Why did you click here?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not second-guessing your decision. Stick with me and you’ll get a few helpful tips, just as the headline promised.
But the only reason you’re really here: the headline was good enough to pull you in.
Welcome to the complexity that comes with running a small business in the digital world: while a small piece of information (like a headline) can capture audience attention, it can just as easily lose it. With A Day in the Internet telling us that some 2 million blog posts publish online on a daily basis, it’s never been more important to focus on that most vital element of every post, article, landing page, and email:
A quality headline.
Whether you’re selling goods or services, at some point you’re going to need to write an artful headline. A headline that intrigues, entices, invites. But what if you’ve never worked with a copywriter and you have no idea how to craft one from scratch? We have a few ideas:
Step One: Read Clickbait
No, really. Clickbait has a bad reputation in today’s world—effective and over-promising headlines like “One WEIRD trick to lose 40 pounds in two days!”—but there’s still a lot you can learn from clickbait without resorting to the same over-the-top mischief as spam.
Have a look at Ranker’s favorite clickbait headlines. The goal here isn’t to steal or copy what you see, but to understand what makes a headline feel urgent in the first place. Clickbait articles are completely driven by clicks and sheer ad revenue: the marketers who write them spend nearly all of their time writing the headline alone. What will you notice when you do check out clickbait?
- Urgency. Though clickbait skews towards outrageousness, there’s no doubt that the authors are successful in creating a sense of urgency in each headline. You will simply miss out if you don’t click right here, right now!
- The element of the extraordinary. It’s not the ordinary “Secret to losing weight.” It’s “87-year-old trainer shares secret to losing weight.” Now that’s a headline with a unique angle—and it makes me want to know more.
- Simplicity. They’re not trying to go over your head. Clickbait wants a large audience, so the authors (and/or the bots serving as authors) use simple words and short sentences.
If nothing else, immersing yourself in a little clickbait will get you out of your comfort zone and force you to start answering that essential question in every headline: what makes people want to click forward?
Step Two: Follow Some Time-Tested Rules
We don’t want you writing blatant clickbait. So, what should you write? Here are a few time-tested rules of effective headlines to observe:
- Boldness. Clickbait attracts attention because “fortune favors the bold.” The key to use boldness in a professional way is to actually follow up with the claims in your headlines. Don’t make bold claims just to disappoint people when they click to your content. Consider Business Insider’s “Become a millionaire by age 30.” The content does inform on the best practices of millionaires, so it’s not clickbait. Instead, it’s a blunt statement on what you can expect to get out of the article.
- Create a “curiosity gap.” WordStream.com recommends asking a question every so often. An unanswered question is known as an “open loop” in copywriting parlance: you introduce the idea of a problem to be solved, but then leave it unsolved. There’s tension there. Think of it as a melody that hasn’t resolved to its final note. Make people want to “hear the rest of the song.”
- When in doubt, go with numbers. Yes, the “Top 10” lists are more ubiquitous at this point than denim. But that’s because numbered lists work. A “Top X Reasons You Should Consider ____” post at least serves the promise of a digestible format that people will enjoy. That can often be enough to move the reader forward.
Step Three: Spend More Time Writing the Headline Than You Think You Should
There’s an old quote from Abraham Lincoln: “give me six hours to chop a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
In other words, most of your time should be spent on the most important elements of the work at hand. When you chop down a tree, you’ll want a sharp axe. When you want people to read your blog or emails, that means spending more time on the headline than you think you should. You’ve already got a nice head start because you’re reading this.
But what else can you do with that time?
- Think about what makes your content unique. Remember our “87-year-old trainer” from before? Think about what it is about your small business’s message that makes it the “87-year-old trainer” in your field. What’s unique about the content you’re about to deliver?
- Think about what the content will deliver. Your unique selling point as a business will often tie in to the headlines and subject lines you write. What can you deliver to your potential customers? What will increase as a result of working with you?
- Take the time to build something useful. This is a suggestion from QuickSprout.com, using the example headline of “Create professional client proposals in minutes.” Not only is that headline useful, but it promises that clicking through will not be a major drag on the audience’s time.
- Take the time to study what works. When your company has enough posts online, which are the posts that tend to receive the highest open rates? Which ones attract the most traffic on social media? What is it about those headlines that differentiates them from the other headlines?
Writing Your Next Headline Without Losing Your Mind
There’s enough here to spend the next hour or so writing a headline alone. The truth is that it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Just keep these principles in mind the next time you brainstorm a newsletter or a blog post—and remember to keep testing out new ideas to see what works. Eventually, you’ll not only get a sense for the “art of the headline,” but you’ll better understand the type of content your audience loves most.