Ultimate guide to crafting extraordinary headlines
No amount of effort put into a pixel-perfect design, with eye-pleasing typography, and heart-warming content can ever offset the importance of an incredible headline. Without it, your efforts will go unnoticed.
Yet some of the ugliest websites can get all of the attention and recognition that yours deserved. A shame, isn’t it? But it is probably because you forgot to work on the most important part of any piece of online content: the headline (or title).
This one little thing — often no longer than a dozen or so words — can have a dramatic impact on who sees your content, how they perceive it, and their willingness to share it with others. So, making the greatest headline possible for every piece of content you create in the future is critical.
Not to worry, though. Regardless of whether or not you’ve been making it big on Digg or have yet to catch anyone’s attention, I’m going to share some of my knowledge and secrets that I gained while writing at some of the Internet’s most popular blogs.
Why write killer headlines?
I spent over 20 minutes writing the headline for this very article. It was made more difficult than I had imagined because my initial headline, “The ultimate guide to writing killer headlines,” wasn’t as unique as I would have preferred. A quick search on Google revealed too many commonalities; it’s commonly used by search-engine optimizers and marketers. Instead, I had to create something more unique and attractive for the Webdesigner Depot audience.
But why so much effort, you ask?
It’s simple, really — the headline, in most cases, is the single most important tool for writers. It is the sell, the entryway, the invitation to people who might be interested in my content. If you don’t have a great headline, you will not earn anyone’s attention.
But this tool isn’t only important for writers. It applies to anyone who is creating content that will need to earn the attention of an audience. It doesn’t matter of it is a YouTube video, keynote presentation, novel-length piece of writing, or a simple event invitation — a well-crafted headline will significantly increase the likelihood of success.
So, how do we make this happen? Well, it all begins with a deep understanding your audience.
Know your audience
Who are you doing this for? This is a key question you have to ask yourself when working on any project. But it is also an important question when it comes to writing a great headline. If you don’t know who these people are, it is impossible to know what will work.
Questions to ask yourself before you even begin writing a headline:
- What is the general age of my audience?
- What are the general interests of my audience?
- What does my audience want from this experience?
- What will my audience react to most?
Knowing the general age of your audience will go far in determining how you should approach your headline. If you are writing for a younger, tech-savvy crowd, you’ll need to place more emphasis in standing out from the rest of the crowd. However, if your audience is older, they might respond to simpler headlines that solve specific problems that they might be having.
Once you know your audience’s age, you then need to dig a bit deeper to get an understanding of your audience’s interests and reasons for visiting your content. The headline will significantly affect what type of audience you will attract and what interests that audience has.
Then you should have a general understanding of what your audience will want to takeaway from the experience that you have created with your content. If you want the audience to be emotional, you should use visually-appealing words in your headlines; if you want to evoke excitement, you should use words that create this feeling; if you want to create a sensation of insight and understanding, you should use words that will appeal to scholars and knowledge-seekers.
Finally, knowing what your audience will respond to is critical in creating an important headline. This is probably the most difficult concept to grasp as their is no clear solution to this problem. It’s more of an art than a science. But it’s okay if you don’t know exactly what will get your audience to respond, because there are tools we can take advantage to get us through this point anyways (more on that later).
Know your competition
Another thing you should quickly make strides to understand is your competition. Who is your competition? Well, considering that the Internet has been an outlet for an endless supply of competition, that answer could be incredibly difficult to answer. But the answer comes in part by understanding your niche.
If you are creating a comedic web comic, you know that you are competing with most other web comics out there, but if you are creating a web comic that focuses on on, say, video games, you can further eliminate some of your competition, thus increasing your chances of success. Either way, narrowing down your competition is important because it allows you to see what forms of headlines (titles) they are using to attract attention.
Once you have identified your competition, there are two things you should do to take advantage of this knowledge.
The first is to learn by example. There is nothing wrong with going in and taking a look on sites like Digg, Reddit, Twitter, and other sources of “popular content” to see what is working and what isn’t. Sites like Digg and Reddit are particularly good because they allow the community to decide which is good and which is not. I have done this for every website I have written for, and it is an easy and effective way to get started.
The other step is probably the most obvious: use what works. If list-like headlines — “Five Ways To Rule The World,” “100 Ways To Become Amazing,” or “The Most Amazing Movies of All Time” — are what works for your competition, there is no harm in doing the same to establish yourself. If how-to headlines — “How To Create The Perfect Pizza” or “The Easiest Way To Influence People” — works, then stick with that.
And even though I suggest you use what works, keep in mind that being unique is far more valuable a the end of the day. If you can create a headline that stands out and is in a league of its own, you’ll capture far more attention than just following the same script that everyone else follows.
Three rules for extraordinary headlines
So, you know the who, you know the why, but what about the how?
The first rule of writing headline is to command the attention of the viewer. You could call this standing out or you could call it grabbing one’s attention. Either way, you need to take advantage of words to grab your audience’s attention.
You do this by writing a headline that stands out from the pack. Knowing that we live in a world that is dominated by the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, you have to catch the eye of someone who doesn’t have much time in the first place.
You do this by making a huge promise and delivering on that promise. This might be the result of creating extraordinary content that warrants such a huge headline. It might be the result of some catastrophe that needs a headline that is outrageous to grab attention. But whatever it is, it needs to be worth the the reader’s attention.
Create extraordinary content for the opportunity to deliver extraordinary headlines.
Exploit the unexpected
We live in world filled with everything we come to expect. The Internet is no different. On any given day we expect a new rumor from Apple, dozens of product launches form companies, many criticisms of our government, and the unfortunate death of a famous actor, hero, or stand-up person. And maybe some Charlie Sheen antics. It’s routine by this point.
Making headway on the Internet, which is filled to the brim with routine and ordinary things, with the same mediocrity and unexpected content and headlines is difficult. So this is where you have to think outside of the box and capitalize on the unexpected.
The unexpected can be anything. It can be an observation that no one has picked up on. It could be an idea or opinion that differs from the norm (note how controversy always gets the spotlight). It could be something that no one has ever done before. In writing headlines, exploit these unusual things.
For example, a few modifications to some words could result in something unusual and unexpected. “5 Reasons I Hate Watching Fox News” is obvious, but “Why I’d Kill Myself Before Watching Fox News Again” is unexpected and emotional. “100 Business Books You Have To Read” sounds okay, yet “Read These Books, Or Stay Broke Forever” sounds intriguing and challenging. “Why Adobe Should Dump Flash” is explanatory, “How Flash Imprisoned The Web” sounds extraordinary. You get the idea.
Using uncommon words is effective. Writing “remarkable” instead of “great” catches the eye. “Devastation,” “horror,” and “catastrophic” sound far more dramatic and unexpected than “bad” or “scary.”
Sure, some of this capitalizes on sensationalism. Some of it blows things slightly out of proportion. Some of it makes incredibly bold promises. But if the content delivers the goods, the headline should never be considered bad. So make the huge promise, but, again, only if your content delivers.
Create bold headlines, but ensure the content warrants it.
Keep it simple
Another solid tactic towards creating powerful, engaging headlines is to keep it simple.
If you check out some of Web Designer Depot’s most popular posts, the headlines are very simple and self-explanatory. These posts are effective because they make a bold promise to solve a problem (with the headline), and then the content walks the reader through accomplishing exactly that.
Keeping it simple is also making use of vocabulary. Nouns and verbs in the English vocabulary are regularly ignored. Instead, people opt for adjectives and adverbs. Expand your vocabulary, and you’ll have powerful tools to craft powerful headlines.
Active voice — putting the object before the subject — is also an effective way to create powerful headlines.
Use powerful words at the beginning and end of the headlines. If you look at this article’s headline, you’ll notice that the word “ultimate” appears early on. This word probably caught your attention (either consciously or subconsciously). I then ended it by throwing in the word “extraordinary” to describe the types of headlines, which was also likely to catch your attention. But keep in mind that even though these two powerful words are in this article’s headline, the headline itself is fairly simple.
Also, shorter headlines are easier for the human eyes to read and for the brain to process. This is why it is important to take advantage by creating stating a powerful message but also not taking too long to do so. Hook their attention immediately.
In my own experience, the majority of my most-viewed articles throughout my history of blogging are roughly 6 – 8 words long. On Webdesigner Depot, the majority of the most viewed articles from last year are roughly 5 – 7 words long. It’s no coincidence. Cut out the fluff.
Create short and powerful headlines.
Here is a summary of everything you should be doing to maximize the effectiveness of your headlines.
- Spend time crafting great headlines — spending a handful of minutes to half an hour to find the perfect headline is not uncommon, so put in the extra effort to find the right one.
- Make efforts to know your audience — getting to know your audience is crucial in understanding how to attract eyes to your content, because without this knowledge, you will be playing a game of chance.
- Understand your competition — taking the time to understand what works (and, more importantly, what doesn’t work) for your competition is crucial in writing powerful headlines that stand out above the rest.
- Command attention — offer huge expectations with your headlines and deliver on those expectations.
- Capitalize on the unexpected — people react well to things that are unusual and unexpected, and that means it is your job to find these things and take advantage of them to maximize your own exposure.
- Keep it simple — some of the most effective tactics in headline writing is to keep it simple, but be sure to take advantage of powerful words and to get your point across in as little time as possible.
Have fun and experiment
There is no single word, tactic, or concept that will fulfill every situation of creating the perfect headlines. Writing “ultimate” or “amazing” in every headline might get you eyes from social media, but it won’t get you a following that people will respect. In order to earn that respect, you must put in the effort to earn it.
It all starts with creating compelling content. Without it, no headline in the world is going to earn you a following for your blog, website, videos, or company; it simply won’t happen. But if you do create content that warrants it, using headlines to your advantage for the purpose of getting as many viewers as possible is absolutely something you should be taking advantage of on a regular basis.
Of course, there will be times when you get it wrong. I don’t particularly like recalling the times when I spent days putting in work on a piece of writing that I felt the world should be proud of only to be left disappointed when it failed to earn the attention it deserved. I realize now — when I didn’t then — that in the majority of cases that it was my headline that let down the article. It was always my own fault.
But now that I’m older and more experienced with this whole writing thing, I have gained plenty of knowledge that has helped me create compelling content and compelling headlines. Everyone can.
Be willing to experiment, be willing to do the research, and be willing to put in the hard work. If you are, you will be well on your way to crafting extraordinary headlines and forging a loyal audience in the future.
Written exclusively for WDD by James Mowery. He is a passionate technology journalist and entrepreneur who has written for various top-tier publications like Mashable and CMSWire. Follow him on Twitter: @JMowery.
Which type of headlines make you read an article? What other techniques do you use in your sites for creating great headlines?