How to Write Headlines That People Want to Click

A great deal has changed in the world since the Mad Men days, but Ogilvy’s dictum still stands: When you’ve written your headline, you’ve spent 80 cents out of your dollar. As much as we writers would love to think that great content will always get noticed, the reality is that people won’t read it if the headline doesn’t grab them.

Different types of content call for different types of headlines. A book title is different from a white paper title is different from a blog title. For the purposes of this post, we’re going to discuss blog headlines, because the blog is very often the entry point to a company’s or individual’s marketing. Nail your blog headlines, and your site clicks will increase. What you do with the clicks once they’re there is important too, but let’s focus on getting them there for now.

Headline writing is both an art and a science. There are certain principles you can learn and apply immediately, and then there is a certain amount of practice and experience that will take you the rest of the way. Apply these principles today, and you’ll be well on your way to killer headlines.

Steal Your Way to Success

One of the best ways to learn to write killer headlines is to steal them. No, I’m not suggesting plagiarism. What I’m suggesting is a tactic that I learned years ago that involves the women’s magazine, Cosmopolitan. You see, magazines like Cosmo (and its many sisters and brothers) spend a great deal of money on learning what kinds of headlines people like to click. And they make their research freely available in the form of the headlines they use.

The next time you have to write a headline, head over to the Cosmopolitan website and scroll through the day’s headlines. Experiment with borrowing the format of one or two of them, replacing some of the words with your own.

For instance, “Why This Was a Breakthrough Beauty Year for Women Over the Age of 30” can become “Why This Was a Breakthrough Technology Year for Companies in the Sales Industry,” and “18 Sexy Dresses That Will Slay New Year’s Eve” becomes “6 New Ways To Slay Your Quarterly Quotas.” You get the idea.

Once you get the hang of it, try a bunch of different ones till you get one that feels good to you and matches your topic.

Make Friends With Google

What if a great headline were a simple search away? It can be when you buddy up with Google. Start by typing a basic headline idea into Google. When the results pop up, scroll all the way to the bottom. You’ll see a section titled something like “Searches related to …” These suggestions are based on words and phrases that people actively search for on a regular basis, so writing headlines based on these suggestions can have great SEO value.

Sometimes you can lift a headline directly from the list (for instance, in the example below, you might write a headline that says simply, “How to Add Friends on the Hangout App”), or you may use a phrase to compose your headline.

Two words of caution on this approach. One, note that the suggested searches can give you insight into what people are thinking when they type that phrase. Clearly, when people type “make friends with Google,” they are not generally thinking about literally making friends with Google… they’re thinking about using Google to make friends with actual other humans. Speciesist? Maybe, but real talk, people don’t usually think of Google as sentient. Which is probably a mistake.

Moving on, the second caution is that you generally should NOT steal other peoples’ headlines word for word. It’s fine to steal a headline structure, or to write a headline that has been written before if it’s something simple and direct, but not to plagiarize someone else’s work.

For instance, if you’re writing about SD-WAN, and your search turns up a page full of headlines that read, “What is SD-WAN?” it is totally fine to write the headline for yourself, “What is SD-WAN?” That is such a simple and direct headline that it’s hardly stealing if you use it. On the other hand, if your search reveals the headline on someone else’s site of “7 Reasons SD-WAN is Going to Rock Your World This Year,” don’t use that headline. That’s actual stealing and it’s not cool.

Borrowing from the suggested topics, as above, is cool, because those are not headlines someone has written but topic suggestions based on an algorithm. If one of them happens to make a good headline, then all is well in the world.

Analyze Your Headlines The Easy Way

The Internet is a wondrous place full of kittens and headline analyzers. My favorite tool right now is the Coschedule headline analyzer. Simply type a headline into the analyzer and it will rate it on a scale of 0 to 100. Try a bunch and see what happens. I like to get into the “green” zone, which is 70+. If I hit 80s, I’m happy as a clam. Occasionally, I’ll settle for something in the high 60s, depending on the topic and audience.

It also provides useful feedback on why your headline scores as it does, based on length, word choice, emotion, and a variety of other factors.

Of course, use all tools with a grain of salt, and this one in particular. The tool is based on algorithms that are generally accurate for mainstream consumer audiences of blogs and magazines. It may not be as useful if your audience is engineers or finance gurus. Nevertheless, I like the tool and use it regularly.

Consider Split Testing

Split testing, in this case, refers to the act of “splitting” your audience in half and publishing the same content to both halves, but with different titles. This makes it possible to accurately assess which headline performs better in the real world. Magazines like Cosmopolitan do this as a matter of course, which is why their headlines are so good.

However, split testing requires a large audience and good technology tools and some technology savvy that I don’t personally have. I don’t split test. But some of my clients do, and good on them. For those clients, I provide several headline options for them to choose from and test, and then I use the feedback from their tests to improve future headlines for them.

Avoid The Clever Headline Mistake

Because we are generally very clever and well-read people, we writers sometimes fall into the temptation to write headlines that reflect our creative genius and include a literary allusion for good measure. Don’t.

The purpose of a headline is not to show off, but to draw in. Sometimes, the art is in making the “art” invisible. Your headlines don’t need to be “new” or clever or interesting or genius. They just need people to click them. Embrace simplicity, save the genius for your literary work.

I often use a combination of the techniques above to arrive at the headlines I use both for my own work and my client work. The headline for this piece used a combination of Google and the headline analyzer. Did it work? Well, I mean, you’re here. But maybe that’s just because of my scintillating personality.

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Heather Head
Heather Head is an award-winning freelance writer and coach. Her work can be found all over the internet in publications as diverse as Redshift Magazine and Grit. Heather's fiction is represented by Ethan Ellenberg.

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