If boosting conversion is your goal, writing the right headline is arguably more important than writing good copy. Indeed, a famous quote by advertising legend, David Ogilvy says that on average, five times as many people will read the headline than the actual content. And what good is writing anything at all if you can’t pique your readers’ interest? Even if, hypothetically-speaking, you wrote the best advertising copy or blog post in the world, if no one clicks on your bland headline, you’ve essentially wasted your time (not to mention money).
In this article, I will be discussing 9 guidelines for writing headlines with the aim of boosting conversion. I know that there are several guidelines when it comes to this topic and likewise, there are numerous articles that have discussed it in sufficient depth. So what makes this article different? Simply put, this is not just ‘another list’. What I am presenting here are what I consider as being the most effective guidelines for writing headlines.
Before we begin, know this: writing headlines is a science, not an art.
1. Use a Formula to Create Your Headline
If using a formula seems wrong to you instinctively, consider this: lots of headlines online already follow certain formulae, and, clearly, no one cares. Look at popular content on the Internet (like Buzzfeed, Upworthy or high-ranking Youtube channels) and you’ll notice a lot of their headlines and titles following familiar patterns. This obviously doesn’t bother anyone in the slightest. Not to mention the fact that the first two examples have made a name for themselves by using attention-grabbing headlines that are so standardized, they’ve been parodied to death.
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, really. At this point, a typical Internet user sees so many headlines daily on social media and elsewhere, something completely atypical will surely throw them off and be dismissed on sight.
2. Use Numbers in the Headline
A clickable headline has numbers – and for good reasons. We all know that words can be manipulated in many ways and any outrageous claim made on the Internet – especially in a headline – will be met with skepticism. Numbers, on the other hand, elicit another reaction – trust. Any statistician would, at this point, remark that numbers can themselves be manipulated and misleading, but we’re talking about the readers’ gut reaction.
Compare the following two headlines:
- This Pill Will Make You the Most Productive Worker in the World
- This Pill Will Raise Your Efficiency Factor by 20% or More
Note that the second headline, the one that uses numbers, is more attractive than the first one that just looks like an empty promise. According to a study by Conductor that analyzed click traffic on social media, using a number in the headline is the most effective in boosting click-through rate out of all measured factors. Numbers in this study, by the way, don’t just mean statistics – they are headlines like “20 Things to do Before You Die”.
3. Try and Use These Words and Phrases (Where Possible)
So which words convert more? Kevan Lee has created an incredible list of words and phrases that are most used in viral headlines by analyzing more than 3,000 headlines from 24 top content sites. He split his findings into two categories: ‘most popular words’ and ‘most popular uncommon words’. Perhaps even more interesting is the 2-word and 3-word phrases that he observed in these viral headlines:
- Most Popular 2-Word Phrases: ‘this is’, ‘in the’, ‘how to’, ‘is the’, ‘of the’
- Most Popular 3-Word Phrases: ‘this is the’, ‘will make you’, ‘when you see’, ’til you see’, ‘what happens when’
Another useful resource is Josh Rhodes’ list of 179 emotional words that make powerful headings and high converting landing pages. According to this study, some of the most popular words in headlines are: ‘focus’, ‘wanted’, ‘free’, ‘sale’, ‘new’ and lowest.
In yet another huge study, this time of 1 million headlines, Garret Moon came up with the following list of the most popular words and phrases in highly-shared headlines: ‘list post’, ‘you/your’, ‘free/giveaway’, ‘how to’, ‘diy’.
4. A Headline Should be X Words / Characters Long
Needless to say, there is much debate as to how long a headline should be. Here are some of the guidelines which I consider as being most useful:
- 8 words (according to The Guardian)
- 62 characters (according to Kevan Lee)
- 81-100 characters (according to HubSpot and Outbrain)
5. Make Your Headline Sound Useful
Look again at the example about the efficiency pill. This is a good, clickable headline because of the fact that anyone can ‘try it on’. Wow, I can boost my efficiency by 20%?
Now look at spam comments found anywhere on the Internet: “I made $6,000 using this website, etc., etc.” These are engineered to be clickable, and what do they do?:
- They use numbers
- The reader can instantly try it on and see what benefit they will get.
The point is: if your headline isn’t somehow useful to the reader, it will be dismissed right away, so do try and make it as applicable as possible.
To get the ‘usefulness’ effect try addressing the reader. This will mean that “How to Buy a Used Car” should be rewritten into “Things You Should Know Before Buying a Used Car”, or, better yet “10 Things You Should Know Before Buying a Used Car”
6. Choose Your Words Carefully
This guideline takes many dimensions. What are the “ideal” words to use in a headline? Citing Stephen King, Jeff Bullas writes that simplicity is a key element. One can have an impressive vocabulary but taking an approach to headline writing that is too intellectual can backfire. Readers will always understand a simple headline. If you want to make it more appealing, then try and arouse their curiosity. According to Barry Feldman, the process of choosing which words to use also involves choosing which words to leave out.
7. Negative Spin Tends to do Better
According to a study of 100 tech blogs done by Oribi, using words like “Kill”, “Fear”, “Dark”, “Bleeding” will get more attention, even if the headlines themselves are not violent at all.
The same study found that headlines that feature words like “without”, “no” and “stop” end up at the top posts a lot.
The takeaway from this is that giving your headline a negative spin is more likely to pique your readers’ interests. So “10 Things to do This Summer” becomes “The 10 Activities Your Summer Will Suck Without.”
8. Pose a Question
There’s no way to be more engaging than asking a question. Whether it’s something that the readers have been wondering themselves or something new that they haven’t considered yet, a question will surely get attention.
This is what is called a curiosity gap – it’s an itch that demands to be scratched. The proverbial scratching is reading the article.
Leave the question headlines to the more important topics, though. It would be easy enough to get tired of a feed filled with question marks. So make sure you save this one for special occasions.
9. Finally, Don’t Lie
This is so obvious, it shouldn’t even count as advice, but, unfortunately, it needs to be said – such is the state of things. If you promise someone they can lose weight at a rate of 5 pounds every day, only the most credulous would believe you. And since you’re writing for the cynical world of the Internet, credulity and naïveté is not something you should expect.
If you’re counting on a lie getting you massive amounts of clicks, try and think through to the next step: what happens when they do click, and the content doesn’t follow up on the promise? They’ll close the tab and never come back to your site again, that’s what.
(Lead image source: Thomas Bonte)