I remember when I was putting together the Blog Mastermind course four years ago, writing lessons on how to produce powerful blog content. I felt very confident teaching this area except for one topic – how to come up with effective blog headlines – which I felt deserved an entire course in and of itself.
The headline is the first part of your blog article that a person reads, which acts as the gatekeeper, fully responsible for whether the visitor continues on and reads the entire article, or at least scans it, or scurries off looking for more entertaining subject matter.
I feel it is difficult to teach headline writing because, at least in my experience, it’s so much about random bursts of creativity. When I write headlines I sit down (or stand-up at my stand-up table), read the article, look at the various hooks or stories in the piece, and then use my creative spark to generate headlines. Almost all the headlines pop into my head from somewhere, a place that I can’t easily “teach” from because it lacks structure. There are very few replicable elements I can talk about – it just happens.
Copywriters of course would argue that there is plenty you can teach about how to write good headlines, but having never studied the art of copywriting to any great depth, nor really desiring to do so, it has been an area I have tried to stay clear of. Not that I think studying copywriting isn’t a good thing, it just depends what you need it for and where you are coming from. I’ve ambled by adequately with my own creative abilities, and as I describe below, have veered towards less structured studying methods than text books or courses specifically on copywriting. That makes me a good artist, but not a good art teacher, though I am going to attempt to do both here in this article.
If you dig into the archives of this blog, you won’t find any articles specifically about how to write a good headline. That’s quite ridiculous for someone who proclaims to be a blogging teacher. Hence I need to take some action to change this.
Here is my introduction to the Yaro school of how to write a good blog headline…
How I Learned How To Write Good Blog Headlines
While far from perfect, I’ve been known to write a good headline here on Entrepreneurs-Journey.com now and then. If you go back and read this blog from the start you can see how far my headlines have evolved. When I started I had never really “done” writing before, beyond university assignments and emails written to friends and family while traveling. Headlines really don’t matter for that style of writing.
Over the years as I became a proper blogger I realized how absolutely critical the headline is and what goes into a good headline. Most of my learning was via osmosis, as it usually is, reading countless articles and emails from Internet marketers, bloggers, newspaper and magazine writers, seeing good headlines but not really knowing why they were good.
Once you have your head switched over to “meta-thinking” (what is going on behind what you are observing) you start to ask yourself why things work or result in certain outcomes.
For example, whenever I came across an article on another blog that covered a similar subject to my own articles, yet performed so much better, I started looking for answers. Although many factors contributed, in almost all cases I noticed that good headlines – better than my own – were winning audience views. It didn’t matter if the content wasn’t as good as mine (in my humble opinion!), as long as the headline was good it was read and shared a lot more frequently.
I also noticed which marketers were able to convince me to open emails and which writers could tempt me to read articles. There was something about the way they communicated. As an affiliate to many big launches, I could see what was working and noticed subtle things – like how many words were used, which words were most effective, how style and personality could be conveyed, and the importance of flow and cadence. Many of these things are difficult to assess empirically, but over time I started to develop a feel for it.
As with most things, practice makes perfect, and as I wrote more blog articles I started to see based on performance and simply through experience, which headlines worked. Once I began writing an email newsletter as well, where the same conditions apply to the subject line of the email, my practice increased, writing both email subjects and blog headlines.
Despite all this experience, and now with over 10 years of writing headlines for articles on websites and other publications, I still don’t feel like I can easily convey how to write good headlines, it’s just such a unique skill that requires significant practice.
However, that’s not going to stop me from putting my best effort in here to pass on what I can to you. Just make sure you get out there and start working on improving your own headlines after reading this because you need the practice.
Blog Headline Writing 101
As I write this article my entire business is run by other people except for two things – writing headlines for the articles published to this blog and email newsletters, which require subject writing.
This happens to be good timing because not for a long time have I focused so much on headline writing. This is why I feel confident enough to write this tutorial now, when it’s so fresh in mind mind.
Let’s start your training with some headline formats…
Top Headline Formats
To begin with I’ll list the most common formats we use for headlines here on Entrepreneurs-Journey and in other writing I do. I won’t go into too much detail as it should be pretty obvious what these are as you will have seen them over and over again. These can be used as templates, and I’ll link to some more specific template resources for headlines at the end of this article too.
The “How” Headline
The “How” headline format is by far the most common headline we use on this blog. This includes the very common “How To Do Something” (don’t over use this) format to any headline that proposes to explain how something happens.
Here are some examples -
- “How To Avoid Hype When You Sell”
- “How To Outsource Your Blogging – A Case Study”
- “How An Autoresponder Made My Life Easier”
- “How You Can Make Passive Income Online”
- “How My Biology Blog Landed Me My Dream Job”
The “Why” Headline
The “Why” is the next most common format I use. It’s a good headline format because it opens a door in the readers mind. The headline says why something is important or relevant or secret or effective, but to find out exactly why that is, you have to read the article (walk through the door).
This is called opening a loop, a very effective psychology. You create curiosity by opening a loop that the brain has to close, and in order to do so the article must be read.
New headline writers often make the mistake of closing the loop in the headline, answering the question in the headline before the article is read. Be careful you don’t do this.
“Why” headlines also work fantastically as a stated question, including the all-powerful question mark (?). This is the ultimate open loop – state a question and the reader gets the answer if they read the article.
Here are some examples of “Why” headlines we have used on E-J…
- “Why People Struggle To Get What They Want”
- “Why Blogs Fail”
- “Why Some People Succeed Against All Odds”
- “Why Thinking Like A Fish Can Help Your Business”
- “Why Don’t Bloggers Understand Email Marketing?”
More Open Loops
The “open loop” principle doesn’t have to apply only in “Why” headlines, we use it in all kinds of headlines, especially in question headlines like these…
- “Is All Publicity Good Publicity?”
- “Is Your Marketing Strategy Using This Powerful Principle?”
- “Where Did Your Creative Mojo Go?”
- “What Drives You To Do What You Do?”
- “Are You Solving A Problem Or Just Spinning Your Wheels?”
All of these headlines ask a question with the implication of the answer being in the article. If you relate to what the headline focuses on, you will feel compelled to read the article to find out if it applies to you.
The “Context Phrase: Headline”
This headline format is all about placing a statement or name or phrase just before using a headline with a set of colons to break it apart. Here’s an example to clarify this format of headline -
- “Tony Hawk: How A Personal Brand Can Build A Business Empire”
I really like this style of headline because it allows you to use one or two or three preceding words before a standard how or why or what or any type of headline. The preceding words give context and grab attention, can be used to combine two headlines into one, or bring together together two elements that you just can’t squeeze into one sentence. I like to use them to make headlines more specific, talking about a person or event, followed by the headline that explains what the article is actually about.
Here’s another example…
- “Scam Alert: Don’t Buy Any Internet Marketing Products Until You Read This”
The “Scam Alert” part of this headline makes it so much more compelling because of the controversy, while the rest of the headline reveals more about what exactly the article is about (and notice again the open loop).
You can use this headline format to make otherwise boring or standard headlines have more zing, simply by adding a couple of powerful words before it. You can also use it to link articles together in a series (see example below).
Here are some more examples from this blog’s archives –
- “Market Saturation: Is It Too Late For You To Make Money Online?”
- “Trade Show Checklist: How To Successfully Sell Your Product At Trade Shows”
- “Ego, Passion And Expertise: How To Find Balance And Win Clients”
- “From Video Games To Netbooks: How Chris Guthrie Made $150,000 Online After Losing His Job”
- “How To Be Creative At Work Part 2: Are You A Director Or Collector?”
The (Brackets) Headline
The brackets headline is similar to the above colon separated headline where you aim to highlight or combine elements using the brackets as the separator.
The brackets serve to highlight the words contained within, which is usually where you place the element that grabs attention. Often you will find what is in the brackets is what makes the headline much more effective, where what is outside of the brackets is more explanatory of what the article is about.
Here are some examples…
- “What Successful Internet Marketers Know (But You Don’t?)”
- “Take Control Of Your Publicity (Or End Up Like Bill Clinton)”
- “The Truth (And Myth) About Passive Income”
- “How Not To Be Boring (And Why Your Website Will Thank You)”
The List Headline
The list headline has always been one of the strongest formats, well used long before the World Wide Web in traditional print media.
Like the “How To” format, the list format is often overused and thus becomes less effective, so be careful.
Generally speaking the numbers 7 or 10 or 3 are my favorites and have proven the most effective. It’s important you use powerful word choice when applying the list format – in other words, the rest of your headline has to be good too otherwise your headline will look like just another top list.
Here are some examples:
- “7 Tips To Super-Charge Your Online Communication”
- “My Top 10 Methods To Make Money Online”
- “7 Blogging Tips You Can Apply Today”
- “3 Steps To Avert Disaster When Things Go Wrong”
- “3 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Starting Your Business”
Notice you can begin headlines with the number, or personalize the headline using a personal pronoun like “my” or pair it with the ever-effective word “steps” if you are teaching something.
If you like using “steps” and publish a lot of tutorial style articles, a good phrase you can apply is “A Step-By-Step Guide To…”. This works in pretty much every niche.
The Psychology Behind The Words
That pretty much covers the most common headline formats, although there are subtle and countless variations to all of them. In most cases it comes down to good old fashioned brainstorming to come up with the best words once you have the format you are going to apply.
However despite the ease of using template formats, often it’s not enough to simply draw from your headline swipe file every time you publish a blog article. You need some magic, some creativity and some understanding of what will appeal to your audience.
To help you get the final zing into your headlines, here are some psychological triggers and hot points to apply in your blog headline writing.
The Famous Name Technique
Read this headline…
- “What Do Microsoft, Tim Ferriss, Donald Trump and Katy Perry Have In Common?”
There’s nothing in this headline that actually tells you what the article is about. The publication the headline is used in obviously gives it context (this headline was used on this blog, hence the article must be about business or similar), but the elements in the headline are not related enough to work it out just be reading it alone.
That of course is a curiosity hook – and a good one – but the other key point here is leveraging famous names.
Headlines that use famous names of people or places or events can be very effective. Sometimes they are time sensitive based on when something is particularly newsworthy, although some celebrities or places will always be well-known enough that you can use them anytime.
Although I wouldn’t recommend you go forcing in famous names into your headlines, if there is a name inside the article itself, it’s worth asking yourself if that is the best “hook” to use in the headline.
The Controversy Technique
What’s so powerful about this headline?…
- “Is Email A Bigger Productivity Killer Than Marijuana? (UK Study Says Yes)”
It’s controversial, and that’s what makes it interesting. Similar to the previous point with famous names and places, if you can see an angle in the article itself that is controversial, which can be pulled into the headline, go for it.
Apply Alliteration And Cadence
It’s not always easy to produce alliteration (a repetition of sounds like the rain in spain), but if you can find a way to apply this, or at least have good cadence or flow so your headline “sounds” good, your headline will perform better.
If you’re not naturally good at reading the flow in a headline, find someone who is to give you feedback. Changing just one word can make a huge difference to the way a headline sounds when a person reads it in their head. Chunky headlines that stop and start turn people away. If in doubt, read it out aloud.
Don’t Repeat Formats or Use Mainstream Phrases
You might find yourself researching online for good phrases to use in your headlines. This can work, but often you will find yourself landing on very common vernacular, cliche phrases that by virtue of their common use will turn people away. If your headline is common the assumption is that the article is too.
People thrive on variety, so if they come to your site and see five “how to” headlines in a row, you will start to lose them. Words are always read within the context of the other words and elements around them. Repeat themes too often and they all start to look the same.
Shorter Is Better
We (me and our editor Steph) spend a lot of time during our headline writing brainstorming sessions simply trying to remove words from our headlines. Often taking unnecessary words out of your headline so you are left with only what is mandatory, results in the best headline.
It is difficult to stick to this rule, but nonetheless, it’s a good one. Fewer words make greater impact. There’s more whitespace around fewer words, which focuses attention on the words. There is less to read, so apathy and laziness isn’t going to strike. It just works.
Avoid Passive Tense
Your headlines should be in active tense, not passive. If you see an “ing” word, like for example “Planning”, it should be made active, like “Plan”. It takes some practice, but eventually you will start to see passive tense and it will annoy you.
For example the headline of this article you are reading now could have been stated as -
- “Writing Award Winning Blog Headlines”
When I see the word “Writing” I know that should be “Write”, but you have to be careful to spot the right words to make active – it’s not a rule to apply in every instance. For example you may have noticed the word “Winning” in the headline too, which doesn’t need to be changed to “Win” or “Won”, it just wouldn’t make sense.
Once you get a feel for this you will automatically see how best to switch words from passive to active, often converting them to a popular format like a “How To” or a “Why” headline. In this case the headline works much better as –
- “How To Write Award Winning Blog Headlines”
This was by far the most common mistake I made during the first few years of this blog when writing headlines. You will find quite a number of passive headlines in the archives, which I think reflects both my lack of confidence and lack of understanding of good headline writing.
Focus On The Reader
As I mentioned recently in – 7 Blogging Tips You Can Apply Today – point number 5 stated you should write as if you are talking to one person. This applies to headlines as well.
Often a well placed “You” or “Your” into a headline will make it more personal and more attention grabbing because it speaks directly to the reader. Teach people how to improve their life (as in YOUR life) and they will pay a lot more attention.
How About Keywords For Search Engines?
You may have noticed I haven’t even mentioned search engine considerations and whether you should work to get primary and secondary keywords in your headlines for the sake of SEO.
Obviously SEO is important, but it’s secondary to whether a reader actually reads the headline and article. I recommend the use of the “title tag” input box if you are a wordpress user, which allows you to set a title (the bit that appears in search results and sits at the top of the browser bar when you read an article), if you want to specifically target keywords for search traffic.
The End Of The Beginning
You now have a basic framework to begin with. There’s a lot more you can study when it comes to headlines, but as I stated earlier, practice is more important than study, so get out there and create articles that need headlines.
Later in the week E-J columnist Leevi Romanik will begin a headline writing series, so you will have another perspective and tutorial on how to write good headlines from him. I will add the link here as soon as he has finished his series.
If you need more headline templates, I recommend Chris Garrett’s 102 Proven Social Media Headline Formulas.
If you want to really jump in and study more on headlines, Brian Clark has a great series on How to Write Magnetic Headlines at CopyBlogger.com.
Good luck with your headlines!