other parents from my kids’ school). You have to be able to shock / intrigue / engage without sounding like that sleazy bloke who always snickers about boobs and threesomes.

kate-toon

Kate Toon (@katetooncopy), Founder of Kate Toon Copywriter

I firmly believe a click-worthy headline beats an SEO-optimised headline every time.

Many readers will share a post simply based on its headline, and many won’t have read the rest of the article. Ogilvy had it right when he said, “When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar”.

Of course, we all want to please the Google gods. But it’s people who truly drive the Internet, so if we can suck them in with a winning headline then Google will most definitely follow.

I like to use a mix of slightly odd, quirky headlines and more straightforward no-nonsense approaches.

So one week I might try:

“How my vagina helps me write better copy”

And the next:

“How to write a copy deck in five easy steps”

I follow up the headline with a sub-header. If the headline is quirky, the sub will be more focused. And if the headline is practical, the sub-header will be more conversational.

But whatever headline I choose, I always make sure my article delivers on that headline quickly and comprehensively. Because I don’t just want readers to click. I want them to read, like, comment, share and link, link, link!

6 replies
  1. Amy Teeple says:

    I’m not going to lie, I Googled “how my vagina helps me write better copy” when I read that in Kate’s section and I was delighted that a previous post of hers appeared.

    Thanks to all of the experts for these wonderful insights!

    Reply

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