This is the most important skill I can teach you as a person who wants to make money from the Internet… but I warn you, this takes practice — lots of practice.
The headline or title of your article or any piece of content you create is the first element a person reads, which acts as the gatekeeper, fully responsible for whether the visitor engages with your content, or ignores it. If you’re ignored, you never make money.
It is difficult to teach headline writing because, at least in my experience, it’s so much about bursts of creative writing. You certainly can apply templates to make it easier — and I have many templates to give you in this article — but the best headlines always take some crafting.
When I write headlines I sit down (or stand-up at my stand-up table), review my content, look at the various hooks or stories in the piece, and then use my creative spark to generate headlines. If I feel stuck, I get out my templates and use them as a starting point. Then I go to work on the crafting part, changing words, removing words, trying to get that magic flow when you hit on just the right headline.
In this article I’m going to give you a list of headline templates you can draw upon as starting points for your content, plus some advice from my experience learning how to write good headlines.
I recommend you have my list of templates readily available when you go to produce your next content piece.
How I Learned How To Write Headlines That Grab Attention
If you go back and read this blog from the start you can see how far my headlines have evolved. When I started writing I had limited marketing skill and no copywriting training.
To put it simply, my headlines were terrible.
Over the years as I wrote blog articles and emails for my newsletter, I realized how absolutely critical the headline is (or the subject line in emails). Most of my learning came from studying what other people were writing, reading countless articles and emails from Internet marketers, bloggers, newspaper and magazine writers, and so on.
Once you have your head switched over to “meta-thinking” (what is going on behind what you are observing) you start to ask yourself why things work or result in certain outcomes.
For example, whenever I came across an article on another blog that covered a similar subject to my own articles, yet performed so much better, I started looking for answers.
Although many factors contributed, in almost all cases I noticed that good headlines – better than mine – were winning audience views. It didn’t matter if the content wasn’t as good as mine (in my humble opinion!), as long as the headline was good it was read and shared far more than my content was.
I also noticed which marketers were able to convince me to open emails and which writers could tempt me to read articles. There was something about the way they communicated.
As an affiliate to many big launches, I could see what was working and noticed subtle things – like how many words were used, which words were most effective, how style and personality could be conveyed, and the importance of flow and cadence. Many of these things are difficult to assess empirically, but over time I started to develop a feel for it.
As with most things, practice makes perfect, and as I wrote more blog articles I started to see based on performance and simply through experience, which headlines worked. Once I began writing an email newsletter as well, where the same conditions apply to the subject line of the email, my practice increased, writing both email subjects and blog headlines.
Now it’s time to begin your education process, which you can then take away and begin practicing. As I stated at the start of this article, improving your headline writing skill is the most important thing you can do as a content marketer.
Top Headline Formats That Capture Attention
To begin I’ll list the most common formats I use in my writing. These can be used as templates that you can copy. I’ll link to more template resources for headlines at the end of this article too.
The “How” Headline
The “How” headline format is by far the most common headline we use on this blog. This includes the very common “How To Do Something” format to any headline that proposes to explain how something happens.
Here are some examples –
- “How To Avoid Hype When You Sell”
- “How To Outsource Your Blogging – A Case Study”
- “How An Autoresponder Made My Life Easier”
- “How You Can Make Passive Income Online”
- “How My Biology Blog Landed Me My Dream Job”
The “Why” Headline
The “Why” is the next most common format I use. It’s a good headline format because it opens a door in the readers mind. The headline says why something is important or relevant or secret or effective, but to find out exactly why that is, you have to read the article.
This is called opening a loop, a very effective communication technique to trigger an action. You create curiosity by opening a loop that the brain has to close, and in order to do so the article must be read.
New headline writers often make the mistake of closing the loop in the headline, answering the question in the headline before the article is read. Be careful you don’t do this.
“Why” headlines also work fantastically as a stated question, including the all-powerful question mark (?). This is the ultimate open loop – state a question and the reader gets the answer if they read the article.
Here are some examples of “Why” headlines we have used on this blog…
- “Why People Struggle To Get What They Want”
- “Why Blogs Fail”
- “Why Some People Succeed Against All Odds”
- “Why Thinking Like A Fish Can Help Your Business”
- “Why Don’t Bloggers Understand Email Marketing?”
More Open Loops
The “open loop” principle doesn’t have to apply only in “Why” headlines, we use it in all kinds of headlines, especially in question headlines like these…
- “Is All Publicity Good Publicity?”
- “Is Your Marketing Strategy Using This Powerful Principle?”
- “Where Did Your Creative Mojo Go?”
- “What Drives You To Do What You Do?”
- “Are You Solving A Problem Or Just Spinning Your Wheels?”
All of these headlines ask a question with the implication of the answer being in the article. If you relate to what the headline focuses on, you will feel compelled to read the article to find out if it applies to you.
The “Context Phrase: Headline”
This headline format is all about placing a statement or name or phrase just before using a headline with a set of colons to break it apart. Here’s an example to clarify –
- “Tony Hawk: How A Personal Brand Can Build A Business Empire”
I really like this style of headline because it allows you to use one or two or three preceding words before a standard how or why or what or any type of headline. The preceding words give context and grab attention, can be used to combine two headlines into one, or bring together together two elements that you just can’t squeeze into one sentence.
I like to use them to make headlines more specific, talking about a person or event, followed by the headline that explains what the article is actually about.
Here’s another example…
- “Scam Alert: Don’t Buy Any Internet Marketing Products Until You Read This”
The “Scam Alert” part of this headline makes it so much more compelling because of the controversy, while the rest of the headline reveals more about what exactly the article is about (and notice again the open loop).
You can use this headline format to make otherwise boring or standard headlines have more zing, simply by adding a couple of powerful words before it. You can also use it to link articles together in a series (see example below).
Here are some more examples from this blog’s archives –
- “Market Saturation: Is It Too Late For You To Make Money Online?”
- “Trade Show Checklist: How To Successfully Sell Your Product At Trade Shows”
- “Ego, Passion And Expertise: How To Find Balance And Win Clients”
- “From Video Games To Netbooks: How Chris Guthrie Made $150,000 Online After Losing His Job”
- “How To Be Creative At Work Part 2: Are You A Director Or Collector?”
The (Brackets) Headline
The brackets headline is similar to the above colon separated headline where you aim to highlight or combine elements using brackets as the separator.
The brackets serve to highlight the words contained within, which is usually where you place the element that grabs attention. Often you will find what is in the brackets is what makes the headline much more effective, where what is outside of the brackets is more explanatory of what the article is about.
Here are some examples…
- “What Successful Internet Marketers Know (But You Don’t?)”
- “Take Control Of Your Publicity (Or End Up Like Bill Clinton)”
- “The Truth (And Myth) About Passive Income”
- “How Not To Be Boring (And Why Your Website Will Thank You)”
The List Headline
The list headline has always been one of the strongest formats in print media, and does just as well online.
Generally speaking the numbers 7 or 10 or 3 are my favorites and have proven the most effective. Here are some examples:
- “7 Tips To Super-Charge Your Online Communication”
- “My Top 10 Methods To Make Money Online”
- “7 Blogging Tips You Can Apply Today”
- “3 Steps To Avert Disaster When Things Go Wrong”
- “3 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Starting Your Business”
Notice you can begin headlines with the number, or personalize the headline using a personal pronoun like “my” or pair it with the ever-effective word “steps” if you are teaching something.
If you like using “steps” and publish a lot of tutorial style articles, a good phrase you can apply is “A Step-By-Step Guide To…”. This works in pretty much every niche.
The Psychology Behind The Words
That covers the most common headline formats, although there are subtle and countless variations to all of them. In most cases it comes down to good old fashioned brainstorming to come up with the best words once you have the format you are going to apply.
However despite the ease of using template formats, often it’s not enough to simply draw from your headline swipe file every time you publish a blog article. You need some magic, some creativity and some understanding of what will appeal to your audience.
To help you get the final zing into your headlines, here are some psychological triggers and hot points to apply in your blog headline writing.
The Famous Name Technique
Read this headline…
- “What Do Microsoft, Tim Ferriss, Donald Trump and Katy Perry Have In Common?”
There’s nothing in this headline that actually tells you what the article is about. The publication the headline is used in obviously gives it context (this headline was used on this blog, hence the article must be about business or similar), but the elements in the headline are not related enough to work it out just be reading it alone.
That of course is a curiosity hook – and a good one – but the other key point here is leveraging famous names.
Headlines that use famous names of people or places or events can be very effective. Sometimes they are time sensitive based on when something is particularly newsworthy, although some celebrities or places will always be well-known enough that you can use them anytime.
Although I wouldn’t recommend you go forcing in famous names into your headlines, if there is a name inside the article itself, it’s worth asking yourself if that is the best “hook” to use in the headline.
The Controversy Technique
What’s so powerful about this headline?…
- “Is Email A Bigger Productivity Killer Than Marijuana? (UK Study Says Yes)”
It’s controversial, and that’s what makes it interesting. Similar to the previous point with famous names and places, if you can see an angle in the article itself that is controversial, which can be pulled into the headline, go for it.
Apply Alliteration And Cadence
It’s not always easy to produce alliteration (a repetition of sounds like the rain in Spain), but if you can find a way to apply this, or at least have good cadence or flow so your headline “sounds” good, your headline will perform better.
If you’re not naturally good at reading the flow in a headline, find someone who is to give you feedback. Changing just one word can make a huge difference to the way a headline sounds when a person reads it in their head. Chunky headlines that stop and start turn people away. If in doubt, read it out aloud.
Don’t Repeat Formats or Use Mainstream Phrases
You might find yourself researching online for good phrases to use in your headlines. This can work, but often you will find yourself landing on very common vernacular, cliche phrases that by virtue of their common use will turn people away. If your headline is common the assumption is that the article is too.
People thrive on variety, so if they come to your site and see five “how to” headlines in a row, you will start to lose them. Words are always read within the context of the other words and elements around them. Repeat themes too often and they all start to look the same.
Shorter Is Better
We spend a lot of time during our headline writing brainstorming sessions simply trying to remove words from our headlines. Often taking unnecessary words out of your headline so you are left with only what is mandatory, results in the best headline.
It is difficult to stick to this rule, but nonetheless, it’s a good one. Fewer words make greater impact. There’s more whitespace around fewer words, which focuses attention on the words. There is less to read, so apathy and laziness isn’t going to strike. It just works.
Avoid Passive Tense
Your headlines should be in active tense, not passive. If you see an “ing” word, like for example “Planning”, it should be made active, like “Plan”. It takes some practice, but eventually you will start to see passive tense and it will annoy you.
For example the headline of this article you are reading now could have been stated as –
- “Writing Award Winning Blog Headlines”
When I see the word “Writing” I know that should be “Write”, but you have to be careful to spot the right words to make active – it’s not a rule to apply in every instance. For example you may have noticed the word “Winning” in the headline too, which doesn’t need to be changed to “Win” or “Won”, it just wouldn’t make sense.
Once you get a feel for this you will automatically see how best to switch words from passive to active, often converting them to a popular format like a “How To” or a “Why” headline. In this case the headline works much better as –
- “How To Write Award Winning Blog Headlines”
This was by far the most common mistake I made during the first few years of this blog when writing headlines. You will find quite a number of passive headlines in the archives, which I think reflects both my lack of confidence and lack of understanding of good headline writing.
Focus On The Reader
As I mentioned in – 7 Blogging Tips You Can Apply Today – point number 5 stated you should write as if you are talking to one person. This applies to headlines as well.
Often a well placed “You” or “Your” into a headline will make it more personal and more attention grabbing because it speaks directly to the reader. Teach people how to improve their life (as in YOUR life) and they will pay a lot more attention.
How About Keywords For Search Engines?
Top rankings for your content in search engines is of course important, but not the topic of this article. Including a popular keyword or phrase that people search for in Google is a good idea, but I don’t think it should be your primary goal. You want people to engage with and share your content as primary outcomes.
I often do keyword research using tools like Long Tail Pro to help me come up with best keywords to use in my headlines, and then apply them in the templates you’ve learned about in this article. That way you get the best of both worlds.
The End Of The Beginning
You now have a basic framework to begin with. There’s a lot more you can study when it comes to headlines, but as I stated earlier, practice is more important than study, so get out there and create articles and emails and videos that need titles.
If you need more headline templates, I recommend Chris Garrett’s 102 Proven Social Media Headline Formulas.
If you want to really jump in and study more on headlines, Brian Clark has a great series on How to Write Magnetic Headlines at CopyBlogger.com.
Good luck with your headlines!
Writing headlines for your content is a vital skill, but there’s a lot more that goes into building a successful online business.