It all began when I landed my first ever guest posting gig on Problogger.net. Yes, I know I keep going on about it, but for me it’s a pretty big deal and believe me; I plan to milk it for all it’s worth!
I wrote and rewrote every part of that post, but in the end probably spent just as long agonising over the headline. If it was going to appear on the front page of one of the biggest blogs in the world, I wanted to make damn sure it was going to smack that massive audience right in the eye.
How to Write Great Headlines – the Organic Approach
My usual method of headline writing is to allow the title to suggest itself from the content of the post. Some are pretty obviously practical, like ‘How to Mobile-ise Your Blog‘. You read that and you have a pretty good idea of what it’s going to be about.
Or, ‘Why I Always Back up my Blog‘. Straightforward, explanatory titles that give you a feel for what you’re going to get.
But sometimes, I go a bit wild and a title will come to me that is a little off the wall. The one that sprang into my head for my all-important guest post was:
“Help! My Baby is Sick and Someone’s Stealing My Money”
Now that doesn’t sound much like a blog post about preparing for the mobile revolution, does it? It sounds like a front cover story from the National Enquirer. I knew it wasn’t strictly kosher as a headline, but I liked it.
Then I reasoned that I really had to be careful. The editorial team at Problogger might reject it as unsuitable. Or it might just hit the wrong note and generate negative comments. I was worried that I might be getting things entirely wrong.
So, before sending it off, I figured I might benefit from some background research on headline writing.
How to Write Great Headlines – the Scientific Approach
There is a huge amount of information out there about how to write headlines that will draw crowds. Most of it is derived from over a hundred years of exhaustive research and testing in the direct response advertising industry.
My first stop was CopyBlogger, a site which always leaves me weak with envy. The quality of their content and knowledge is second to none. It is no wonder they have one of the most successful blogs on the web.
In exchange for your email address, they offer a guide called How to Write Magnetic Headlines – a great title in itself. This comprehensive guide points out that, on average 8 out of 10 people will read a headline, but only 2 out of 10 will read the article. So anything you can do to improve that ratio is going to work in your favour.
They also strongly advise writing the headline first, before writing a single line of copy.
Now, I understand the reasoning behind that, because I can see how holding that headline in mind will help to focus your copy on delivering the promise you have made in the title.
However, I only partially agree with it because I think it suggests a certain rigidity. If you start with the headline, write your copy and then a better headline suggests itself, which has arisen out of your copy you really ought to have the option to change it.
Well, it’s your work so you can. You don’t have to follow the gurus completely blindly.
And I still liked my headline.
CopyBlogger’s guide goes on to list a myriad forms and styles of headline that are proven to bring salivating readers flocking to read their articles:
- The How-To formats
- The List formats
- The Insider Secrets format
… and many more.
All of which are great. I know that they are proven to have people fishing out their wallets and throwing money around like snowflakes at Christmas, and I hate to be a party pooper but I have to say, they are all starting to get a teeny bit repetitive.
Does Formula = Formulaic?
Maybe I’ve been looking at this kind of content for too long and become jaded. Maybe my readers are far less cynical than me and much more likely to respond to the charm of the copywriter’s craft.
It seems like, suddenly, everybody is a marketer and sales-formula headlines are popping up everywhere. Here’s a selection of six headlines chosen at random from my own MyYahoo! page where I’ve gathered together the RSS feeds from all of my favourite blogs:
- How to get backlinks with Guestographics
- How to make your blogging dreams come true
- Everything you need to know about publishing a book in today’s new media world
- Magic 5-step plan to writing a Pulitzer Prize winning post
- The 3 core elements of good storytelling
- Where are your emails opened and why does it matter?
Now I know there are some good articles in there, because I’ve read some of them, but I’m beginning to feel like I’ve seen all the headlines before.
Where are the provocateurs? Where are the oddballs? Where are the original thinkers?
Where are the headlines, like my headline?
Yes, of course, I want as many people as possible to click on my headlines and dive into my deathless prose, but I don’t always want to win them over with some machine-made, blueprinted and certified headline formula.
Now and again, I want to see a bit of passion and intrigue, a little colour and mystery, a little fire and craziness.
So, despite the research and the science and the analysis, I stuck to my guns and submitted my guest post with its quirky, untested headline to the fearsome Problogger gatekeepers and awaited their verdict.
To my complete surprise they said absolutely nothing about my headline. It was my content they had a problem with! My post came back with a list of suggested amendments and clarifications.
Frankly, I would have beaten my grandmother to a pulp with a baseball bat if that’s what it took to get that posting, so I happily accepted their wise advice, made the changes and sent it back. To my delight, three weeks later, it hit the front page.
A couple of days after that, still unsure if sticking with my off the wall headline was the right move, I came across Jon Morrow’s great e-book, 52 headline hacks.
Now, I have a huge amount of admiration for John. He is another, amazingly successful blogger who always takes the scientific approach. His research is spot-on and he knows a huge amount about what does and doesn’t work.
His book covers similar ground to the Copyblogger guide but delivered in his own distinctive style. For example, right at the end he offers any brave blogger a challenge. Send Jon a headline you are proud of and if he likes it enough to read the article he might even give you a mention, or a precious link to his blog. That’s an excellent prize and a very clever way to engage readers. Hats off to Jon for that one.
I immediately emailed him my title and waited with bated breath for his reply.
He was straight back to me in less than a minute (how cool is that?) and gave his verdict!
“Your headline has some good power words, but it lacks a clear benefit.”
He’s right, of course; I had gone straight for the quirky, curiosity angle without delivering any payoff. In the eyes of a professional copywriter like Jon, I was leaving money on the table.
But I still liked my headline.
The Final Word
In the end I decided that all the science is great, and there have been and will be times when I want to be a straight down the line marketer and go for the best-converting headline that I can manufacture, as proven by the giants of direct mail. But this is a blog and just as important as traffic and conversions is building a personality and putting my own flesh and heart into the enterprise.
Yes, I want to sell, but I don’t want to be a vending machine.
So I still like my headline. And as it turns out, so do one or two of the people who read my post, so I will let them have the final verdict.
|You nailed a headline that lured me to your post and delivered loads of insight and so much fresh information that I had to read it four times!|
|I love this article. Frankly, I think you should write a post about how to write eye grabbing title because between the title and the first paragraph you had me hooked.|
|Hey! That’s some better way to attract visitors using attractive titles. It’s just amazing. Even I fell for the topic!|
Aww, thanks guys!
PS – for even more rigorous analysis here are two more excellent articles about effective headline formulae:
A Scientific Guide to Writing Great Headlines – covers Twitter and Facebook as well as blog posts
5 Data Insights into the Headlines Readers Click – results of a 750 respondent survey from Moz.com
What do you think? Do we need more quirky headlines? Or should we stick to the proven methods?