Headlines that Make You Go Hmm . . .


According to the late copywriting great David Ogilvy, four out of five people read only headlines. If your headline is doing its job, the reader should continue on and at least read the first sentence. There are countless Internet articles available about headline writing that include fill-in-the-blank formulas, continue the “write for humans”/”write for bots” debate, or even answer the age-old question, “How many words should a headline contain?” Problem is, most of these pieces don’t explain WHY certain headlines are effective or HOW to write them.

Hopefully, we’ll do that here.

If you read the recent Freebie Friday gift from Sean D’Souza, The Psychological Power of Headlines, you already know a great deal about effective headline writing. If you haven’t already downloaded the ebook, it’s free, but here is a recap of his three main points:

Questions Make the Brain Go Wakawaka

The human brain loves questions. When your headline contains a question (stated or implied), you’ve essentially grabbed the brain by the lobe. Your reader starts thinking, “Hmm . . .”

Let the Brain Do Its Job

The human brain is, by nature, a problem-solver. Too often, bloggers and copywriters concentrate on the “benefits” of their posts or products. To be honest, most people don’t care about your product — they are focused on their problem. And so are many effective headlines.

(Lack of) Curiosity Killed the Content

Another psychotactic tool is to play on your reader’s emotions by using the curiosity approach. If your headline doesn’t grab your reader’s attention, it doesn’t matter how great your content is. If no one reads it, it’s dead. The only way to get your stuff read is to put people in a must-read situation using a great headline.

The 1-2-3 Punch

Combine all three of the above tactics and you’ll have a knockout headline. The following headline asks a question, focuses on the problem, and incites curiosity:

Will Sleep Apnea Be the Death of You?

If you’re writing to a niche market in the health industry, perhaps those who have known sleep disorders, your reader’s brain just nudged her as hard as her husband does when she’s snoring too loud. The brain reads the headline, recalls the untimely death of Reggie White, and asks the reader, “Well, will it? You’d better read this article — pronto!” And if you’re selling a product, perhaps an ebook about solutions to sleep apnea, your headline alone may have just made you a sale.

World’s Best Headlines?

Don’t ask me who gave the title, but the consensus in the blogosphere is that the British Broadcasting House (BBC) writes the best headlines. How do they do it? Three tips:

  1. “Information Scent” — Get the reader’s curiosity going.
  2. Front-loaded — Attention-grabbing keywords go first.
  3. Stand-alone understanding — The headline makes sense without further explanation.

There is much more that can be said about writing effective headlines. For further reading, I highly recommend you visit Copyblogger.com and read their Magnetic Headlines series. If you’re in a pinch and don’t have time to brainstorm your own headline, Chris Garrett has done much of the work for you in his free report, 102 Headline Formulas, that we offered as a Friday Freebie recently.

What about SEO?

Ah, we can’t forget the search engines! The fact is, Google and friends really want to respond to what humans are looking for. Keywords are essentially the words that come to our minds when we consider a certain topic. Keyword phrases, long-tail searches, and anchor text (which we’ll discuss in depth on Saturday), reflect human thought processes. So, the resolution of the “write for humans”/”write for bots” debate is that by writing for one, you are writing for the other.

Final Tips

  • Keep it short. The average headline is 5 words and 34 characters.
  • Use active voice.
  • Be specific.
  • Include hot trends when applicable.
  • Make comparisons if possible.
  • Use testimonial phrases.
  • Use superlatives but don’t get overly corny or cutesy.
  • Use numerals rather than spelled out numbers.
  • Use words & phrases that attract attention: secret, little known, quick, help, how to, now, what you should know about . . .

I hope everyone has a blessed Thanksgiving day!

Until next time,

Happy Blogging!

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#1 Krystal on 11.27.09 at 2:52 pm

This is a very interesting article! While I only write my blog for fun, I could see how these tips would be useful to a blogger who blogs about a product or service where readership is key! Thanks for sharing!

I’m stopping by from ICLW.

#2 Skye on 11.27.09 at 9:39 pm

@Krystal, even blogs that are personal in nature have their post titles viewed out of context – chiefly, in RSS feeds of people who are already subscribed. Make sure those people know your post is interesting and worth reading by giving it a title that makes someone want to read it!

#3 Linda Fulkerson on 11.28.09 at 6:52 am

Hi Krystal & Skye — Thanks for stopping by my blog! ICLW has been a great way to meet other bloggers and find new blogs. I’ve had a lot of fun with it.

Skye brings up a great point for those bloggers who might not be concerned about developing blogs beyond a hobby. And seriously, you never know when a hobby blog will get noticed and turn into a big deal. Julie/Julia is a good example of that.

#4 Components of Good Copy | Marketing Solutions for Writers on 08.08.10 at 9:19 pm

[…] wrote a post on writing effective headlines at my blog about blogging. The main difference between writing blog post or article headlines and […]

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