Looking to master the art of headline writing?
Because conventional wisdom tells us what we already know: most people read and share posts based on titles alone.
Couple that with the fact that we live in an era of clickbait headlines where brands and blogs will say just about anything to score clicks.
Listen: from blog titles to social posts and beyond, knowing how to write a compelling headline is an invaluable skill.
And despite popular belief, doing so means more than just running your titles through a generator.
Don’t consider yourself much of a copywriter? Don’t sweat it! Our guide breaks down 10 actionable headline writing tips that’ll help you score those precious clicks and shares.
1. Put together headlines that promise a payoff
It’s no secret that readers today have small attention spans.
Think about it. As we’re scrolling through our Twitter or Facebook feeds, we’re passing by dozens of headlines in a matter of seconds.
That’s why it’s so important to answer the question of “Why bother?” or “So what?” with a compelling title that stops readers in their tracks.
Remember: your audience’s time is valuable. Your headlines should promise a payoff in exchange for their click or tap-through. Below are some awesome examples of benefit-driven headlines from Lauren Pope of G2.
At glance, your headline should highlight why someone should spend their valuable time reading. In short, what do readers get out of your post?
- Reclaim Your Time with These 12 Time Management Tips
- Write That Down – Take the Best Meeting Minutes with This Template
- Launch Your New Product in No Time with Agile Project Management
See how that works?
Among our headline writing tips, this is easily one of the most important.
Ask yourself: how can you frame your post’s title as benefiting the reader?
Saving time? Maybe money? Relieving some sort of pain point? Either way, strive to put that benefit front-and-center in your headline.
2. When in doubt, ask a question
Question-based headlines are time-tested and remain the go-to for writers for a few reasons.
We’re curious creatures, after all. When we take to Google or social media, we already have questions in our head (think “How do I do _____?” or “Why is _____ so important?”) and such headlines feed into our curiosity. Questions aren’t just prime for blog post headlines but also social captions as well.
What’s the goal of content marketing, anyway?
Here, almost 200 marketers agree on the 15 content marketing goals every program should set and achieve: https://t.co/gh0A3IknGY
— Databox (@databoxHQ) March 6, 2020
Question-based headlines also serve as a natural call-and-response. When we see a question presented to us, our brains want to be satisfied with an answer by default. Here’s a great question headline from MailChimp:
The beauty of question-based titles is that they can be formatted for just about any type of content or industry. For example, here are some sample formats for question-based headlines to get you brainstorming:
- “How Can I…”
- “How Often Should…”
- “When Does…”
- “Where Does…”
- “Why Do…”
If you are looking for meaningful, real-world questions to drive your titles, look no further than your audience.
As noted in our guide to online social listening, platforms such as Quora and Reddit can be goldmines for topics and ideas based on questions that your audience is already asking. This applies to headlines and social captions as well.
3. Get personal with “You,” “We” and “I”
Perhaps one of the easiest ways to connect with readers is by addressing them (and yourself) directly.
This means referring to yourself or your company in the first-person (“I” or “We”) and your reader in the second-person (“You”).
This is a subtle yet significant way to make your posts seem more personable and likewise grab your readers’ attention. Let’s look at some examples.
This title from Salon is a shining example of a strong editorial headline using “I.”
Is it optimized for keywords or SEO? Nope. However, it definitely makes us want to read through and dig into the author’s story.
Now, let’s talk “we.” Using “we” instead of your company or brand name is a smart move to make your posts feel like they’re coming from an actual person versus a faceless business. Here’s an example from the Moz blog:
Additionally, referring to your readers in the second-person can help your titles feel a bit less sales-y or market-y. You can’t refer to your readers by name, but “you” is a close second.
It’s easy to get lost in the weeds of “optimization” but at the end of the day, headline writing is about making a connection with your reader. More personal headlines can make it happen.
4. Incorporate numbers into your headline writing
Stealing from pop psychology, numbers are easy for our brains to process at a glance.
Additionally, they’re another prime way to get readers to stop and look.
Shocking statistics. Big figures (think 1000% or $42,049,200). You get the picture.
You don’t have to go crazy with numbers to incorporate them into your headlines, though. For example, listicles and list-style headlines are so popular because they naturally reel in readers.
Why? Well, lists are straightforward and scan-worthy. As a result, list-centric titles signal posts that are simple to digest and scroll through in no time. That’s why listicles and number-based headlines are the cornerstones of so many blogs today (including SnackNation’s blog).
Numbers can also be used to give your headlines a sense of immediacy and credibility.
Many click-worthy headlines make time-sensitive promises (“…in Just 10 Days”). Notice that many case studies likewise use specific figures (“How We Increased Our Social Shares by 112%”) to signal that a study was actually conducted and the numbers aren’t just fluff. Here’s an example from SingleGrain:
Simply put, number-based and list-style headlines are safe bets and should definitely be part of your content strategy.
5. Experiment with different headline lengths
If you dig around for statistics and studies regarding “optimal” headline lengths in terms of words and characters, you’ll get a mixed bag of results.
How long your titles should be is situational.
For example, your title might get cut off in Google search results if it exceeds more than ~60 characters. Does that mean you should exclusively write bite-sized headlines? No, and notice that almost no brand or publication does so.
Below’s a quick breakdown of when shorter headlines make sense versus when longer ones do.
Although shorter headlines don’t give you as many opportunities to use keywords or leverage your brand voice, they’re easy to understand at a glance. They’re bold. And yes, they probably won’t get cut off by Google or social previews on Facebook and Twitter.
On the flip side, longer headlines allow some breathing room to let your tone of voice shine through and make your titles seem a bit less stuffy.
If you’re targeting a long-tail keyword, you may have no choice but to rely on a longer title for a particular post. An added bonus of longer titles is that they feel less generic by default: the more words in a headline, the more opportunities to put your unique spin or creative trademark on a post.
We recommend experimenting with both types of headlines for the sake of variety and likewise understanding if one type actually does outperform the other for your brand.
6. Pick the right power words and phrases
Many headline writing tips center around the concept of “power words.”
That is, terms and phrases that stand out to readers and reinforce that your post matters.
Making power words work doesn’t mean forcing them into your headlines, but rather adopting angles where you can weave them in naturally. Below are 10 power words and phrases that work for just about any industry:
“Don’t / Can’t”
Although you shouldn’t exclusively rely on negative language, terms like “don’t” and “can’t” let off an alarm in your readers’ heads.
Ex: “5 SEO Mistakes Your Site Can’t Afford to Make”
This presents your post as being “must-see” and therefore not something your readers can afford to simply scroll past.
Remember what we said about benefit-driven headlines? Whether it’s time, money or energy, saving your reader something presents your post as a problem-solver.
Ex: “How to Save 10 Hours in Your Workweek Without Breaking a Sweat”
“Prevent / Prepare”
These terms again highlight your post as something to help your readers, all the while helping them avoid potential headaches in the process.
Ex: “10 Ways to Prepare for the ‘Slow Season’ and Keep Your Business Afloat”
Terms like “actually” make your posts seem more actionable and can likewise be used to flip conventional wisdom on any given topic.
Easily one of the most popular types of posts, people are looking to the web to learn how to do just about anything. Feed into to natural sense of curiosity
Ex: “How to Score More Customers Through Social Media”
“Without” presents your post as an easy fix or solution that requires your reader to do less rather than more.
These types of headlines signal that your reader needs to be taking action on a topic ASAP, all the while referring to them directly.
Ex: “Why You Should Have Started Using TikTok, Like, Yesterday”
People don’t want to be bothered with information or news that’s not breaking or pressing. By saying your post is “important,” you’re letting readers know that what you’re saying matters.
Ex: “The Most Important Question Your Company Isn’t Asking”
Best / Worst
Declaring something to be the “best” or “worst” might seem like hyperbole, but it’s a proven way to encourage clicks and again highlight that you’re presenting important (see above) information.
Ex: “10 of the Best Email Tips That Nobody Is Talking About”
Do you need to sprinkle at least one of these power words in each of your headlines? Not necessary. That said, consider how you can potentially build headlines around these phrases if you’re stuck or are looking for a fresh angle.
7. Speak your audience’s language with industry phrases
A simple headline writing tip, but definitely one worth noting!
We’re not saying you should exclusively use jargon in your headlines. Instead, consider how you can craft titles that speak to specific sects of your audience.
For example, phrases like “churn” or “vendor” are going to speak to folks in SaaS marketing while “aesthetic” and “xerosis” are relevant to a beauty brands’ audience.
Using industry-specific terms isn’t just a way to let your audience know that you’re writing for them, but also potentially target keywords in both social search and Google.
8. Brainstorm at least five headlines for any given post
If you’re not happy with your current headline or don’t know where to find inspiration for your next one, relax.
Again, note that there are no “concrete” headline writing rules that you’re forced to follow. Looking at the Google search results for “skincare tips,” we can see a variety of headlines from listicles and how-tos to a “best tips” guide.
We recommend writing at least five headlines to help you hash out your ideas and get the creative juices flowing. Here are some sample headline exercises to help you put together a title for your next post:
- A question-based headline
- A how-to headline
- A short-form headline (~60 characters)
- A longer-form headline (80 – 100 characters)
- A headline based around a power word or phrase
9. Don’t rely on the same type of headline every time
Creativity counts when it comes to headlines.
In other words, you shouldn’t simply rely on listicles or how-to headlines exclusively. Doing so makes your blog boring and doesn’t do much to excite your readers.
On the flip side, having a diverse content calendar with a variety of headlines can help keep your readers on their toes and gives them something fresh to look forward to.
For example, we try to mix it up with a variety of deep-dive guides, how-tos, lists and case studies here at Sprout.
The takeaway? Mix it up!
10. Analyze your headline writing to find top performing titles
If you want a definitive answer regarding which types of headlines resonate most with your readers, look no further than your analytics.
Doing so can help point you to which types of headlines you should prioritize and likewise which ones you might want to avoid. Although there are definitely variables involved with traffic and shares (think: timing, the timeliness of a topic, SEO and keywords), realizing that your “how-to” posts or listicles get double the engagement is definitely telling.
For starters, keep a close eye on your traffic numbers via Google Analytics to assess which headlines score the most traffic.
Meanwhile, analyzing your most-shared and popular social posts is a smart move. Make a point to dig into your best captions as well (think: your social captions effectively introduce your headlines). To figure out what’s working and what’s not, tools like our social media analytics can clue you in.
And with that, we wrap up our guide!
What’s your approach to headline writing?
Hopefully, our guide to headline writing served as some much-needed motivation and inspiration for coming up with more compelling titles.
No matter what type of brand or blog you’re promoting, these ten tips are totally fair game.
But remember: headline writing is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to getting more eyes on your content.
For example, what happens once they actually get on the page?
If you’re eager for more engagement on your posts themselves, make sure to check out our guide on how to write a blog post that people will actually read. And with that said, happy writing!