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Make Your Headlines Better

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 This post is part of The 30.000 Word Challenge. See all the articles in the series! 

 

Imagine an article you wrote did 100 visits. Not too shabby. Imagine that exact same article doing 1.000 visits from a single phrase change. Would you want to make that change? No scams, no gimmicks, no promises of free cars.

1. The Power Of Headlines

Titles can do that.

So I’ve chosen 8 sources of epic content and I’m looking to understand the different strategies, techniques and tools used in improving your titles. First off – Buffer.

2. What Buffer Says

Where do we even begin with Buffer? They publish and tweak things so often that it’s sometimes hard to keep track of things. Did you know that they have 3 different blogs, not just the social media one? Persistence goes a long way.

The great part about dissecting Buffer blog posts in particular is that they are very thorough with their research. They’re not afraid ot crank out enormous articles, with tens and hundreds of useful tips and bits of knowledge. Dissecting just one blog post from them means gaining access to multiple other sources, that you might not have found on your own.

A few of these better headlines strategy include using a surprise or a mistery, referencing the audience, using negatives, how-tos, numbers and being very specific.

What surprised me about these articles was that they weren’t all technical. You didn’t always have to replace words or add to your existing ones.

Sometimes, to create better headlines you should trim them down. Click To Tweet

It does depend on your audience. Us marketers are looking for new, exciting ways to do it all. We’re on the search for shortcuts and hacks. So knowing this, knowing your audience, means you can tap into that pool of insights and craft a headline that works amazing. It also helps if you are a marketer and ask yourself:

Would I read or share this based on the title alone?

If the answer tends to be “No” or just a very soft “Yes”, then something is definitely wrong and you need to fix your headlines.

Other strategies mentioned by Buffer articles include:

  • Headline+Headline – get two similar headlines together to give your post more info upfront and more words of strength. This also helps SEO quite a bit, as you’re esentially cramming more words together and you increase your chances of ranking for different keywords.
  • Ultimate Guide/Advanced Guide/Beginners Guide – provide your audience with an expectation and your article will already have a defined format that people can follow along. A guide/roadmap/plan is always seen as better put together than just a few scattered ideas.
  • _, backed by science/psychology – use data in your article and mention that fact in your title. People trust data when it comes from a (reputable) source, but are usually to afraid or lazy to search for and try to understand studies and reports. Do them a favor and summarize the facts for them.

The insight that I got reading these Buffer articles was this:

Choose your headline strategy based on your niche. Click To Tweet

That means that if your audience responds well to numbers, go ahead and use them – “The Proven 7 Ways To Write Better Headlines Today”. If they’re after a more meaningful article to read, you might want to keep your headlines shorter, but using more powerful words – “Zen And The Art Of Headline Writing”. And finally, if your audience is at a beginner level, make that known from the start – “Everything You Need To Know About Writing Powerful Headlines: A Step-By-Step Framework Proven To Work Especially For Beginners”. Boy that’s a mouthful, wonder if an article called that would do well…

3. What Neil Patel Says

Neil blogs over at the Quicksprout Blog and on his personal website, NeilPatel.com. Since his articles are already filled to the brim with outside sources and research, it was a delight to go through them to find how some secrets about headlines.

Starting with The Definitive Guide To Copywriting, titles must have four “U”s:

  • They must be unique
  • They must be ultra-specific
  • They should convey a sense of urgency
  • They should be useful

While I agree with #1, #2 and #3, the urgency side of things remains debatable. There are clearly some articles (usually over 2.000 words) that take a bit of time to skim/read. That means that the title conveys importance and value, but your readers might not be compelled right away to take action.

Going further with this idea, you could implement butons for saving the article right at the beginning of it (scoop.it, paper.li, pocket, etc.). I’ll be testing this idea in the following months and report back my results.

Since Neil is all about traffic and conversions, the following are technical techniques to improve your headlines:

  • Keep your headlines short. Since 65 characters is the maximum amount before your title gets cut off in Google Search Results, it helps with SEO if your titles are in that range.
  • Make your titles skimmable. That means that if your title is 6 words, people will tend to quickly read the first 2 and the last 2. That means that you can have filler words (“for”, “of”, “to”), but removing them should still retain most of the content.
  • Insert your long-tail keywords in your title. Getting keywords in the headline is easy. It’s a bit trickier to get long-tail keywords in there. But if you bunch 2 headlines together a la Buffer’s advice above, you’ll make it.
  • Use negatives in your title. This ends up on many “make your titles better” lists. It stems from the fact that people tend to want to avoid pain than to gain pleasure. Negatives (“Stop Wasting Money On Facebook Ads”, “Avoid These 7 Plugins Making Your WordPress Blog Slower”, etc.) tap into that fear and make your readers react and want to read the article.
  • Use interesting adjectives in your title. This is similar to using power words, only it’s a bit more specific, talking about adjectives (“amazing”, “unique”, “almost magical”, etc.)
  • Personalization draws your reader to your title. Just writing a headline that makes a promise is sometimes not enough. You can inject personal touches (“Number 7 Is My Favorite”, “I Couldn’t Believe These Results”, etc.) in order to make it a friendly conversation from the beginning, not a teacher-student relationshop.

Using all of these techniques together could prove to be more of a chore than a joy. Even when thinking about increased readership for your article thanks to the new title, you would still feel like you’re gaming the system or somehow tricking the people on your blog.

This shouldn’t be the case. The goal should be:

Provide the best experience for your reader. Click To Tweet

That means making a promise, keeping that promise and even overdelivering with bonuses and additional reading material.

Lastly, your title should feel effortless. If it seems like you crammed too many strategies together, readers will have a hard time actually getting to the end of your headline. And if that happens, you can say goodbye to more people getting to the end of your article and feeling satisfied about the information you provided.

So remember: keep your titles easy to skim, make them sound as natural as you can and you should be ok.

4. What Copyblogger Says

Copyblogger has an entire ebook dedicated towards helping you write better titles.

Most of the articles seem to make sense. As in: of course you’d want your title to be specific. Otherwise, you’ll end up with titles like:

Some Ways To Write Titles That Maybe Work Better Than Others

Moreso, of course you’d want your title act as a promise. That way not only will it generate curiosity, but you can also inject a bit of urgency in there and you’d end up with something like:

The New Way To Write Great Headlines In 5 Minutes – Guaranteed!

You’ve got “new” which is a power word, as both Vertical Response and Buffer agree. Then you’ve got the actual thing that they’ll learn “how to write great headlines”. Again, that “great” part could be improved even more. Here are a few more options:

  1. attention-grabbing headlines
  2. traffic-generating headlines
  3. evergreen headlines
  4. visitor-magnetizing headlines
  5. money-making headlines

“5 minutes” is part of the promise. For example, would you really pay attention to an article with a title like:

The New Way To Write Great Headlines – And It Takes 5 Hours

Sure, it would stand out among all the other articles on this topic, but at first glance would you even bother with it? Time is short for everyone. Looking for shortcuts is universal, so providing them for your readers is insanely valuable.

The last part of the improved title is “guaranteed”. Now I’ve got to admit, I’m not a big fan of this word. Coming from a marketing background, I know that things change so fast, nothing can be guaranteed. The strategy here is to at least arouse curiosity – “How could someone GUARANTEE a better headline formula would work? They don’t know me, my business or my blog? Could this really work for me? Is that even possible?” It might also turn some readers away, as the term has been beaten to death by direct marketers and it’s lost most of its mojo along the years.

However, if there’s data behind that guarantee, then we really might be on to something. Imagine if economic or LED lightbulbs used the term “guaranteed” when they showed up on the market:

New Lightbulbs Reduce Your Electricity Bill – Guaranteed!

It does sound scammy now, but take into consideration the fact that there’s hesitation every time a new technology comes along. But when you’ve got statistics and test results by your side, you’ve got a winning strategy on your hands.

You get the idea by now. You can use a formula or a strategy, but that shouldn’t box you in. Mixing and matching techniques, testing and measuring results are the ways you’ll truly know what works and what doesn’t work for you.

There are loads more to read about and learn in the Copyblogger headline ebook, so go download that!

5. What PostPlanner Says

PostPlanner is well know for fast-hitting, quick wins for social-media. Scott Ayres wrote this post about headlines and mentions only one tool to use: The Tweak Your Biz Title Generator.

I was skeptical at first. I’ve seen multiple title generators over the years and they were fun. But they all had something wrong with them: the design was ugly, the functionality was slow or the results just sounded generic. With that in mind, Tweak Your Biz Title Generator blew my mind.

It’s blazing fast, it’s organized and the final list is huge. Is it perfect? Of course not – there are still titles using the words “iPhone apps”, “Zombies” and “Joseph Stalin” for some reason. So you still need to pick and choose.

Over 200 results were generated in less than a second. You can print or download the results. Printing them gave me such a joy, as I could take a red pen and just cross out the ones I didn’t enjoy.

6. What Content Marketing Institute Says

There were many headline-focused articles on Content Marketing Insitute’s website, but I felt this one was the most complete.

The SlideShare presentation talked about 9 basic rules in headline creation (presented in the form of cooking metaphors):

  • Start with the esential ingredients.
    In the beginning, when you’re just learning to write headlines, there’s no need to go fancy. Think about the audience, what they’ll miss if they don’t read your headline and what you have to offer.
  • Use just a dash of SEO-soning.
    Only add a few keywords in your headline, for topic recognition and higher results in search engines. Don’t overstuff them, or they’ll sound fake and robot-generated.
  • It’s ok to tease, but don’t disappoint.
    Once you’ve stated something in your headline that will make your readers curious, you’d better make sure not to let them down in the full article. Keep your promises, don’t under-deliver.
  • Don’t stuff your readers full of “bread”.
    Add a little mistery to your titles. Give a lot away in the headline, but not too much as to lose your readers before they actually get to your article. Always have an ace up your sleeve.
  • Create snackable appetizers.
    Not only should you be thinking about your readers’ short attention span, but also the length shown in Search Engine Results and on social-media. Keep your titles under 10 words, without losing meaning and you should be fine.
  • Survey the landscape, then serve a signature dish that stands out.
    Read similar blogs/sites in your niche. Read popular magazines. Start to figure out trends that work for your audience. Use Buzzsumo.
  • Prepare the perfect pairing for your context.
    Adjust your headline according to your content and the medium you’re distributing it to. Instagram is different than Facebook. And Twitter favors shorter, more actionable titles.
  • Serve your patrons reliably and consistently.
    Try to develop a voice and stand out from the crowd. Consistently deliver great value over time.
  • Fuel reader excitement with actionable words.
    Make your headline actionable, so you set up your readers for success. Also mention what your objective with the article is and how your readers will benefit from reading it.

I found these rules/examples to be spot on. For 5 more side dishes/headline writing techniques, check out the full presentation.

7. What Hootsuite Says

Hootsuite has mostly been known for social-media scheduling and publishing. They’ve evolved since I last used them, gathering a lot more accounts than just twitter and facebook. They’ve also started Podium and are also talking about broader topics like Content Marketing and Growth Hacking.

Unfortunately, I’ve only been able to find a few articles mentioning titles or headlines.

The second article talked about using social-media to A/B test your headlines and article images. Buffer is using a similar technique, where they tweet just a short headline and if that gets a lot of attention, it becomes a full post. But you can also use this technique the other way around, by writing the article first and getting feedback from your audience to tweak and improve.

The first article, written by David Godsall about a year ago, It mentions Upworthy were using the “curiosity gap” technique for writing headlines (“You’ll never believe what this kid did next”) and getting about 12 times more shares than Buzzfeed and twice as more as CNN.

Turns out – there’s a bit of science behind these click bait headlines. They’re the digital content equivalent of junk food. They’re fun for a while, provide lots of taste upfront, but no real value in the end.

Going further towards an older Huffington Post article, we can see what people are interested in. But Buzzsumo does that, in a way. It’s just a piece of the puzzle – it won’t make you write better headlines just with your audience in mind. Another element, according to Hootsuite, is authority. Or at least perceived authority.

Having words like “Science”, “Study”, “Scientific”, “Results” or “Test” in your headline might give your article that extra credibility it needed. Couple that with some case studies and links to proper research and people might just be intrigued enough to read your article. Of course, previous concepts still play a large part: don’t deceive your audience. Your headline promise should be fulfilled within the full text.

8. What Eric Z of Zbooks Says

I came across this presentation by Eric over at Zbooks and I was intrigued if the techniques could also apply to regular articles/posts.

There are 2 ways to write headlines:

  • The Amazon Method
    Go to Amazon and search for keywords related to your topic – in the book/ebook category. The auto-complete will give you additional keywords and ideas. You can then go further by filtering the top results and analyzing what works and why.
  • The Better Method
    Make your title short, include the words “You” or “Your”, as they’re very effective. You should also ask yourself: whether the headline is memorable, if it reflects the concept of the article, if it targets the right audience, if it makes people read the article, if it makes people share the article just from the title alone, if the title sparks up a conversation.

Surprisingly, yes. The advice given in the short presentation can also be applied to articles. Even though it’s mostly things we’ve seen/read before, I was overjoyed by the idea that I can now write book titles, besides article headlines.

9. What Upworthy Says

In this 500.000+ views SlideShare presentation, Upworthy outlines what they did to make articles go viral and what you can as well.

One of the elements they stress is you should crap out write 25 headlines for each piece of content your produce. There is something very important to note here: you should write 25 great headlines. Just 25 headlines. Of course the goal is to get better and better. But the thing is – you don’t know what will work. It’s not the 25th headline that will ALWAYS work. Sometimes it’s the 3rd of the 10th. Sometime you’ll write 25, get back to number 1 and just use that.

Since there is the Kingsumo Headlines app, you can actually test each individual headline to see which one will win. Once you have a winning formula based on a small sample, you can go ahead and promote your content using that headline. It might still fail or not bring it a ton of shares and traffic overall, but at least you’re starting with a solid foundation.

I definitely enjoy the idea of writing more headlines. One of the things that I’ve been experimenting with this month was just that: writing more. Not necessarily better, although I hope that has also happend, but just more. Even if you’re not publishing everything you’re writing, writing more is still a great exercise and you will see the benefits, if you’re consistent.

10. What I Say

“Mix and match” is the name of the game. You can know all the formulas in world. You can use any technique out there. If your outreach tactics are bad, if your social-media following is low, your content might be doomed from the beginning.

In the spirit of openness, here are the 25 headlines I wrote for this post:

  1. What Everyone Is Saying About Better Headlines
  2. Ways Your Mother Lied To You About Better Headlines (And How To Fix It)
  3. 10 Things You Don’t Want To Hear About Better Headlines
  4. The Definitive Content Marketer’s Guide To Writing Better Headlines
  5. 7 Things Your Boss Expects You To Know About Better Headlines
  6. Write Better Headlines: Learn From The Content Marketing  Pros
  7. If You Don’t Write Better Headlines Now, You’ll Hate Yourself Later
  8. Why Better Headlines Will Make You Question Everything
  9. The Ultimate Cheat Sheet For Writing Better Headlines
  10. The Content Marketing Rules Of Writing Better Headlines
  11. Write Better Headlines Without Opening Up Keyword Planner
  12. Everything You Need To Know About Better Headlines
  13. You Haven’t Seen This Better Headlines List On Buzzfeed
  14. Writing Better Headlines: Are You Making These 8 Mistakes?
  15. Here’s What The Pros Say About Better Headlines
  16. How Better Headlines Can Bring You Great Traffic
  17. The Insider’s Guide To Writing Better Headlines
  18. 9 BS Facts About Better Headlines Everyone Thinks Are True
  19. It’s 2015: Are You Writing Better Headlines Like This?
  20. How To Make Better Headlines As Fierce As RuPaul
  21. Avoid These 8 Mistakes When Writing Article Headlines
  22. The 7 Quick Steps To Become The MacGyver Of Better Headlines
  23. Do You Struggle With Writing Headlines? The Solution Is Here!
  24. The Dummies Guide To Better Headlines
  25. DON’T Write Another Headline Until You Read This Article
How are you making your titles better? Leave a comment and share with the community!

1 Comment

  1. Good stuff, Sorin. I’d like to add a couple of thoughts from my years in advertising. This is more about persuasion than SEO.

    Use The Right Words. Advertising’s best copywriters know that there are certain words which always are effective. You’d think these words would be worn out, but they continue to persuade and compel. Here are a few of them: advice, amazing, breakthrough, discover, enhance, extreme, facts, free, learn, mysterious, new, protect, and secret.

    Example: Free Facts To Protect Your Family From Fraud.

    Convey The Benefit. Readers like to know in advance what they will get for taking the time to read your article. Will this benefit me in some way, they ask? Your headline should truthfully tell them what they will get out of it. Don’t lie to them or craft a headline that doesn’t deliver on the promise.

    Example: Learn How To Present Like Steve Jobs

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Make Your Headlines Better

by Sorin Amzu time to read: 13 min
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