Every copy writer dreams of those magic headlines, and the Internet is full of articles on how to achieve them. Rather than get deeply into the theory of what motivates us, I’m going to talk about a few things that seem to reliably pique a reader’s interest. You can use these ideas singly or in combination to really grab an audience.
Before you do, however, you need to keep two things in mind. First, when you write a headline, you’re making a promise. By the end of the article, you need to have delivered on that promise. If you haven’t, you’ve cheated your reader, and they won’t share your link – unless it’s to hold you up as an example of what NOT to do. It’s not a bad idea to write your article or at least an outline before you create your headline. For instance, I’m writing with an outline in front of me; my headline promised eleven tips for creating headlines that will make readers want to link to your headline, and you will have all eleven before I’m done. Simple, right?
Second, if you’ve read SEO Chat for a while, you know that I advocate maintaining your site’s focus and writing articles that are relevant to your niche (http://www.seochat.com/c/a/Website-Promotion-Help/Promote-Your-Website-in-the-Right-Niche/). Some of the ideas I’m going to mention might not seem particularly applicable to your niche. You can choose to not use that idea, or if you’re creative and don’t mind doing a little research, you can work on finding the tie-in to your niche.
Say you run a craft-focused website and you want to tie your headline (and article) into a celebrity. You don’t have to stick with Martha Stewart! Vanna White crochets, and has lent her name to several crochet books. But she’s just one example; there are many others, you’ll just have to work a little to find them. Got it? Good. Now with those details out of the way, let’s dive into some creative headline ideas.
Include a number. You clicked on this headline, right? More seriously, though, some sites take this trick to incredible levels. If you’ve ever visited Cracked.com, you’ll know exactly what I mean. (And if you haven’t, don’t do it while you’re working). “The 14 Most Unintentionally Terrifying Statues in the World.” “The Six Creepiest Things Hiding in Your DNA.” “The Six Weirdest Dangers of Space Travel.” Yep, those are all Cracked.com headlines. They’ve increased the impact by adding intensifiers: most, creepiest, weirdest, etc. Heck, these headlines are so compelling I may go back and read the articles after I finish writing this one.
Why does this technique work so well? Our minds seem to like lists; they help us classify, categorize, and group our knowledge so it’s organized and easy for us to remember. Personally, I think part of the attraction is that you know how much of a commitment you’re making before you start reading the article. I once read that the optimum number for this kind of headline is seven, but I’m not sure how much stock I put in that. You can try different numbers for various articles and track their performance if you like.
Make it surprising. One amazingly cool Cracked headline promised five amazing things invented by Donald Duck. It delivered, too. Did you know that Danish inventor Karl Kroyer’s application for a patent on a method for raising a sunken ship was denied by the Dutch patent office because it appeared in a Donald Duck comic book 15 years before Kroyer’s application? True!
It’s pretty easy to see why this technique is so compelling. A reader’s immediate reaction is “You’ve got to be kidding,” quickly followed by “I’ve got to see this!” Keep in mind what I said earlier about a headline being a promise to your reader, and make sure you deliver. That point is especially important when you use this technique. If you do deliver, though, you can bet your reader will share the link. I first heard about the Donald Duck story from a friend on Facebook who linked to it.
Make it funny. Everyone likes to laugh, but comedy can be tricky, especially these days. You can go for something as simple as a play on words. For example, craft satire site Regretsy introduced one post with the headline “Little ‘Shop of Horrors.” It was about a vendor on Etsy selling digitally altered old-time photos. She used Photoshop to substitute purchasers’ faces into the photos – and she was particularly bad at it, at least for someone who was charging $35 a pop.
If you’ve heard of the musical “Little Shop of Horrors,” the headline is funny – and even if you haven’t, well, some of the images from the seller certainly evoked a shop full of horrors!
Make it controversial. A controversial headline pulls a reader in by grabbing them in the same way as a surprising one. “I can’t believe he just said that!” Of course, the reader has to click through to make sure you’re not kidding. If you’re serious about your headline – and stirring up a little controversy – then you’d better make sure you deliver on this promise. In other words, by the end of your article, your explanation of the “crazy” idea you stated in the headline needs to be enough to make the average reader give you the benefit of the doubt. You don’t need to have completely persuaded him or her, but you do need them to see that your viewpoint is reasonable.
If you follow SEO blogs, Michael Martinez, with his SEO Theory and Analysis blog, is a master of this form. When everyone was screaming about Google’s Panda, which supposedly caused many content farms to drop in the search engine’s rankings, Martinez wrote “Dear Google…THAT was a Content Farm Update?” And who could resist reading an article with that headline?
Make it urgent. Give the impression that your reader needs to know or do something right away, and they’ll almost HAVE to click through. Over on Web Hosters this week, we ran an article with the headline “New York Case Shows Dangers of Unprotected Wi-Fi.” It’s a decent headline, in that anyone who doesn’t use a password to protect their wireless network will probably feel a prickle on the back of his neck and click through just to find out what he’s risking.
You can do better than that, though. Say you’re writing an article on hurricane preparedness, and want to emphasize the need to put together supplies now rather than rushing out at the last minute. Here’s one possible headline: “Ten Things to Buy Now to Be Ready for Hurricane Season.” As you can see, this headline also uses a number. There’s no reason you can’t combine multiple techniques in one headline; The Onion does it all the time.
Make it useful. Show your readers how to do something, and they’ll come back for more as long as you steer them right. What they find useful will very much depend on the kind of website you’re running and the niche you’ve staked out for yourself. It could be anything, as long as the article delivers on the promise you made in the headline. These headlines often start with the phrase “how to.”
As one example of this, ASP.Free ran an article this week with the headline “How to Install Silverlight for Windows Phone.” It’s aimed squarely at Silverlight developers who want to create applications for the Windows Phone 7 platform. That’s a growing group these days.
Tie it to current events. You can write a headline that ties into local, national, or even international events, as long as your target audience actually cares about the topic. If your target audience is senior citizens living in your area, you probably shouldn’t be writing an article about the new skateboard park opening up three states over. Okay, that may be an oversimplification, but you get my point.
A word of warning: writing about current events, and creating a good headline, can be as touchy as writing good comedy or good controversy. This is especially true when you’re writing about a disaster or tragedy. You don’t want to look insensitive or as if you’re profiting from someone else’s misfortune. In this case, you might want to aim at your audience’s natural desire to help. For example, if you do the proper research for an article with the headline “Ten Ways You Can Help the Disaster Victims in Japan” that also includes links and contact information for all of the proper organizations, you’re in the clear – as long as your own organization won’t be directly making a profit from any of the ways you mention.
Tie it to an important anniversary. Google does this regularly with its Google Doodles. You can do it with your headlines. It can even be a good way to add somewhat evergreen content. For example, if your website celebrates inventors and tinkerers, you could schedule an article on Thomas Edison to run on February 11, his birthday – or on October 22, the anniversary of his first successful light bulb trial.
With this kind of headline, you just need to mention the event you’re celebrating, though you can be clever if you’ll still get the point across. “Thomas Edison Enlightened the World 232 Years Ago Today” could work, for example.
Tie it to a holiday. In some sense, this is a variation of the tip I mentioned above. Make sure you know the holiday well and how your target audience observes it, as these can be a sensitive issue. I grew up non-observant Jewish, so you won’t see me writing about Ramadan without a lot of research beforehand (which would include talking to some Muslim friends). Even so, you can go a little against the obvious emotional approach if it fits the actual reason for the holiday.
For example, here in the U.S., Memorial Day is celebrated as the unofficial start of summer, with picnics, barbecues, parades, and more. It’s a day off from work. But it’s called Memorial Day because it was set aside to remember the brave men and women who gave their lives for us in wartime. “Remember Their Sacrifices on Memorial Day” may sound like a bit of a cliché as a headline, but with the right piece, it could work.
Tie it to a celebrity. People seem to love reading about celebrities. It hardly makes a difference if they’re doing something wonderful (like the royal wedding in the UK) or making fools of themselves (like Charlie Sheen). In fact, sometimes the more crazy stuff they do, the more people want to read about them, at least within certain limits.
All you need to do is find a way to tie the celebrity into your website’s niche. I did it for SEO Chat with Charlie Sheen (http://www.seochat.com/c/a/Search-Engine-Optimization-Help/Beat-Charlie-Sheen-at-SEO/). To be honest, I was hardly the only person who used Sheen’s outrageous behavior to illustrate what you should and shouldn’t do to promote your website. Think about your niche, do a little celebrity research, and you’ll find your own connection around which to build an article and a headline.
Make it personal. To use this technique, you really need to know your audience, and hit them where they live. In some cases, your best bet is to combine it with other techniques. Consider how Martinez combines the personal and the controversial in this headline: “Why Your Quality Content Sucks.” It’s a challenge, and it’s personal; he didn’t say “Why Most Internet Content Sucks.” Instead, he aimed it directly at the reader. You feel almost compelled to click through, just to see what he’s talking about and whether it’s really aimed at you.
You can make it personal without offending your readers if you want. How about an article titled “Why You’re at Risk for a Stroke – and What You Can Do About it” is a good headline for a medical or wellness website, especially one aimed at seniors. Know what matters to your readers, write to it in a way they can relate to, add a compelling headline, and the links will follow. Good luck!