How to Write a Headline That Always Works

January 17, 2014 Steve Maurer

The headline is the hardest working part of your content marketing article. If you write your headline properly, it will always do its job. But, many writers don’t put nearly enough thought into it.

If the headline tanks, so does the rest of the article. Why? If the headline doesn’t do its job, the article just won’t get read. Remember the 80/20 rule?

In a recent Direct Response newsletter, veteran copywriter Bob Bly commented on a recent issue of BtoB Magazine. That issue contained a supplement where “top” B2B ad agencies presented their (supposedly) best work. Here are some of the headlines they showcased:

  • The Legend Continues
  • Bring It
  • The Hear Yourself Think Space
  • Growmentum; and my personal favorite,
  • ROO (maybe because my granddaughter has been watching a lot of Winnie the Pooh lately).

What’s wrong with these headlines? Apart from using clichés, made-up words or acronyms, they just don’t compel you to read any further. And these ad agencies aren’t small fry. They handle some of the biggest corporate accounts around.

Unbelievable!

What your headline MUST do

Sure, you know that your headline must capture your reader’s attention. But it goes way beyond that. For a headline to work, it must:

  • Grab your reader’s attention, by
  • Making a big promise, and it will
  • Compel the reader to read the first sentence, or
  • Tell your reader to get out and move on!

That last one seems wrong, but it’s not. I’ll get to the reason why in a minute.

A good headline always makes a big promise

And that big promise is a valuable benefit. It’s that perceived benefit that grabs your reader’s attention.

When you think about it, a benefit is all you really have to offer. If reading your article isn’t going to help your reader, why should they read it? You’re not writing fiction or poetry. You goal is not to entertain; it’s to inform.

Make sure your headline makes that clear. You can use several types of headlines. Just be sure it makes a promise or expresses a benefit. Some formats to use are:

  • List headlines – 5 Ways to Increase Your Personal Income From Home
  • “Secret” headlines – The Secret to Successful Blogging
  • Pain/solution – Get Creditors Off Your Back Forever
  • Quick and Easy – A Fast, No-hassle Method to Get Rid of Mice
  • How-to – How to Write Headlines that Always Work!

Choose a headline type that fits your article. How-to and list headlines are easy and are perennial favorites for readers.

If you’ve written a headline that promises a big benefit, the reader will move on to the first sentence. Mission accomplished. Now it’s up to your content to keep them moving along.

A million shares . . . and no takers

Get over the idea that everything you write must go absolutely viral every time, read by everyone across the globe and in some small towns. The fact is that it doesn’t. Not everyone needs what you’re offering.

But it does need to reach your target audience and compel them to read.

A good headline will turn many readers away. They’ll take one look and move on. While that sounds an awful lot like a bad headline and a really, really bad idea, it’s not. It’s desirable, even necessary. It will turn away those that don’t need what you’re offering.

It will attract those who can and will heed your call to action.

For example, this article’s headline, How to Write a Headline That Always Works, will not draw in plumbers, mechanics, doctors or lawyers (unless they’re also writers). The article doesn’t hold any value for them.

But writers who want to craft better headlines will check it out.

Your headline must be compelling and catch your reader’s eye; it also must be true to the topic. It must make a promise of what really is coming up next. Don’t try to trick folks into reading your article. It could backfire and ruin your reputation.

Never sacrifice credibility for clicks!

When and how to write your most effective headline

Once you’ve decided on a general topic and done your research, you’ll narrow the topic down to one big idea that you want to promote. You’ll cull out the research that doesn’t fit and study the pertinent material.

Now you ready to write your article, correct? Not yet. The first thing you do is write your headline.

Some writers disagree on that point; but, Brian Clark and the folks at Copyblogger Media promote that heavily in their eBook, How to Write Magnetic Headlines. I totally agree with them.

Here’s how Brian puts it:

Your headline is a promise to readers. Its job is to clearly communicate the benefit you’ll deliver to the reader in exchange for their valuable time. 

Promises tend to be made before being fulfilled. Writing your content first puts you in the position of having to reverse-engineer your promise.

Turn it around the other way and you have the benefit of expressly fulfilling the compelling promise you made with the headline, which ultimately helps to keep your content crisp and well-structured.

In other words, don’t try to fit your headline to the content. The headline is not an umbrella . . . it’s a spear point. Use the headline to focus your content.

While you’re at it, don’t try to write just one headline. Write a bunch of them. I’ve written as many as 20 headlines before I found the one that worked. If you find two that you can’t decide between, split test them.

By the way, this same advice goes for email subject lines.

Start building a headline that works right now!

It’s time for you to start practicing headline building. With few exceptions, it’s a skill that must be learned and constantly honed. Ask any successful content marketing writer and you’ll be told that it’s a skill that must be constantly sharpened.

Pick a topic and write 10-20 headlines for it. Make sure they grab attention by making a big promise and then compel your audience to read on. The more you practice, the more you’ll enjoy writing headlines, guaranteed!

More tips on creating headlines, as well as content creation, curation, promotion, guest blogging and more can be found in our free eBook, “Blogging In The Age Of Content Marketing“.

About the Author

Steve Maurer

Steve Maurer, Maurer Copywriting is a freelance copy and content writer in Fayetteville, Arkansas. His tagline at Maurer Copywriting , Professional Freelance Business Writing – Plain and Simple, explains both his target audience and his writing philosophy. You can meet him on LinkedIn or call him at 479-304-1086.

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