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Writing headlines: The Ultimate Guide to writing headlines that get more clicks

Writing headlines: The Ultimate Guide to writing headlines that get more clicks

Or, “How to write headlines so bum-clenchingly awesome they’ll give you nose bleeds”

Ah, headlines. We all know they’re the key to luring readers into your content. They are often the difference between success and failure when it comes to blog posts.

But headlines are also incredibly hard to write, right?

That’s why I wanted to create this ultimate guide to headlines. It’s a comprehensive article that takes you through the basics, useful words and headline tools, with plenty of examples .

So if you want to learn how to write a killer headline, read on:

Good headlines are based on 3 elements

When you’re creating a headline you must understand:

  • Your goal: What do you want your content to do for you? Boost your social presence? Improve your ranking? Convert customers? Understanding the purpose of the content you’re about to write is a vital step in the headline writing process.
  • Your audience: Who will read this? What do they like? How do they think? Of course you should always tailor your content to you audience, but with headlines it’s especially important.
  • Where your headline will be seen: Do you mainly promote your posts through Twitter? Or is Google your top spot? Each social platform has its own limits on length, and whether an image is automatically displayed with your post.

TOON TIP: Write a headline that meets your goals, connects with your audience, and matches your promotional strategy.

There are 6 basic headline approaches

The tone and format of a headline usually falls into one of six different styles:

  • Statement: Make bathing piglets easier.

This is often how newspapers and magazines approach headline writing.

  • Question: How can bathing piglets be easier?

Asking a question has always been a headline staple. The aim is to interest the reader sufficiently that they read the article to find out the answer.

  • How to: How to make bathing piglets easier

This problem solution approach is incredibly popular. In fact, there are entire sites based on this headline structure (e.g. eHow, WikiHow).

  • Number: 30 ways to make bathing piglets easier

Another popular structure, and a staple of sites such as Buzzfeed. Smaller numbers are great for quick, snappy blogs, while bigger numbers give the impression of a comprehensive and detailed article.

  • Reader addressing: Why YOU need to make bathing piglets easier

Titles like these aim to confront the reader with an alleged need, so they feel they MUST read the content.

  • Emotional: Bathing piglets: How I made it (and my life) easier

Pulling on the heartstrings is a classic headline approach. It holds the promise of emotional involvement and deeper personal engagement.

“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.”
David Ogilvy

 learn-copywriting-courses

The rise of the hyperbolic headline

If you’re a fan of sites such as Upworthy, Buzzfeed, The Poke or Bored Panda, then you’re probably familiar with the growing popularity of the horror headline.
These are shocking, unusual, curious, raw or sexy headlines designed to question, offend, intrigue or annoy us
enough to make us click, read and share.

They go something like this:

 

“You Might’ve Seen This Photo Before…But Nothing Can Prepare You For The Truth Behind it. Wow.”

 

Whether you love or hate them, there’s no denying they’re effective. If they drive you crazy, try visiting Downworthy. This fun site replaces hyperbolic headlines from bombastic viral websites with a slightly more realistic version. For example:

 

Downworthy

Or check out @savedyouaclick on Twitter. “Don’t click on that. I already did. Saving you from click bait and adding context since 2014.”

 

 

If you want to avoid these kinds of hyperbolic headlines, here are just a few phrases you might want to avoid because of how people interpret them:

  • Restored My Faith In Humanity = “Affected Me In No Meaningful Way Whatsoever”
  • Absolutely = “Moderately”
  • Amazing = “Barely Noticeable”
  • Awesome = “Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working”
  • Breathtaking = “Fleetingly Inspirational”
  • But what happened next = “And as you expect it”
  • Epic = “Mundane”
  • Go Viral = “Be Overused So Much That You’ll Silently Pray for the Sweet Release of Death to Make it Stop”
  • Incredible = “Painfully Ordinary”
  • Literally = “Figuratively”
  • Mind Blowing = “Mind-Numbingly Ordinary”

 

“The difference between a good headline and a bad headline can be just massive. A really excellent headline can make something go viral.”
Peter Koechley | Upworthy

A single word can make all the difference

According to this post, the ideal length for a headline is only six words. Not many, right? So you need to pick them very carefully. When you’re considering which words to use, think about:

  • Numbers: As discussed they’re a powerful way to drive click-through

 

TOON TIP: Follow your number with an alliterative word, so Seven Simple, Eight Easy, Four Fun, Ten Tricks.

 

  • Interesting adjectives: e.g. “strange”, “fun”, “free”, “incredible”, “essential”, “absolute”, “agonising”
  • Rational words: e.g. “principles”, “facts”, “lessons”, “ideas”, “secrets”, “ways”, “tricks”, “approaches”, “methods”. (But don’t use “things”!)
  • Trigger words: e.g. “what”, “how”, “when”, “why”
  • SEO keyword phrases: While you should always write for readers first and Google second, if you can squeeze in a strong keyword phrase then go for it.

TOON TIP: Try to place your SEO keyword phrase near the beginning of your headline

But remember: if you make a big promise in your headline, you have to deliver. The issue many have with hyperbolic headlines is when they do click through, they’re sorely disappointed. If you promise the ultimate guide to headline writing, it really must be THE ULTIMATE.

The perfect headline writing formula

Based on all the above we could say the perfect headline-writing formula is:

NUMBER or TRIGGER WORD + QUIRKY ADJECTIVE + SEO KEYWORD + PROMISE

Try it now. (And if you want to really make my day, pop your efforts into the comment box at the bottom.)

Here are a few of mine:

  • 18 clever ways to shave your Pomeranian.
  • 10 snogging secrets you NEED to know
  • How to make writing bum clenchingly awesome headlines easy

Clever headline copywriting tools

Of course, you could make your life easier by using some of the cool automated headline-writing tools out there. A few of my faves include:

Portents Content Idea Generator

headline tools

Tweak Your Biz Title Generator

Writing headline tool

Hubspot

Headline writing tools

Creating more than one headline option

You may need to edit your headline, depending on where you intend to use it. (Remember “Where will your headline be seen?” from the start of this article?)
While I’m not suggesting you should split test every piece of content you produce, there’s nothing wrong with testing different headlines across different inbound marketing channels.

This post from buffer tells us the ideal length each:

  • Tweet: 100 characters – That’s enough characters for you to say something of value, and for the person retweeting it to add their commentary.
  • Facebook: 40 characters – According to Jeff Bullas, 40-character posts received 86 percent higher engagement.
  • Google: 60 characters – Longer headlines are likely to be split across two lines. (More advice here).
  • Email: 28-39 characters – Mailchimp believe the length really makes no different to open and click-through rates.
  • Title tag: 55 characters – Remember, your title tag is what appears in the Google Search Engine Results pages. The length of your title is actually based on pixel width rather than character count, but 55ish characters should be fine. The best thing to do is to test it here.

TOON TIP: To make your life easier, I’ve outlined all of these length tips in my FREE Blog copywriting template.

Headline writing in action

So let me show you how I used these techniques to choose the headline(s) for this article.

  • Your goal: My goal is to boost social media interaction and drive authority (as well as just being helpful).
  • Your audience: My desired audience is Small Business owners, but I know many other copywriters also read my posts.
  • Where your headline will be seen: I promote a lot through Google and Facebook. I use Click to Tweet to promote my post via Twitter, which means I can pre-write different tweets for that purpose.
    I’ll also email this post to those who have signed up to receive every post.
  • Approach: I went for a kind of how-to approach (as this has proven successful for me in the past). But I also created a hyperbolic sub/alternative headline just for fun.
  • Interesting adjectives: I’ve used ‘ultimate’ and ‘bum-clenchingly’.
  • Rational words: I’ve used ‘guide’
  • Trigger words: My hyperbolic sub/alternative headline includes the word ‘how’.
  • SEO keyword phrase: My keyword phrase would be ‘writing headlines’. I’ve also structured my title so it appears first, rather than opting for ‘The ultimate guide to writing headlines’.

Then I edit the headline to suit the medium

Tweet:

  • ”Writing headlines: The Ultimate Guide” (40 characters, including spaces)
  • ”How to write headlines so bum-clenchingly awesome they’ll give you nose bleeds” (80 characters, including spaces)

Facebook: ”Writing headlines: The Ultimate Guide” (40 characters, including spaces)

Google: ”Writing headlines: The Ultimate Guide” (40 characters, including spaces)

Email: ”Writing headlines: The Ultimate Guide” (40 characters, including spaces)

Title tag:“Writing headlines: The Ultimate Guide – Kate Toon Copywriter” (61 characters, including spaces. But it still fits (see below)

writing headlines

Click to tweet options:

  • “Learn how to write killer headlines.”
  • “A click-worthy headline beats an SEO-optimised headline every time.”

Other options for later promotion:

  • Sizzling hot headlines: A how-to guide
  • Writing a winning headline the easy way
  • Writing better headlines: A beginner’s guide
  • How to write a popular headline
  • 7 simple headline-writing tactics

TOON TIP: Because this is a slightly longer post, I’ve been able to work more headlines into the post as sub-headers. Remember: the more variety you have, the better your post will perform. Google doesn’t just deliver results that have an exact query match. It also delivers results that are semantically related.


It’s simple: the better your headline, the more chance you have of people reading what you’ve written. It’s worth investing time and playing around with headline options. It’s also worth taking risks.

But if you remember only one thing form this posts, remember this:

Write your headlines to engage people first and Google bots second.

In my opinion, a click-worthy headline beats an SEO-optimised headline every time.

Over to you

Do you struggle to write headlines? What tools do you use? Did you have a go at my task using the perfect headline formula? If so, what did you come up with?

Oh and if you liked this article please share it!

  • Geraldine

    Wow, you weren’t kidding when you said it was an ‘ultimate’ guide – took me a good half hour to read & digest over my morning cuppa (including clicking on some of the links). BTW, the link to the Moz title tag tester doesn’t seem to work.

    I loved the bathing piglets examples – totally random but very you!

    Tons of great advice here – some of which I already practise, some of which I know I should :)

    • I’ve fixed up the title tag tester link Geraldine, thank you! And yes it’s a bit of a monster, but I wanted to approach the subject from a few angles. Definitely a three biscuit post.

  • “How I stopped worrying and learned to love mediation”

    • You see, THAT is a blog post I would read.

  • Melinda Dunlop

    This is the shit, thank you, what an incredibly awesome resource …. and one that I am clearly in dire need of. Thank you for saving my bacon

    • Thanks for reading and glad your bacon is once again in safe hands.

  • “What of piglets have to do with great headlines? Kate Toon reveals all”

    Great post Kate!

    • Washing piglets is actually a highly competitive SEO term 😛 Thanks for reading and sharing DW!

  • That’s another load of ideas I’ve shamelessly copied straight into my headline swipe file.

    Top one Kate!

    BTW Have you ever noticed the hyperbole Jamie Oliver uses in his recipe books?

    e.g. Must-try sizzling pork chops with incredible crash-hot potatoes and an amazing chilli salsa

    • Ah yes, I’d never thought of that Kevin, Jamie is the kind of the oversell recipe title! Thanks for reading as always.

  • Stephen Mayall

    Great article Kate on arguably the most important part of of any post r piece of content marketing.

    With well written headlines often encouraging more social sharing without readers ever actually reading the article, it’s even more important to focus on the headline.

    • Ah thanks Stephen, yes so important and so tricky.
      Often I get an idea for a headline that then inspires an article.

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  • Susan Branch Smith

    Very well done, Kate Toon!

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