Yes, the sentence you’ve just read – the headline – could make or break your content marketing. Because if it didn’t draw you into the rest of this post, you’d never learn why headlines are so critical not only in your post, but for the entirety of your inbound marketing efforts.
Now before you accuse me of hyperbole, consider these stats I discovered in “The Anatomy of a Perfect Blog Post: The Data on Headlines, Length, Images and More,” a fantastic post written by Kevan Lee on Buffer Social:
“Eight out of 10 people will read your headline. Two out of 10 will read the rest of what you wrote.”
Kevan pulled that stat from Copyblogger, and the point is crystal clear. Headlines are the very first hook that will determine if your reader will read your blog post, and then, as the theory goes, journey down your inbound marketing funnel.
Here’s how that journey should play out: They should read the blog, then see the call to action, then click on the call to action where a dynamite offer awaits – like a tailor-made white paper that solves all their problems. Then, after reading the white paper, they call you and buy your product or service.
None of that happens, however, if they don’t read your blog.
Now not everyone follows that journey down the inbound marketing funnel in such a cookie-cutter fashion (take a look at Rand Fishkin’s exceptional slide share to see the path more likely taken), but there’s no doubt that the headline is the very step toward any type of customer engagement.
So let’s focus on a variety of different headlines, and some guidelines for writing them well.
Cosmopolitan really sets the stage for writing tremendous headlines. After all, if you look at the cover while waiting in line at the supermarket, you’re irresistibly drawn to them. Who can resist “4 Steps to a Sexy Ass”?
Sure, these headlines tend to be about sex, and that stuff sure does sell. But there is also a concise, formulaic quality to them that draws you in.
In his post, Kevan mentioned a formula developed by Lenka Istvanova for producing the most effective blog post headline.
Example: 10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happier
Let’s apply this to the Cosmo headline “4 Steps to a Sexy Ass.”
Target Keyword: Although this is a magazine cover, I’d assume their online version would be targeting “sexy” or, ahem, “ass.”
Rationale: Everyone wants a sexy ass.
Promise: You will get a sexy ass!
2. Keep it short for Google
Even better, this headline is only 21 characters long. As Kevan notes, “In terms of SEO, the headline (or title tag) will need to be around 55 characters or fewer in order to fit the entire title on a search results page and avoid being abbreviated with an ellipse.”
Below are examples of the ellipses, showing that the top example is too long and the bottom example is right.
3. Use some proven angles
Kevan also highlights using the following angles in creating a headline:
1. Surprise – “This is Not a Perfect Blog Post (But it Could’ve Been)”
2. Questions – “Do You Know How to Create the Perfect Blog Post?”
3. Curiosity Gap – “10 Ingredients in a Perfect Blog Post. Number 9 is Impossible!”
4. Negatives – “Never Write a Boring Blog Post Again”
5. How to – “How to Create a Perfect Blog Post”
6. Numbers – “10 Tips to Creating a Perfect Blog Post”
7. Audience referencing – “For People on the Verge of Writing the Perfect Blog Post”
8. Specificity – “The 6-Part Process to Getting Twice the Traffic to Your Blog Post”
This is very similar to John Morrow’s epic “Headline Hacks” pdf, in which he breaks headlines down into a number of different areas (I’ve included a few examples – you should really download the report):
Threat Headlines: What Keeps Your Readers Up at Night?
Example: How Safe is Your Family’s Land from Developers with Powerful Friends?
Zen Headlines: Promising Readers a Simpler Life
Example: Can’t Keep Up? 11 Ways to Simplify Your Gmail Inbox
Piggyback Headlines: Riding on the Back of a Famous Brand
Example: Do Your Taxes Like Donald Trump: 20 Ways the Rich Cheat the IRS
You get the gist. Jon’s PDF is full of these types of golden nuggets, and they can really help when you feel like you’re in a rut.
4. Trust a long-tail keyword headline
If you’re hoping to get some search engine love, integrate keywords – especially long-tail keywords – into a headline.
If you’re not familiar with a long-tail keyword, it’s typically a phrase people enter into a search engine. For example, “How to avoid losing socks in the laundry.” The keyword might be socks here, but people are specifically searching for the phrase.
Our rule of thumb is not to sacrifice a headline’s quality just so it includes a keyword, long-tail or otherwise. Remember, the name of the game is to be read. So if the shoe doesn’t fit, go with something that will really stop people in their tracks.
However, if the long-tail keyword makes a solid headline, just go with it.
5. Pair headlines with visuals for social media
With the rise of visual content, we’re reverting to one of the things I loved most about writing headlines back in the days when I was crafting ads for print. It’s the concept of 1+1=3: Pair two elements that could stand on their own, but together they produce an entirely different effect.
My favorite example of this is the haunting enlistment poster created after the Lusitania was sunk. The image of the drowned mother clutching her child, and the single call-to-action headline, combine to produce a powerful message.
I was speaking with a couple of social media specialists at a networking event (they were in their twenties), and they told me the key to a great post on Instagram or Facebook is to “pair a great visual with a great headline.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
6. Write emotional headlines
An interesting fact I stumbled upon in this great post by Garrett Moon. In it, he explains how headlines with Emotional Marketing Value (EMV) are more often shared. He links to a tool produced by the Advanced Marketing Institute that actually measures how emotional your headline is by counting the number of emotional words used in a phrase.
They found that the posts that generated the most shares had headlines with higher EMV scores.
I used the tool when crafting the headlines for this post. Here are the initial headlines I wrote, followed by their scores:
55 Characters That Make or Break Your Content Marketing – 22%
80/20 Headline Rule Determines if Your Content will Be Loved – 30%
Successful Content Marketing Starts with This Little Sentence – 37.50%
I’m not entirely sure what constitutes an “emotional word,” but you’ll find many posts like this one that provide lists. Check them out and build your own lists if you like. Either way, this EMV tool is definitely worthy of experimentation.
7. Use upworthy headlines
Upworthy writers truly are pioneers in headlines. They seem to write exclusively for Facebook, with the goal of getting shares. The headlines are long – three lines typically. And dang, they always make you want to read them.
Forget about the character count with these bad boys. Upworthy is in it to drive shares – and they’re succeeding in a huge way, driving traffic to over 50 million people per month.
I’ve started using this approach quite a bit when I share my posts on LinkedIn.
Which tactic should you choose?
Obviously, you can’t use all these tactics on every headline. You have to discover what works best with your target audience through testing. Analyze your metrics, and see if you can spot trends in the types of headlines that work for you and your clients.
Headlines are an art and a science. To this day, they’re also one of the most enjoyable things we get to write. And – if Copyblogger’s 80/20 rule means anything – they’re also the most important.