How to write headlines that work: attracting readers without exaggeration
Last Updated Apr 17, 2023
José M. Duque
Table of Contents
According to a recent study, 59% of links shared on social media aren’t actually clicked on, suggesting that they were shared on the basis of their headlines alone. Writing headlines is an often-overlooked part of the writing process. After working hard to craft a stellar piece of authoritative content, it can be really tempting to fashion a headline out of the first thing that springs to mind. This would be a mistake. Good headlines are an indispensable part of authoritative content, and today we’re going to look at how you can make your headlines shine just as brightly as the rest of your content.
What’s the anatomy of a good headline?
There are five factors that influence the quality of a headline: clarity, accuracy, relevance, voice, and uniqueness.
Why should headlines be clear?
Clarity is always a virtue in writing. Long, florid sentences are fine if you’re a Victorian novelist, but it doesn’t work in the world of online content. This is particularly true for headlines. You essentially want to give your readers a bird’s-eye view of your post. You don’t need to mention every point—this isn’t the long title of an Act of the British Parliament—but your headline should give them an understanding of what they can expect to learn from your content. But at the same time, you don’t want to be too brief. To make matters even more confusing, different studies have suggested different optimal lengths. Depending on the platform, anywhere from eight to seventeen words long could be ideal.
Bad: “How to write a novel”
Good: “Ten tricks for writing compelling and complex characters”
The good headline is better because it gives the reader a better understanding of what they’re actually going to read.
Why should headlines be accurate?
This may seem blindingly obvious, but your headline should be an honest reflection of your content. If you’ve spent any time on the internet, you’ve likely seen clickbait headlines that attempt to bring in views with sensational language straight out of the supermarket tabloids of old. You may have seen ads for a popular video game that promises that you can do “anything you want” alongside images of women in chainmail bikinis. But instead of a raunchy virtual sex-fest, you’ll be confronted with a bog-standard mobile RPG. And that’s the problem with clickbait. Sure, it might get people to click-through to your content, but chances are, they’re not going to be happy if you’ve made a promise and don’t deliver on it. Clickbait might have paid dividends in 2013, but it’s not going to get you far in 2023.
Now this doesn’t mean you can’t embellish things a bit to create interest. But there’s a fine line between embellishment and mimicking George Santos. Let’s say you’ve written a post with advice on how to earn extra money by monetizing your hobbies or interests. “5 side hustles that can help you beat inflation” is fine, but “5 easy ways to become a millionaire overnight” is dodgy.
Being accurate also makes sense from a SEO perspective. Google rewards accuracy, making this an easy way to improve your rankings.
Bad: "How to save $1000 a week on groceries"
Good: "10 ways to save money on groceries"
While the bad headline overhypes the benefits, the good headline is far more restrained while still being enticing.
Why should headlines be relevant?
Being an authoritative publisher means writing across multiple platforms. Even if your emphasis is on long-form content, Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram, and Facebook will help you reach as many potential readers as possible. But succeeding on these platforms requires a degree of versatility. For example, tweets can’t be longer than 280 characters. That limit can be even lower if you wish to include hashtags or links. You always want to make sure your headlines fit the platform. You should also make sure your word choice fits your audience. For example, when writing for something like Instagram that has a younger audience, you can probably get away with being more informal.
Bad: "How to become an influencer"
Good: "Why Instagram is the best platform for your business"
The bad headline lacks specificity. The good headline, on the other hand, names a specific platform, making its value to readers clear.
Good: "Unlock the secrets to successful email marketing"
In these cases, the voice is the definitive factor. The bad example is quite passive and lacks verve, while the good one is far stronger and more engaging.
Why should headlines be unique?
When you’re in a job interview or a first date, you want to make a compelling impression on the other party. This is true for headlines as well. If your headline doesn’t stand out, readers are less likely to read it. Injecting a bit of humor or quirkiness into your headlines can help, provided that aligns with your brand’s image.
Bad: "How to Make a Cocktail"
Good: "The Ultimate Guide to Crafting the Perfect Cocktail"
The bad headline is bland, and it’s already been used hundreds of times. The good example, on the other hand, lets the reader know that they’re about to read something more comprehensive.
Strategies for writing top-tier headlines
Now, let’s talk about some strategies you can use to make sure your headlines reflect the factors we’ve outlined above.
Why should you write multiple headlines?
Don’t just craft a single headline and call it a day. Not only do you need to come up with bespoke headlines for all the platforms that you plan to publish on, but taking the time to draft multiple headlines can help you come up with the best ones for the job. You can even test multiple headlines to see which ones work best, which can also help you understand the needs of your readership. The great thing about headlines is that they’re short, so this shouldn’t be too difficult of a proposition.
Why should you use numbers in a headline?
As Neil Patel points out, numbers are “brain candy.” Moreover, odd numbers seem to attract more attention than even numbers, and numerals are more impactful than spelled-out numbers.
What tools can you use to improve your headlines?
Plugging your proposed headlines into Google can help you determine whether they’ll stand out by comparing them to other similar headlines. But be sure to place your proposed headlines in double quotation marks (“ “) in order to ensure you’re searching for those exact words. To get the best results, be sure to pay attention to the first five search results or so, as that will give you more useful information. You can also use a number of online tools to help you polish your headlines to perfection, such as:
CoSchedule Headline Analyzer. This provides word-by-word analysis of your headlines and offers tips for improving them. It also lets you see how your headlines have been improving over time.
Portent’s Content Idea Generator. This one is particularly useful if you want to take a more creative approach with your headlines, as it can help you include attention-grabbing elements such as celebrity names or locations. It also generates a list of suggestions instead of vetting ones you’ve already come up with.
Headlines are a vital part of your content. They’re the first thing readers see, and they can make the difference between someone clicking through to read your material or moving onto cute cat pics. But if you’re mindful of clarity, accuracy, relevance, voice, and uniqueness, you can rest assured that you’re making the best first impression possible.