Headlines are the only piece of your content that you can almost guarantee that people will read. Some users might get to your article only to skim it or click away immediately, and some users won’t ever click through at all—but almost every user who encounters your headline will look at it to see if it’s worth checking out.
That’s a good argument that your headline is the most important piece of your content. Write a compelling one and you’ll attract plenty of clicks and readers, but if you slip up, even a fantastically written article can go almost entirely unnoticed.
These headline mistakes are some of the most common, so avoid them at all costs:
Vague words instantly make people skip to the next headline in the series. Filler words and soft words that carry little to no actual description ultimately weaken your headline and make it seem like the content behind it is equally fluffy or unhelpful. For example, compare these two headlines: “7 Reasons Your Site Content Needs Updated” against “7 Reasons You Should Think About Going on Your Site and Making Some Improvements to Your Content.” The phrases “should think about going on your” and “making some” are completely unnecessary. The more concise your headline is, the better.
This goes along with conciseness, as every word of your headline needs to count, but don’t make the mistake of thinking a shorter headline is a better headline. It’s also possible to go too short with a headline and fail to communicate any significant value to your potential audience. For example, compare the headline “7 Content Rules” to “7 Relevance Rules That Make Your Content Worth Reading.” The former tells you almost nothing about the content waiting for you behind the headline. Generally speaking, seven words is the ideal length for a headline, but don’t be afraid to go a bit longer or shorter for a headline that demands it.
Your goal with a headline is to concisely inform a reader and pique his/her curiosity—not to tell a reader everything you plan to cover in the span of a few words. It’s in your best interest to leave something to the imagination. For example, “The One Rule You’re Not Following for SEO Success” is much more inviting and compelling than “Start Guest Posting on More Authoritative Sources for SEO Success.” You don’t have to completely shroud your topic in mystery, nor should you, but you do have to let your readers’ minds wander enough to make them want more.
All articles need to give some kind of value to a reader; otherwise, they simply won’t click your headline. You have only a few words to communicate the value of your article to your audience, so make them count. If there’s something they can walk away with, show that to them. If you’re presenting an argument they’ve never considered before, tell them that. Again, don’t give away the specifics of your material, but do tell your readers what they can expect to walk away with after reading it.
I’ve seen too many marketers trying to use content marketing as a glorified form of advertisement, shoehorning their products and services into topics and thinking it will attract more buyers. If this is evident in your headline, people aren’t going to click. Instead, write about things that are actually valuable to your consumers, and make sure your headline reflects that value. Compare the headlines, “7 Reasons You Need to Buy a _____ Product” against “7 Advantages ______ Products Have Against _______ Products.” The former is almost blatant advertising, while the latter favors a product, but is more focused on being informative.
Most modern users want to read articles that they can skim and digest quickly, and your headline can speak volumes about the density of the content behind them. One of your greatest tools for this is the use of numbers—when users see numbers in headlines, they immediately learn that a piece of content is skimmable, and they’re far more likely to click. A simple change from “Why You Need to Change Your Oil Every 6 Months” to “7 Reasons to Change Your Oil Every 6 Months” instantly makes the article more clickable.
An entire genre of content has evolved to take advantage of the fact that some headlines get clicked more than others. They use all the cheap tricks they can find to make their headlines clickable, but the content behind them rarely delivers. This genre is known as clickbait, and it’s losing popularity at a startling pace. Headlines that contain phrases like “…and you won’t believe what happens next,” or “learn the one secret your ______ doesn’t want you to know” are cheap, tabloid-like ways to trick your audience into clicking through to your site. Don’t rely on these tactics to attract an audience; you’ll end up being resented by your readers and you could even suffer a visibility penalty from syndication platforms like Facebook.
Headline writing is something of an art form, so spend some time honing your craft. Experiment with different formats, structures, wording, and other variables when writing your headlines, and try to come up with at least two for a handful of test pieces. Put those two variant headlines out to the public in the same platforms, and see which one performs better. Run a handful of experiments like these, and you’ll quickly learn what type of headlines your readers respond to and which ones tend to fall flat.