Most people that work in digital marketing would have heard some version of marketing guru David Ogilvy’s quote on headlines: “When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”
The problem is though we may know this about headlines—and may even preach it—the fast-paced nature of the online content marketplace means very few of us genuinely practice the attention to headlines that Ogilvy preaches.
In Ogilvy’s day he claimed “[o]n the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy,” and you can only imagine that number has gone up, with headlines serving as clickable pitches for articles across the web. If your headline doesn’t sing, you will get lost in the noise.
But if you work on your headlines they will get more clicks. You just have to know how to do it. Here are 5 solid tips for awesome headlines that will turn all your articles into traffic magnets:
#1: Write 5 ideas for each heading
Often your first idea seems great. You make a few tweaks, and you think it’s good to go.
But usually, the first headline you think of is the most obvious and the least impressive. Even if you do come up with your best idea first, you won’t know for sure unless you push yourself to find other angles.
So write 5 main headings, and for each subheading, come up with 5 more ideas.
You will be surprised at the ideas you unlock when you force yourself to create extra headings. And thinking of something that is a just a little left of center field is typically when you produce truly striking headlines.
#2: Use specific numbers
Using specific figures is a simple yet effective strategy you can count on.
It may sound too simple, but the stats show: numbers in headlines work.
Precise numbers tied to some sort of statistic or research figure work best. And for some reason, odd numbers work better than even.
The way the brain processes information makes putting numbers in your headline very compelling. A user sees a headline like '10 Tips to make your Muscle Gain Routine 73% More Effective' and they get a quantifiable result, not just a vague promise. The specificity of the figure lends a legitimacy to the stat.
Think about it. If you read a headline that tells you it can “Double Your Online Bookings,” you may very quickly write it off as hyperbole. But a headline that says it can “Increase Online Bookings by 213% in Two Months” gives you a figure and timeframe that seems too particular to be pulled out of thin air.
No user is going to be disappointed when their results don’t match your percentage to the exact figure. Maybe if they see no results at all. But as long as you are giving sound advice, you’ll have no complaints.
#3: Don't be afraid to go long
Everything you read about online content is to use short, sharp copy to keep a user interested. In fact, you’ll see very reputable publications stating that short and sweet headlines are the most effective.
But by having a headline that can be read at a glance, you’re sacrificing the specifics. There is only so much you can say in 6 words.
Well here is the secret that solves this dilemma: even in the world where online readers are increasingly impatient, most people will still read headlines.
An online study found that headlines between 16 and 18 words were most effective. David Ogilvy’s best selling headline of all time was famously 18 words long.
What you should focus on instead of length is readability. There is an art to writing sentences so words flow effortlessly. Learn how to proofread your work not only for spelling errors but also for awkward syntax and confusing structures. 18-word headlines can be easier to read than 6-word headlines—if it’s written the right way.
#4: Make your topic compelling
You’re going to hate me for saying this... but your headlines need to look more like Buzzfeed's. Just check these out...
I know that Buzzfeed’s style for headings is more or less an inside joke for the entire internet. But there is a reason their website continues to thrive and you always see links to their articles shared on your Facebook feed.
Buzzfeed headlines work. And it's easy to do. Just give your headline some urgency.
Compare the headlines of these two articles:
Both articles are about the extremely dry topic of a National Broadband Network. Both articles give you tips on how to make sure you get connected correctly. But Lifehacker's article does a couple things in a more compelling way.
First, it uses a number (see above).
Second, it states the topic in terms of "things that can go wrong." The user is led to think, "I can make a mistake!" Though they may have no intention of connecting to the NBN anytime soon, they might check out the article because no one wants to make a "mistake"—better safe than sorry!
This effect can be created by using words like secret, hacks, techniques, or strategies. It's all about giving the impression that your article has information the reader can’t do without. You can frame the topic so it scares a reader into action or promises them insider information, but you have to do something!
#5: Don’t forget to be clear
In an effort to be cute, don't forget to be clear!
Don’t fall into the trap of getting too cute.
You can be as clever as you like but unless you are explicit enough about the content of your article you’re losing out on potential traffic.
Being direct and informative in your headline will also make your headline search engine friendly (although you should never write headlines just for SEO purposes).
But more than anything else, remember: your headline is marketing for your article. If you already have a loyal reader base and aren’t looking to grow, then use puns, alliteration, metaphors, and innuendos to your heart’s content. But if you’re still looking to get every possible click, make sure your headline tells the reader what they are about to read.