Your headline is like a job interview or meeting your date’s father. You only get one impression, so you better not screw it up.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what most people do. They write a lack-luster headline, so no one reads their article. In fact, most content doesn’t get shared at all.
An effective headline is the hardest part of writing a blog post. If headlines come easy to you, you’re in the minority.
The headline’s goal is to grab attention. It’s often displayed elsewhere on the web, like social media pages or content aggregators. You need to create enough interest for people to click.
More people will read your headline than your body copy. In fact, most social shares happen before the reader ever gets to the meat of your content. They just share the title.
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Websites like BuzzFeed, Upworthy, Huffington Post, Forbes, Entrepreneur and many others have pull a tremendous volume of traffic because they use effective titles.
So it’s imperative you spend the time working on your title that it deserves. This element will have the biggest impact on the performance of your article.
How to write an effective blog post headline
1. Keep it accurate
Tell the reader exactly what’s inside so you capture the right people. Don’t under promise or over promise. Clickbait-y headlines like “Donald Trump Thought to be Dead in His Hotel Room” are lame when the article reveals that he took an extra minute in the bathroom and didn’t answer his door.
Stuff like that goes after cheap clicks. It doesn’t build a following.
That doesn’t mean clickbait doesn’t have its own place. It’s perfectly suitable for some niches, like entertainment or lifestyle publications. But if you’re trying to teach someone something or produce evergreen content, it’s a poor practice.
In school, we were taught that it’s easier to write titles after we’ve written the content. It may be easier, but it’s certainly not effective.
A headline is a promise to your readers. You need to fulfill that promise in the content. If you write your title at the end, you might notice that your content doesn’t support an attractive title.
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Quick example: you want to write a post that suggests summer activities for families. Your ideas are camping, hiking, picnics, and gardening.
“4 Summer Activities for the Family” is a boring title, so you want to make it “4 Exciting Summer Activities Your Family Will Love.” That’s a much better title, but are those activities exciting? No, not really. They aren’t even original or interesting.
2. Add clarification
I’m a big fan of the [bracketed] clarification at the beginning or end of your title. This gives your reader a clue about the structure of the post.
According to HubSpot and Outbrain, “Headlines with bracketed clarifications (e.g., [photos], [interview], [PDF], etc.) performed 38% better than headlines without clarifications, suggesting readers are more likely to click when they have a clear picture of what lies behind the headline.”
Even when the topics and content are the same, you might find your audience prefers one type of structure over another. Perhaps some like videos, or infographics, or image posts.
Adding [Video] or [PDF] to the title will draw the right type of person. We don’t just want any traffic. We want the right traffic, because the right traffic will be more likely to spread your content.
3. Use interesting adjectives
As a marketer, I can’t stand when writers insist on using overly positive adjectives. Are your winter roof maintenance tips really “amazing?” Is your scrambled egg recipe “incredible?”
I recognize that authors are trying to hype up their work, but it usually comes across as disingenuous. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use adjectives. It just means you have to use the right ones.
Use powerful words that describe your content without being insincere. People like strong words that inspire action and unique feelings.
If you foolishly wrote your content first (see tip #1), you may have to adjust it to fit your effective headline.
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Sample: The 19 Strangest Egg Recipes You’ll Ever See
Sample: The Lazy Marketer’s Guide to Email Marketing
Furthermore, front-load your adjectives to tighten up your copy and add power to your headline. Here’s a bad example of the sample above: “19 Egg Recipes That Are Really Strange.”
4. State your value
The goal of your post is to provide value for your reader, even if that value is basic entertainment. If you have something especially powerful, it must be a part of your title. Include anything that promises you’re reader they’ll be better off after they’ve read your article.
For example, people love templates. A template is a shortcut. It literally saves time, energy and possibly money. I use Photoshop templates all the time to create visuals because they are easy to find and there’s no sense doing needless work.
If your post offers resources or tidbits that make your content better than others (like the opinions or interviews with experts, references to credible studies, or downloadable documents), make it part of your title.
Sample: 18 Tutorials for Designers to Impress Their Clients
Sample: 12 Experts Weigh in on the Importance of a High-Fat Diet
5. Use numbers
You may feel that this tactic blends your content with everything else on the web, but it works. In fact, they generate 73% more social shares.
People like numbers in titles because it tells them exactly what’s inside. They add clarity. An article with 35 tips is generally longer than one with six. It also tells them they’ll be able to scan the content quickly, skipping anything they already know.
Numbers also juxtapose nicely alongside text. A title with numbers will stand out more than the text-only headline beside it.
People find round numbers too convenient. Are there exactly 20 ways to burn belly fat before the summer? Go with something obscure, like 19 or 21, which may show that you’ve done better research. (Yes, I see the irony in that.)
6. Tell people what it’s about
Some authors mistakenly create headlines that are too vague and poetic. For example, I once saw a post (and by “saw,” I mean I wrote this three years ago) titled “A Like! My Kingdom for a Like!”
That’s a clever headline. If you’ve read Shakespeare’s Richard III, you’ll recognize the structure of King Richard’s desperate cry. The topic of the post was a lament on the modern author’s slavish servitude to Facebook.
I spent a few days patting myself on the back for that one, until a colleague (who was exactly my audience) told me he would never click on such a link. He hadn’t read any Shakespeare. He didn’t understand my title because it didn’t tell him what was inside.
7. Know your audience
In marketing, your audience is everything.
You’ll never be effective if you don’t know for whom you’re writing. Before you begin blogging, you should have an idea of what your audience is like. You’ll also have to continually evaluate your readership as it grows. Who are they? What do they want? What problems do they have?
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Speak to your audience in your title by using words or concepts that matter to them. Make them feel like your content was specifically designed for someone in their position.
For example, instead of “9 MySQL Tips Every IT Professional Should Know,” word your title like this: “9 Microsoft SQL Server Tips Every DBA Should Know.”
Again, your content may have to change a bit if you wrote the title last, but your post becomes much more appealing because you’ve narrowed down your topic (general SQL information becomes Microsoft SQL Server information) and used a specific job title that makes every Database Administrator know that this content is for them.
8. Keep it under 50-70 characters
Google gives you 50-70 characters of space for your headline (it varies within that range depending on several factors, some which aren’t known). After that, you get the dreaded ellipse. Other places that show titles (like social media pages) have similar cut-offs.
Best practice is to set your headline as the page’s primary heading tag, the <h1>. Use the <h1> content to populate your page’s <title> tag (most modern themes and content management systems do this automatically). Search engines display the content of the <title> tag as the link to your site.
(A common mistake many sites make is to list the site name before the page title in the <title> tag. This reduces the number of characters that are displayed to the searcher because the site’s name is using them up. Be sure to adjust your settings so your site’s name comes after the title, if at all.)
While search engines read the entirety of your headline (and weigh the full text according to their algorithm), only 50-60 characters are shown to the reader. If your title is cut off, people are less likely to understand, thus less likely to click.
9. A/B test your headlines
Crash course: A/B testing is publishing or displaying different versions of content with one variable changed. The option that performed better is the one you go with. This works for anything: email campaigns, social media posts, calls-to-action, website colors, etc.
A/B testing is the life blood of strong inbound marketing. You absolutely need to test the components of your content to learn what your audience prefers. Figure out what worked and repeat its success.
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A/B testing isn’t just for tweaking. It can have dramatic effects on your content in unexpected ways. When SimCity 5 wasn’t happy with their preorder sales, they found that removing their $20 offer actually increased pre-orders by 40%.
There are plenty of software solutions that will allow you to test multiple versions of a page element, including a WordPress plugin, but you don’t have to be that fancy.
Buffer ran an interesting experiment where they used Twitter to discover the most effective headline. They simply tweeted different versions and measured their clicks. Whichever got more clicks was considered more appealing.
10. Include the image-headline
I don’t have a better name for it, so I’m using the less-than-clever “image-headline.”
The image-headline is an image you made custom for your blog post. It includes a background image, coloring, or something that stands out. It also includes the headline of the post. Copyblogger does this with every post.
Why do you want the headline displayed a second time on the page?
- You’ll notice many pages include a wide rectangular graphic with the headline. This image is typically displayed close to the top. When someone shares this link on some social media sites (namely Facebook and Google+), this image is auto-populated and the headline is more visible than a standard post.
- Some blogs will use a tall rectangular graphic that includes a relevant image and the headline. This is for Pinterest. Often it comes with a button overlaid on the image so you can easily share it. You’ll find this commonly used on blogs in the craft, recipe, hobby, and parenting niches, but other Pinterest-friendly sites use them.
- Sometimes you just want to give your post an interesting look. If your theme doesn’t support certain typefaces or styles that you feel would be appropriate, adding them to an image can add value. (However, this should never replace the place of a standard <h1> tag.)
11. Hit those keywords
Google seems all-knowing, but it’s not. It uses sophisticated tricks to put the proper sites at the top of your search, but it still relies on data it collects from websites.
Using keywords in your blog post is absolutely imperative. I cannot stress this enough.
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Selecting keywords is a topic for another post. Use a keyword research tool to get data on a particular keyword so you know its effectiveness. Always go niche by invoking long-tail keywords whenever you can.
For example, a poor keyword to target would be “weight loss.” There are a million websites about weight loss, so ranking high for that term would take years of time and work.
A better keyword would be something more specific, like “lose 20 pounds before Christmas.” Yes, less people are searching for it, but you’re far more likely to actually gather some traffic.
You need to put the page’s main keywords in the title. As I said, use the headline of your post in the page’s <h1> tag. Google weighs this page element heavily to determine the page’s topic, so you must use it wisely.
12. Displaying your headline
Naturally, your headline should be the largest and most prominent text on the page. Don’t crowd it with imagery or other text. Make it absolutely clear to the reader that your title is the focus of the page; the first thing worth reading.
Help Scout does this exceptionally well without being obnoxious.
The most common (and effective) headline font size is 20 to 36 pixels. It should be at least 2.5 times larger than your body copy. More than half of all people prefer dark colored headlines to bright ones.
The most effective headline formats
Effectiveness will vary by niche, writing style, author, etc. Content marketing master Neil Patel could write a headline that consists of nothing but asterisks and a million people would read it. But that’s only because he’s been writing effective titles for years.
So while your results will vary, we have an idea of what generally works.
1. List headlines
After infographics, list posts get the most social shares, probably because they’re just so damn easy to skim.
Buzzfeed has become the king of easy-to-digest list posts. I don’t recommend replicating their style unless it suits your content, but they receive massive shares for every post, so they’re worth investigating.
2. Use “you” and “your”
Boy, do we love hearing about ourselves. I care a lot about me, just like you care a lot about you. So when we’re mentioned in a headline, we can’t help but feel better about the source.
Use “you” and “your” as a fantastically simple way of making the reader feel engaged.
Sample: You’ll Never Believe How These 3 Girls Escaped Death
3. How-to headlines
People want useful information and there’s no clearer format than a how-to. It’s tough to write a bad how-to headline, but there’s definitely a range of effectiveness.
The worst headlines go something like this: “How to Make Friends.” Useful, but fucking boring.
A better headline would be “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
4. Question headlines
It’s the least effect headline format, but it’s not un-effective.
The beauty of this type of title is that it mirrors how many users input queries into search engines.
Google knows that people don’t look for solutions, they express their problems. For example, “optimal time to post on Twitter” would be a solution-based search query, but most people would type “when is the best time to post on Twitter?”
Use the searcher’s language and you’ll rise higher on search engine results pages and better connect with your audience.
If a post takes me two hours to write, I usually spend 30 to 45 minutes thinking about the headline. Sometimes I ponder in the shower or in the car.
I used to do my considering on paper, but I write so many blog posts every week that I can instantly dismiss a bad one.
I cycle through hundreds of words until I find the ones that feel right. Then, I test. Marketing has become a math-filled, data-driven discipline. We must study our analytics.
If you’re just beginning your blogging journey, I urge you to run your titles through this headline analyzer. It helps you weigh countless factors to produce exceptional titles.
You could try a tool like HubSpot’s blog topic generator, but I’ve found it to be a bit robotic. Still, it’s a useful jumping-off place.
But the best resource you’ll ever have is your competition.
Unless you have literally invented your niche, there’s a chance someone has written about your blog topic before. That’s not a bad thing, though, because it means an audience exists for your content.
Use Buzzsumo to find articles on similar topics. With just a free account, you can see the posts that have been shared the most.
Use this tool to analyze how your competitors wrote their headlines for clues to make yours.
What’s the best title you’ve ever seen? Why was it so effective?