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Headlines: The One Thing They Must Do And A Few Simple Things You Can Do To Make That One Thing Happen

By June 6, 2012June 26th, 2015Writing & Content Marketing
Headlines: The One Thing They Must Do And A Few Simple Things You Can Do To Make That One Thing Happen

Since the dawn of the newspapers more than 500 years ago, headlines have been both the face and backbone of content. As content has multiplied and migrated from paper to radio to television to monitors to smartphones to tablets, the importance of a good headline has only become more significant.

There are a million articles, workshops and seminars out there that talk about creating killer headlines for different types of content and it’s too complex of a topic to cover in one post. But if you asked a group of marketers what characteristics a headline should have, you would probably get a list that looks something like this.

Headlines should convey a benefit or value.

Headlines should show how you can solve a problem or fill a need.

Headlines should make a promise.

Headlines should be brief.

Headlines should be bold, clever, entertaining, funny, creative, etc.

Headlines should include keywords, preferably at the beginning.

Believe it or not, headlines don’t have to do any of these things. Don’t get me wrong – these are all good things. An effective headline will likely have one or more of these characteristics, especially the first two on the list, but none of them are requirements.

Your Headline Must Do Exactly One Thing – Get People To Keep Reading.

People will read your headline more than any other part of your content. If the headline doesn’t focus on the reader’s needs and draw them in, they won’t read anything else. Whatever time, effort or money you’ve invested in creating and/or sharing that content will have been wasted.

If people keep reading, the headline worked. If not, it failed. Simple as that.

Bold, Brief And Clever? Not Necessarily.

Back to that list of things your headline should do. Many experts will tell you that your headline has to be exciting, bold and – one of my all-time least favorite words – catchy. These experts are typically creative types. Writers like me, unfortunately.

And for goodness sake, make sure you don’t go beyond Google’s character limit. That’s the SEO geek talking.

I disagree.

First and foremost, your headline should be relevant to the reader and somehow convey that the content you’re sharing is valuable enough for them to continue reading. Very often, a simple, straightforward statement that clearly illustrates how the reader will benefit from reading your content is the most effective approach.

And let your goal of getting people to keep reading determine the length of the headline, not the search engines.

Would it be nice if the headline jumped off the page every single time? Sure. Is a clever, short headline more effective? In many cases, yes. But not always.

Too many marketers sacrifice clarity for cleverness. When you get too cute, you can easily turn off the reader.  Maybe you think you’re being funny – a potentially game changing yet dangerously subjective risk – and the reader doesn’t. Maybe your headline sets an expectation that your content fails to deliver to the reader or completely misrepresents your content.

The headline of this blog probably didn’t blow your mind, but it got you to read it, right? When in doubt, keep it simple.

Every Piece Of Content Needs An Effective Headline.

Every page of your website, every blog, every email blast, every article you share. Even photos and videos should have a strong headline or caption.

For example:

Websites: Most pages on the average business website are devoid of headlines for some reason. Home, About, Services and Contact are page titles, not headlines. They’re fine for navigation. But each page of your website should have a headline that inspires and motivates visitors to read or at least scan the content on that page.

Emails: “(fill in the blank) Newsletter”, “(fill in the blank) Roundup,” “Hello from (fill in the blank)” and other generic phrases that appear in email subject lines and never change month after month are probably attracting flies in the recipients’ “deleted items” folder.

As I write this blog, I received an email with the headline, “This is just amazing” in the subject line. Eye roll. Instead of making a lame claim that you can’t quantify, tell me what you can do for me. That would really be amazing and I’ll be much more likely to open your email.

Sharing articles: Try to avoid simply posting the link with someone else’s headline. Create a headline that’s reflective of your business and, more importantly, make sure it speaks to your specific audience. This is an important part of the relationship-building process.

Today, I saw a link on Facebook with the headline, “Create a mobile version of your site free for the first year with Google’s GoMo.” Even though I rarely believe something is completely free, I clicked it because the headline was more about me than Google. If the headline said something like “Google launches GoMo for mobile websites,” I probably would have ignored it.

You’ll never hit a home run with every headline. Hey, we all swing and miss, which is why testing is so important. There are countless techniques and approaches, but it’s important to stay focused on the one thing your headline must do – get them to keep reading.

Besides this blog, what was the last headline that got you to keep reading?

Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Adrienne says:

    I am so horrible in this area Scott.  Last year I found some posts that shared with me some killer article headlines and example of how you could use them.  I bookmarked that and will include them from time to time when they apply to what I’m sharing.  

    I know though that not all of my posts accomplish this nor when I retweet or share other people’s content.  I’m just not that imaginative I’m afraid so I never know what to put!  

    I’ve always been taught that it’s suppose to peek their curiosity so that they’ll want to read more but again, I just ain’t that good.

    Great tips though so now I need to learn how to incorporate curiosity into my brain.  Any suggestions!  


    • Hi Adrienne,

      I’ve seen a lot of posts like the ones you’re probably talking about.  I’ll occasionally use the same concept, but I’m always afraid a bunch of other people are doing the same thing.

      Anyone who says every headline accomplishes its goal probably isn’t being very honest.  Even the best bloggers, writers, marketers and social media experts miss the mark occasionally.

      I wouldn’t get hung up on being imaginative or creative.  If I can’t come up with a clever way to convey why someone should continue reading because they’ll somehow benefit from the content, I stop trying to be clever and just say it.

      I’m sure you’re probably being too hard on yourself.  You nailed it when you said you have to peak their curiosity, and I think the best way to do that is to clearly convey what problem you’ll help to solve or what need you’ll help to fill in the headline.  Nothing wrong with being direct.

      As always, thanks for the comments!

  • Hi Scott,

    This was a very interesting post. I like how you discredited all that was ever said about headlines in a couple of paragraphs. And even though I’ve written blog posts about headlines myself, I like it and I agree.

    For example, as you said, headlines that misrepresent the content, may be great, but they are wrong.  Too much can be bad.

    Thanks for this great post, Scott 🙂

    • Hi Sylviane,

      Like I said, that list of things that a headline should do includes all good things, as long as they’re applied with the goal of getting someone to keep reading.

      I’ve found that headlines that misrepresent content are often the result of the author almost telling an inside joke within the headline.  Sometimes we forget that people reading the headline haven’t read the rest of the content, so humor or “cleverness” based on the content will go right over the reader’s head.

      Glad you found the post helpful!

  • Sue Price says:

    Hi Scott

    Great post.

    I never feel like my headlines are catchy enough but they are always a representation of my article.  It is an area I would love to master.

    A person who’s headlines intrigue me is David Wood. Here is one of his more recent examples.
    It Duplicates, but Sure Sucks Balls…
    His blog post is a a very funny story of pain in an MLM and leads into a solution. Now that headline got my attention and I had to see what it is about.  Good or bad example – it is different.

    Thanks for the great info Scott


  • Hi Sue,

    Thanks!  If your headlines are a representation of not just your article, but the value of that article to the reader, than “catchiness” is irrelevant.  Sounds like you’ve mastered the most important part.

    Regarding your example, I’ll first offer a disclaimer.  I’m probably not in the author’s target audience and I’ve never read any of his content.  That said, I agree that his headline will grab your attention.  But based on the headline alone, I have no idea what the article is about or how I can benefit from reading it.

    At first glance, it looks like he sacrificed clarity for creativity because I would not have kept reading.  But that’s just one guy’s opinion 🙂

    Thanks so much for sharing this!  Real world examples are the best way to advance the discussion.


  • Hi Scott,

    What is this? Some people say you MUST have these ingredients in a killer headline and now you say they are not requirements. Who should I believe? :O

    Jus’ kidding mate. Ha ha 😀 You’ve done a great job Scott. There are many number off posts about creating killer headlines and people just addicted and following them to gain success. I think you are revealing a myth that most people have and I know now people don’t get it at first if their minds working with only toward keywords.

    However this will help ’em think if they are wise enough 😉 See, when you read your post, I feel how practical you are. We should write for people not only for search bots.

    Thanks for sharing this informative post mate 🙂


    • Hi Mayura,

      Ha, I just think those ingredients are only helpful if they get people to keep reading.  At times, we all get hung up on trying to be witty and clever and lose sight of the ultimate goal.

      Totally agree about writing for people, not search bots, especially with Google’s Penguin update. Quality and relevance of content are king today and headlines are no exception.

      Thanks for your feedback, mate!