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  • Writer's pictureDr Joseph Nightingale

The Secret to Writing Killer Headlines | 5 Foolproof Tips

Good headlines are magnetic: you've just got to click. Two minutes before, you didn't know anything about the latest Hollywood marriage car crash. Now you're wondering why you're reading about the sordid details – the headline made you do it.

For content writers, headlines are often a second thought. That's a mistake. Headlines should be your primary focus: it's the bit customers read. Think about it – we're endlessly scanning news headlines, search engine results, or social media posts, looking for something that catches our eye.

We don't know what it is, but we know it when we see it.

It's ruthless, it's cut-throat, and it's instant. Most content never gets read because the headline is terrible. Content writers have gotten lazy. We see "ultimate guide" this or "how to" that. Learning how to write a good headline is a lost art.

In this guide, we're going back to basics – what do you want a headline to achieve, and how can you do it? In short: the content writer's secret to writing killer headlines that convert.

What's the Purpose of a Headline?

We all know what a headline is: the line at the top of an article summarising the contents. Why do we write them, however? If you answered to tell your reader what it's about – you're half right. The real answer is to get your reader to want to keep reading. To hook their interest and get them to care.

Headlines aren't passive; they're active. They're the juicy bait dangling in the waters, waiting for a bite.

It's the art of persuasion – like all great copywriting. And the best of the best work for gossip mags and tabloid newspapers.

Let's dissect a headline:

Mom is Angry at Her Son for Spilling a Family Secret to His Little Sister & Reddit Comes for Her

Curious? You're supposed to be. This headline uses every trick to get your click. We can use the AIDA formula to understand what's going on:

  1. You've got to catch their attention, e.g., "Mom is Angry at Her Son…."

  2. You've got to capture their interest, e.g., "…for Spilling a Family Secret to His Little Sister."

  3. You've got to arouse their desire, e.g., What's the secret? What did Reddit do?

  4. You've got to motivate them to action, e.g., the answer is just a click away.

Using this formula, we can apply the lessons from gossip mags to content marketing. Here's how.

5 Foolproof Tips for Writing Good Headlines

1. Make a promise

Why do we click? It's a simple cost-benefit analysis we each do. Does the headline sound interesting enough that it's worth two seconds of our time?

If yes, you click the link – hoping to find out the details promised in the headline. You want to know what crazy thing Kanye just did (let's see how that reference dates); what sordid family secret the son shared with the little sister; or, indeed, the secret to writing killer headlines.

Your headline should promise an irrefusable answer or benefit.

Legendary copywriter Gary Halbert suggested three methods: (1) Put news in your headline, (2) Promise a benefit in your headline, or (3) Do both in the same headline.


At Last! Scientists Discover the Overnight Secret to Smooth, Flawless Skin

The Subtle Art of Perfect Sleeping (And Why You're Doing It Wrong)

Just ensure you deliver on your promise – otherwise, it's clickbait!

2. Be provocative

We're not the cold, calculating, rational creatures we're often told we are. We, humans, are impulsive and emotional – even when we're trying to be sensible.

We see a bold claim or an incendiary headline and click: we can't help ourselves.

Provoking doesn't always mean clickbait, however. Why? Because clickbait has a penchant for the melodramatic: "Your Jaw Will Drop!", "Can You BELIEVE What They Do?" or "What Happened Next Blew My Mind."

To provoke, rather, means to get a reaction. To generate an emotion: be it fear, happiness, greed, surprise, and more. You can't shout fire in a crowded theatre… unless there really is a fire.

Your headline must not only provoke; it must also be true.

We can use power words to elicit these emotions and prompt action. In the headline for this article, I use three power words:

  1. "Secret" elicits the feeling of curiosity. You want to be let in on the hidden truth no one knows.

  2. "Killer" elicits the feeling of aggression and greed. You want headlines people can't refuse; you want to be rich and famous (who doesn't!).

  3. "Foolproof" is about trust. Not only is the secret to headlines effective, but it's also easy.

Use them in creative ways (and try to stack them at the front) – for example, "How to Quadruple Your Income with These 8 Money-Making Tips" rather than "8 Money-Making Tips That Can Help You Quadruple Your Income".

3. Use trigrams

Headline writing is an art and a science. With millions of articles, we can mine data to determine what words drive engagement.

That's what Steve Rayson of BuzzSumo did. He analysed 100,000,000 Facebook headlines (Yes! You read that right.) for trigrams: a group of three words.

He found certain trigrams saw far more Facebook engagements (likes, comments, and shares) than others.

Notice how they're all the beginning of a promise. Just veer away from clickbait. Whatever is in your article should deliver on the promise you make in the headline.

4. Numbers work

As a writer – I HATE listicles. I want headlines with clever words and even clever-er copywriting. Yet, peruse BuzzSumo's research above, and you'll see plenty of listicles. Indeed, Buzzfeed seemed to base its entire business operation around them.

Using numbers in headlines works. They visually pop – especially at the start of a line.

But adding numbers to your headlines is more than about listicles. Remember Gary Halbert's suggestion: put the news in your headline. Well, statistics are a type of news that captures your attention.

I could have titled this article:

80% of Customers Won't Read Past Your Headline. Here's What You're Doing Wrong.

There's news, numbers, and a promise all rolled into one. You get the idea.

Here are some examples:

  • 10 Life-changing Self-Help Books That Lead to Success

  • 1001 Power Words Guaranteed to Drive Engagement

  • 8 Weeks of Keto Dieting. Here's What I Learned

5. Go longer

It's true – only 20% of people read past the headline. It makes you think… why not add more words to your headline. Size matters. Though it's less of a "bigger is better" and more of a Goldilocks's sweet spot.

In fact, according to BuzzSumo's research, the best length of headlines was 11 words and 65 characters in 2019/2020 – albeit declining from 15 words just a few years before. (Thanks to our declining attention spans.) However, anywhere between 7 to 15 words appears to be the sweet spot.

For headline writers, it's a challenge. Fewer words make our jobs much harder – every character must count!

It is likely why headlines are becoming more formulaic. It's hard to include news or to generate interest in half a sentence or less.

Writing Killer Headlines Is Equal to the Rest of the Article

You can write the best content in the world – who cares if no one reads it? They say we shouldn't judge books by their covers – or articles by their headlines. But tell that to the publishing houses spending millions on book cover design.

I don't know about you, but I want my presents to come in beautiful wrapping paper with a big ass bow on top. I want to wonder what could be inside.

Your headlines are the bow – they're the lure, the bait, the siren on the shore, beckoning your readers and customers for more. With a promise, a power word, and a dash of numbers, you'll write absolute zingers to drive your conversion rate.

Ready to take your headlines from ordinary to extraordinary? Impeccable Writing can help you craft killer headlines that grab attention and drive traffic to your content. With our expertise in content creation and marketing, we know what it takes to create headlines that inspire action.

Don't settle for lacklustre headlines that go unnoticed - let us help you make a statement.

Schedule a free consultation with us today and learn how we can help you improve your headline game and drive more traffic to your website.


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