October 8, 2015 ianblyth

3 Amazing Ways to Write Killer Headlines

First, let me get something out of the the way as quickly as possible: if you’re reading this, it’s because the headline I crafted worked exactly as it was intended.

And even now, after all the research and writing, I’m still not 100% comfortable with crafting that kind of headline. I am, however, fully convinced in the science behind writing engaging headlines to convince readers to click.

Let me back up a bit and explain what got me interested in headlines.

I’ve had many memorable teachers in my time, but one that always sticks out was my first journalism teacher.

This teacher spent a better part of his life as a beat reporter and editor before landing at Slippery Rock University as an instructor. He was a veteran news man to say the least. All the years he’d spent as a reporter, all the police calls, house fires, board meetings and cats rescued from trees, had made him a quietly imposing character.

His face seemed to be etched rather roughly out of some kind of ancient stone. He spoke confidently but sternly like a father does to a child through a thick, grizzled beard. When he asked you a question, it was an unnerving situation because he’d stare at you in such a way that made you feel like he was not only judging your answer but the way you were delivering it.

He looked like he’d seen it all and if he hadn’t witnessed it firsthand, he’d had it explained to him for a story.

He was tough and stern. He didn’t have time for nonsense. He’d fail you outright if you misspelled a name or did not follow the AP style guide to the letter.

Needless to say, I loved the guy.

The one time I ever saw anything even remotely close to a grin on the old man’s face was when we discussed headlines. My teacher wanted to share his favorite. He pulled a faded New York Post from 1983 from his weathered leather satchel and displayed the front page it proudly to the class.

In huge block letters standing tall across the page was perhaps the most clever and disturbing thing I’d ever seen in my life. And while it’s morbid for sure and deals with someone’s very unfortunate end, it’s still the best headline I’ve ever seen in my life.

That’s an extremely gruesome, graphic set of words in stunning block letters.

Despite its borderline tasteless nature, it correctly paints a picture of New York City in the 80’s, which was spiraling into an abyss of crime and chaos.  And while it sure does deal with human suffering with striking and stunning simplicity, it also goes down in history as one of the most popular headlines ever written.

The headline of an article or blog post is the first impression your reader will get, so you have to make it count. The headline is the thing that grabs your reader’s attention and makes them want to read your work. A boring — or worse yet, irrelevant — headline will have your readers skipping your entire article.

Just think of what that means for all the hard work you put into your writing. You find the perfect pictures to tell your story and spend hours typing away. You use the best pull quotes — the ones that really drive the point home — and in the end, readers skipped your article in its entirety because your headline doesn’t grab their attention.

Here are some pretty insightful statistics around headlines:

  • On average, 8 in 10 people will read your headlines, while only 2 in 10 will ever actually click through to the article. (copyblogger)
  • Traffic can vary as much as 500% because of a headline. (SEOMoz)
  • Readers tend to read the first three and last three words of a headline more than anything, meaning length counts considerably (Buffer)

Still need convincing that headlines are important? Try this.

Go search “How to Write the Perfect Headline” in Google. You’ll get over 14 million results on the subject. Even the top two results are written by the same guy — social media expert Neil Patel.

Patel makes a pretty bold suggestion in that “half the entire time it takes to write a piece of persuasive copy should be spent on the headline.” Even if you do end up blazing through 2,000 words in 2 hours — as Patel suggests you can do — that means you should spend at least an hour pondering the headline.

Let’s just agree that headlines are pretty important, even for first impressions.  So what should we be doing with headlines?

Here’s What You Should Do With Headlines

1. Pick a Format and Refine It

There are so many opinions on the types of headlines out there. People way smarter than me have written exhaustively on the different types of headlines and how they work. I don’t go as far as most. I just stick to some pretty standard (and tested) formats.

And trust me, if you’re new to this, don’t get discouraged. If you’re trying to hone your headline-writing skills and looking to improve, you’re headed in the right direction.

Question Headlines
Example: “What Impact Do Negative in Headlines Have on Click-Through?”

These headlines work so well because they entice the reader to know the answer, thus forcing the click.

Research from TrackMavens found that in an analysis of over a million blog posts, nearly 95% of the headlines did not contain a question mark. The other 5% of headlines that did, however,  accounted for over 46% of social shares for that particular data set.

That’s a huge number — and one worth considering.  So it’s obvious that posing a question to your audience is worth considering — especially if it will benefit your click-through potential.

How-To Headlines
Example: “How to Craft the Blog Post for Free”

This type of headline is a personal favorite of mine. In its makeup, the headline promises to teach the reader how to do something. It’s an educational promise that the writer is making with the audience.

Numbered List Headlines
Example: 5 Absurd (But Mind-Blowing) Pop Culture Conspiracy Theories

This is the big one — the headline that started it all.

There’s an inherent need for us click on headlines with numbers in them. In “The Science Behind High-Performing Headlines” on crazyegg.com, Sherice Jacob points out how Buzzfeed has made a killing on these types of headlines in the past, citing research that shows how numbered headlines outperform all others.

In fact, there’s science behind why as humans, we’re attracted to headlines with large numbers — that’s why Buzzfeed avoids using numbers below 10 in its headlines.

But the best early example of success with these headlines (and outstanding content) came from cracked.com. Cracked.com had delivered some of most interesting, intense, and engaging content in the past 10 years. Some of its writers have gone on to fame in one form other another. But it’s lasting contribution has been a volume of quality content and awesome numbered headlines.

And they work.

See that example up there? That’s an article written by Jacopo della Quercia in 2010 that currently has over 5 million page views. In fact, the only thing harder than finding an article on cracked.com that doesn’t have a number headline is finding one that has less than 100,000 page views.

Negative Headlines
Example: Email Is Dead and Social Media Killed It

It’s a simple fact negative words spark emotions in people and can contribute to the click.

It’s an idea as old as the newspaper adage, “if it bleeds, it leads,” meaning if there is a story with human suffering involved, it’ll find its way onto the homepage. As morbid as it sounds, adding negative words can really grasp the reader’s attention.

2. Learn to Love a Thesaurus — and All of Its Emotional, Powerful Words

Using common words in a headline can lead to some pretty boring copy. The main goal of the headline is to get someone to act, so use uncommon words.

 When creating a headline, it’s important to catch someone’s attention and you can’t do that with the average copy. Powerful words can evoke emotion, challenge your opinion, and force you to act. With the right collection of emotional words and the correct angle, you can force someone to stop and say, “Well that can’t be right, I need to read more.”

So the next time you’re about to write “annoying” try obnoxious.

Instead of “pain”, try agony. Don’t use “problem” — use catastrophe.

Jon Morrow over at boostblogtraffic.com wrote a staggering post laying out 317 power words that can improve your headlines. Go read it.

3. When All Else Fails, Use the Formula
Lenka Istvanova contributed a world of knowledge with her 2014 article outline of how to write the perfect blog post. Content is king, for sure, but Istanova completed the thought adding the much needed ending: “but presentation is queen.”

The meaning here applies so well to headlines. Your content could be 2,400 words of pure genius that will be all for nothing if the headline doesn’t do its job. To that end, Istanova suggests a formula, first penned by Jeff Goines.


If categories fail you and you can’t figure them out, try this simple format. It’ll produce some pretty engaging headlines.

4. Test Your Headline — It’s Powerful and Free!

There are a bunch of ways to test your headline for effectiveness. You can ask a friend, perform some scientific live experiments using A/B testing, or you can even pay for feedback through services like TestMyMarketing.com.

Or, since this is the Internet we’re talking about and you’re a smart digital marketer, you can choose one of the free alternatives that are every bit as good as their pay-as-you-go options.

The best, in my opinion, is CoSchedule’s Blog Post Headline Analyzer.

After you submit your headline to CoSchedule’s analyzer, the tool will deliver a detailed report on your work with overall letter grade, score out of 100, and in-depth information on how your sentence is (and is not) working.

The analyzer takes your headline apart word by word, identifies each as either common, uncommon, emotional, and powerful, and distributes them into separate categories. Having a good mix of common, uncommon, emotional and powerful words is essential to a good headline. Striking a balance between the four means you’re on the right path to a winning headline.

The tool gives you a good idea of where you’re lacking and also offers suggestions, so it’s helpful when you’re trying to improve. It even identifies what type of headline you are using and vary the score based on that.

The best thing about the tool is it keeps track of your submitted headlines regardless of whether you completely start over or adjust slightly and resubmit. You can look back through your history and see what scored best or worst, depending on your adjustment.

But Above All, Remember These Things