How to Write a Perfect Headline (That Will Capture Attention)

How to Write a Perfect Headline (That Will Capture Attention)
Jan Zavrel
Jan Zavrel Follow October 06, 2020
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It is truly difficult to overstate the importance of a well-written headline. An engaging headline is a powerful tool for attracting your readers to click, read and share your post. If you can’t hook your potential readers with appealing headline, they will never visit your post and read its content.

Many bloggers rightfully focus their effort and attention on quality of the post itself, but then they ruin all the hard work with hastily made headline which they just slap there without much research. They don’t realize that headlines are critical in making the right first impression, just like pick-up lines.

According to Copyblogger, 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the article. That’s the reason why a perfect headline highly determines the effectiveness of the entire piece. With a great headline, you have a better chance of beating the averages and getting a larger percentage or readers.

On average, 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest.

copyblogger.com

In this article, I want to show you how to write a perfect headline that will capture your readers and convince them to click on your posts, because writing appealing headlines is a skill that can make all the difference regarding your blog success or failure.

How to Write a Perfect Headline That Will Capture Attention: 10 Most Important Tips

  1. Start with Research
  2. Use Capitalization
  3. Persuade and Convince Your Audience
  4. Use Keywords for SEO
  5. Explain What, Why, When and How
  6. Include Dates and Numbers
  7. Make It Clear and Direct
  8. Play With the Right Length
  9. Offer a Solution to Problems
  10. Avoid Passive Voice, Clickbait and Vagueness

1. Start with Research

Start with Research You should always start with understanding behavior and preferences of your audience. A good research can help you answer what kind of headlines are the most engaging and generate the most clicks.

There are two ways to conduct audience research. You can do it all by yourself or you can study published analyses and apply what you learn. Since conducting your own research can be quite expensive and time-consuming, I definitely recommend reading quality sources available on the Internet.

For example, in 2017, BuzzSumo analyzed 100 million article headlines and found the trigram (a three-word phrase) “Will Make You” gained the most Facebook likes, shares and comments.

With this trigram, typical headlines were:

  • 10 Pictures That Will Make You Feel Better About The World
  • 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person
  • 5 Pics That Will Make You Laugh Out Loud
  • 13 Travel Tips That Will Make You Feel Smart

On the other hand, the worst performing trigram was “Control of Your”.

How to Start and End the Headline?

The same analysis discovered that the most popular were headlines starting with these trigrams:

  • X Reasons Why
  • X Things You
  • This Is What

And the most popular ends of headlines were these:

  • The World
  • X Years
  • Goes Viral

The Power of Lists

It’s a well-known fact that lists are very engaging. These types of posts gain above average social shares. But did you know what’s the highest performing headline number? It’s 10, followed by 5, 15 and 7.

Number of Words

Number of words in the headline is another important aspect of its quality and attractiveness. There are different opinions in this field, but most experts agree that the headline should always convey the gist of the story on its own without requiring the reader to click. This is in stark contrast to clickbaits that tries to convince the reader to click by revealing almost nothing from the content.

Based on the aforementioned analysis, the highest number of engagements received headlines with twelve to eighteen words. And as headlines get longer or shorter, the average number of engagements decline.

Number of Headline Words and Average Facebook Engagements Image source: buzzsumo.com

It might be tempting to stop here and based on the information above conclude that the best headline to use forever is something like 10 Ways That Will Make You a Better Headline Writer (and You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!) but as Ann Handley pointed out, that’s just a ridiculous interpretation.

She recommends that you spend as much time writing the headline as you do an entire blog post because it really matters. You should also test what resonates with your specific audience and always try to get a little creative to make your headlines unique.

Andy Crestodina, the Chief Marketing Officer of Orbit Media Studios, suggests that you should take as many words for your headlines as you need to make the click worthwhile.

From General to Specific

As you can see, this analysis can give you some broad ideas about headlines, but it can’t take into the account your specific niche and target audience only you know and understand.

That’s why you need to try to answer these questions when formulating your headlines:

  1. What headlines resonate with my audience?
  2. Why should my audience care about my content?
  3. Can I make a promise about the impact of my content on my audience?
  4. Can I include some emotional element and how will my audience react to it?

2. Use Capitalization

Use Capitalization Image source: Unsplash

As I already pointed out in this article, people are consuming content mostly in a hurry by skimming through it instead of carefully reading it. In such situations, headlines work as signposts and readers heavily rely on them. That’s why headlines must follow the certain rules, so they can inform readers at a quick glance about the importance of the content.

When it comes to styling the headline, there are two basic cases:

  • maximum caps, also known as title case
  • minimum caps, also known as sentence case

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends title case, which means capitalizing words in a headline based on their speech part. This is how the headline of this article is written: “How to Write a Perfect Headline”. A sentence case would look like this: “How to write a perfect headline”.

You might immediately notice that the title case is easier to read. It’s because capitalization helps visually separate individual words which is especially important when readers skim the content.

Capitalization Principles

According to the aforementioned Chicago Manual of Style, there are several principles for applying the title case:

  • Capitalize nouns, verbs, pronouns and adverbs
  • Capitalize prepositions used adjectivally or adverbially
  • Capitalize the first and the last word of the headline

This means that mostly prepositions (and, but, for, or, nor, with) are formatted with lowercase letters, but people usually overlook short words (Is, Are, That, Than) when applying title case and leave them lowercase which is wrong.

Online Tools

If your head is spinning now, rest assured that you can forget about these principles and use the online tools that will help you with capitalization, until you just get it naturally.

Here are some popular tools:

3. Persuade and Convince Your Audience

Persuade and Convince Your Audience Image source: Unsplash

It’s widely known that persuasive speaking (and writing as well) aims to convince people to take some form of action. In our case, that action would be to click the headline in order to display the article. If your headline can’t convince your readers to click on it, it doesn’t matter what’s your article about, because they won’t read it.

Based on The Daily Egg’s recommendation, these are the most popular tactics you can employ to convince people that your article is worthwhile:

1. Take advantage of the desire to get something of value

These headlines prey on the desire of your readers to get something valuable. It can be healthier and better looking body, more money, inspiring ideas, productivity tips and hacks. It’s important to make sure that you won’t deceive your readers with dishonest offer and empty claims. In other words, you need to deliver on your promises or your readers will feel cheated and never come back.

Examples:

  • “The 10 Best Strategies to Earn Money Without a 9-to-5 Job”
  • “The 25 Best Ways to Get in Shape Without Expensive Gym Membership”
  • “The 7 Gestures of Kindness You Can Make Without Spending a Fortune”

2. Focus on a serious pain point

Help people solve their problems by offering intriguing advice. The most frequent problems people encounter are usually connected with the lack of time, money and energy. Focus on these pain points and provide quick and effective solutions. Make your headline more specific to reach your target audience.

Examples:

  • “You’re Running Out of Energy for Your Important Meeting! Here’s a Quick Fix.”
  • “You’re Running Out of Money for College! What Should You Do Next?”
  • “You’re Running Out of Time for Your Wedding! Here’s a Great Tip to Help.”

3. Inspire curiosity

It’s important to find a balance between creating a promise and giving a reson to click on your headline. If you spill out too much, your readers won’t be curious enough, if you’re too vague, they’ll be confused. In either case, they won’t find it worthwhile to click and read your article.

Examples:

  • “We Need to Talk About the Latest Apple Watch. It’s a Game Changer.”
  • “We Need to Talk About Notion’s New Feature That Makes Evernote Obsolete.”
  • “We Need to Talk About New MacBook Pro. It’s All About Details.”

4. Play on FOMO

Fear of missing out, of FOMO is a strong emotion. You can use this fact and let people know that they will miss out on something amazing if they won’t read your article.

Examples:

  • “You’ll Be Sorry If You Miss This Guide to Writing the Best Headlines”
  • “You’ll Be in Hot Water If You Misss These Tips for Valentine’s Day”
  • “You’ll Regret Missing These 10 Marketing Ideas”

There are many more tips for engaging your audience and it’s important to test what works the best for your specific niche with A/B testing.

4. Use Keywords for SEO

Use Keywords for SEO Image source: Unsplash

It’s critical to use your target keyword phrase within your headline because all major search engines put a great deal of emphasis on it. According to SmashingCopy, you can increase the search visibility of your content by using multiple keywords.

The best strategy is to use the double headline. This means that you combine two headlines into one and separate them with a colon. Each headline will target a different keyword.

Here’s an example:

  • “Which iPad to Buy in 2020: How to Choose the Ideal Tablet for Your Needs”
  • “There’s No Perfect Headline: Why Multiple Headlines Help With Ranking”

Before you decide to rewrite all your existing headlines, make sure that your target phrases meet these two criteria:

  1. They match the same topic - iPad and Tablet define the same category of products. iPad is more specific, but people use these terms almost interchangeably.
  2. They share a similar intent - you can safely assume that people looking for tablet have the same intent as people looking for iPad.

If your keywords don’t pass the above criteria, you shouldn’t include them in the double headline.

5. Explain What, Why, When and How

Explain What, Why, When and How Image source: Unsplash

Your headline must be able to answer these four questions, so your reader will understand:

  1. what he will gain from clicking through and reading your article,
  2. why he should choose your post instead of the rest appearing in search results,
  3. when he should come and read your piece,
  4. how he will achieve a result he’s looking for by reading your article

The what aspect of your headline must be clearly evident from scanning the list of search results because people wants to know what to expect from your article.

Example: “3 Steps to Powerful SEO for Your WordPress Blog”

Explaining your readers why they should read your post means to make a promise and keep it by delivering expected content.

Example: “5 Biggest Mistakes to Avoid When Starting a New Blog”

The when aspect means that your headline must ignite urgency so your readers are compelled to read your article right now. You can include words like today, this year or simply now. Make sure to update the article regularly if you specify a particular year in the headline because today, nobody wants to know “How to Build a Website in 2008”. And I mean update the article, not just the headline!

Example: “Speed Up Your Website (The Definitive Guide for This Year)”

The how aspect should comunicate your intent to show your readers the exact ways to achieve the results promised in the headline. These articles are very popular because most of the time, people are searching online for the solutions to solve their problems and how is the popular word they start with.

Example: “How to Build a WordPress Blog with Gutenberg Editor”

6. Include Dates and Numbers

Include Dates and Numbers Image source: Unsplash

We already touched this issue in the previous section when I wrote that nobody wants to know “How to Build a Website in 2008”. The world is rapidly changing and depending on your niche, some of your articles can get very obsolete almost over night.

If you’re in the news business, you probably know that “nothing is older than yesterday newspaper” but this fact applies to technology-related articles as well including hardware, software and services.

One solution is to avoid the content that gets old over time and stick with evergreens like culinary skills or personal development. Another solution is to regularly update your content to keep it relevant as long as possible.

Adding a date inside your headline is the easiest way to show your readers that your content is current (especially if it’s timely like statistics). And before a new year rolls in, you should go through all your time-sensitive content and update it with more relevant information.

Another important aspect of great headline is the use of numbers, because they promise scannable content, clear structure and specific results. According to The Write Direction, when you use a number in the headline, you immediately hook the reader’s interest because numbers reach directly into our unconscious and scream “this is important!”.

Here are 5 tips for writing headlines with numbers:

  1. Start your headline with the number or at least don’t place it at the very end
  2. Use the arabic number instead of a word to make your headline more scannable
  3. Make sure to actually write what you promised (7 tips means that you will write 7 tips, not 4, not 12)
  4. Use odd numbers because they are seen as more authentic than even numbers
  5. Use small numbers because they are more digestible than large numbers

7. Make It Clear and Direct

Make It Clear and Direct Image source: Unsplash

This tip reacts to the new norm of our high-speed society, the skim reading. As The Guardian pointed out, when the reading brain skims texts, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand feelings or to perceive beauty. When people search for the answers, they scroll through the list of headlines, also known as SERP and you need to make sure that your headline stands out by making it easy to understand at a quick glance.

People in such situation don’t have time to decipher clever wordplays or appreciate your poetic and artistic skills. You need to get straight to the point and state quickly and clearly what your article is about. Make sure to deliver a clear picture of what you cover in your post. Confusing headlines will only make your potential readers go away, while the perfect headline is always direct and doesn’t require cognitive effort.

Medium’s editorial team recommends these guiding questions to consider while crafting clear and direct headlines:

  • Could the headline be clearer?
  • Is the headline specific enough?
  • Does the tone reflect the voice or point of view of the article?
  • How might the headline convey what is unique about the story?
  • Is the headline clear and honest about what the story offers?

8. Play With the Right Length

Play With the Right Length Image source: Unsplash

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that according to BuzzSumo’s study, the best performing headlines have around 15 words which roughly translated to some 70 characters. However, when it comes to social media, it’s more complicated, especially if you rely on your headline to be the body of the social message.

As CoSchedule pointed out based on Kevan Lee’s article, the optimal length is quite different of every social platform:

  • Twitter: 71-100 characters
  • Facebook: 40 characters
  • LinkedIn: 80-120 characters

With this in mind, you should decide upon which social network you lean most heavily or get the most traction, and take the ideal length of your headline into account.

There are two important reasons why the length of your headline matters:

  • if it’s too long, it could get truncated on search engine results page
  • if it’s too short, it could be confusing, vague or too broad to drive traffic to your blog

If you’re using Google Ads, consider the fact that your headline is limited to only 30 characters. You can have three headlines separated by a vertical pipe as seen below, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’ll probably have to prepare a separate headlines for this marketing platform.

9. Offer a Solution to Problems

Offer a Solution to Problems Image source: Unsplash

According to Optinmonster, naming your solution in the headline can increase its power. On top of that, a fancy name of your solution increases the perceived value and also incites curiosity.

In Melanie Duncan’s Easy 4 U formula, Usefulness is the first aspect of a perfect headline. It’s all about identifying a problem people may be experiencing and offering a solution they may be looking for. If you manage to do both in a single headline, you have a golden nugget right there.

Copyblogger offers 10 templates that will help you craft a problem-solving headline which you can combine with your guides or listicles. Here are the five that I find most interesting:

1. Who Else Wants …?

This one implies an already existing consensus:

  • Who Else Wants More People to Read Their Posts?
  • Who Else Wants to Earn More Money?
  • Who Else Wants Less Problems on Vacation?

2. The Secret of …

Insider’s knowledge works really well:

  • The Secret of Successful Podcasting
  • The Secret of Best Converting Ads
  • The Secret of True Productivity Hacks

3. Here’s a Unique Method That’s Helping …

Provide benefits for your target audience:

  • Here’s a Unique Method That’s Helping Children Learn to Read Sooner
  • Here’s a Unique Method That’s Helping Content Marketers Write Better Headlines
  • Here’s a Unique Method That’s Helping Beginners Making Money Online

4. Here’s a Quick Way to …

Nothing beats a quick and easy solution to a nagging problem:

  • Here’s a Quick Way to Back Up Your MacBook
  • Here’s a Quick Way to Gain Weight
  • Here’s a Quick Way to Learn Javascript

5. Do Something You Can Be Proud Of

Appeal to vanity or shame:

  • Build a Website You Can Be Proud Of
  • Have a Smile You Can Be Proud Of
  • Shoot a Video You Can Be Proud Of

10. Avoid Passive Voice, Clickbait and Vagueness

Avoid Passive Voice, Clickbait and Vagueness Image source: Unsplash

Active vs Passive Voice

According to University of Kansas, effective headlines involve logical sentence structure, active voice and strong present-tense verbs.

The active voice emphasizes the person who performs the action, while the passive voice emphasizes the action itself. The active voice is usually easier to understand while skimming SERP, that’s why it’s recommended for headlines. It’s also more natural and helps capture the attention.

On the other hand, you should avoid passive voice for headlines because it’s less exciting and turns your headline into a less definitive statement.

Clickbait

Clickbait is a content that is written specifically to attract as many clicks as possible. This seems exactly what you want from your headlines, but clickbait are usually considered to be a bad practice because most of the time they overpromise and underdeliver or simply mislead readers.

According to WordStream, these are the main reasons to avoid clickbait headlines:

  1. Senstationalism is getting old which results in waning interest among audience
  2. Misleading clickbait damages brands and erodes trust
  3. Pageview count isn’t that important any more so the effort to boost it is futile

The strongest argument against clickbait-driven headlines is a very frustrating experience. Even though it might be tempting to lure people into clicking such headlines, readers will bounce off of your post once they realize that the content is disappointing.

Make sure your headlines don’t use exaggerated statements and don’t make empty promises. Remember that you must always deliver in your blog post if you promise something in its headline. Most importantly, be honest and aim for long-term relationship with your audience built on trustworthy content.

Google recently updated its misrepresentation policy that covers sensationalist text or imagery which intend to drive traffic through pressurizing readers to take immediate action. In other words, clickbait can hurt your blog not only when it comes to your audience but also when you consider SEO.

Vagueness

Vague headlines is another extreme. The best headlines are always very specific, but some bloggers still believe that readers will click through to find the answer they weren’t able to understand from a deliberately vague headline.

The rule number one says that if your headline could apply to any story, you shouldn’t use it. Wylie Communications shared some extremely vague headlines that appeared in actual publications.

Please, don’t use these in any case:

  • Prepare for the worst
  • Help me cope
  • Keeping it together

Conclusion

Writing headlines is an important skill. Even if your post is unique and well-written, a poor headline can ruin its chances of being successful. Your headline makes a first impression with readers and as Oscar Wilde said, you never get a second chance to make a first impresson. Your headline is something like your pick up line, you can impress and ignite curiosty or you can ruin everything with just a few words.

The great headline should always:

  • align with the content of the post,
  • focus on helping instead of over-promissing and scandalizing,
  • target topics relevant for your niche

To write a perfect headline, you need to understand your readers, know their interests and use the same words and language they use. Remember, that your ultimate goal is to build and cultivate a long-term relationship with your audience.

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Jan Zavrel
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Developer, Author, Teacher, Evernote Certified Consultant.