There are plenty of ways to write a catchy headline—one that will make it almost impossible for users to resist clicking—but not all of these methods are sound or respectable. Thanks to the phenomenon known as “clickbait,” online users have been exposed to gimmicky headlines that pique user interest without any meaningful content, usually to provide a letdown once a user clicks through. This may not matter to a company whose only goal is getting more clicks, but you want more than clicks—you want your users to be satisfied, or even impressed with your work.
Accordingly, headlines like “You Won’t Believe This One Weird Trick” aren’t going to cut it. You need your headlines to be appropriate and explanatory, but at the same time, compelling. So how can you do this?
These five rules will get you off to a good start:
- Give a clear explanation of what you’re offering. Now isn’t the time to be vague or misleading. Tell users exactly what you’re going to give them. For example, if you’re writing an article about how to research more efficiently, don’t use a misleading or exaggerated headline like “The Only Trick You’ll Need to Become a Research Master.” You’ll want to make the piece sound attractive, of course, but if you don’t deliver what you promise, your users will walk away dissatisfied, with unmet expectations. A better, more subdued headline might be, “A Simple Research Trick to Improve Your Efficiency.” It’s concise, straightforward, and to the point without losing its value proposition. This will set user expectations appropriately and communicate the suggested value of your piece.
- Don’t give away the secret sauce. Don’t take the above rule too literally by giving away the entire point of your article, however. Instead, you’ll want to leave a degree of ambiguity for your audience—a kind of secret that you’ll only reveal once a user clicks through. This isn’t deceptive; you’ll still be telling your users what they can reasonably expect, you just aren’t giving it to them right away. Human beings are naturally curious creatures, so as long as you have a reveal worthy of your initial tease, they’ll walk away satisfied. For example, take the headlines, “Recent Study Reveals the Reason Why We Love Ice Cream,” and “Recent Study Reveals We Love Ice Cream Because It’s Sweet.” Ignore the lame reason and think to yourself, which headline is more clickable?
- Choose unique, powerful words (especially verbs). You only have a few words in your headline to convey the entirety of your intentions. You have to make the most of every single one. There is no room for fluff, vague words, or weak phrasings, so single out every word or structure in your headline and try to improve upon it. For example, instead of saying, “5 Things to Know About Marketing,” be more specific and more aggressive with something like “5 Hard Truths You Need to Know About Marketing.” This gives readers a fuller idea of what to expect, and the phrase “need to know” makes it even more compelling—I’ll get into that in more detail in a moment.
- Imply a degree of scannability. Today’s readers have limited attention spans, so you’ll have to fight back by making your articles friendlier to readers who “scan” or “skim” their articles. The way to do this in the body of your article is to break up your content into subsections, lists, and shorter paragraphs, but how can you convey this level of scannability to a reader only exposed to a headline? The easiest way is with a number—and this is why numbered lists are especially powerful forms of content. Once you introduce a number into the equation, you’re making a promise to your reader that they’ll at least walk away with X number of key takeaways (and they won’t have to read the entire article to do it). Implying some degree of speed can also be effective, with words like “quick” or “fast.”
- Call on urgency and necessity. Finally, understand that most readers are natural-born procrastinators. They’re probably browsing their newsfeeds on break or while bored, standing in line at the grocery store. If they have any reason to delay reading your article, they’re going to scroll past it and never give it a second thought. Even if they’re genuinely interested in the subject you’re offering, a simple “delayed action” could prevent them from ever reading it. To compensate for this, your articles need to have some call to urgency or necessity—imply that your readers “need” this information, or suggest that it’s only going to be relevant for a limited time.
Headlines are the most valuable part of your article; without a strong headline, even the best content may never be read. If you follow these rules consistently, using touches inspired by your own unique brand voice, you should have no trouble maximizing the visibility and click-through rates of your best articles. And don’t be afraid to experiment—try different types of headlines side-by-side to see which ones work best for your audience.