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We all love a good headline. They’re short, catchy, and they help us choose what kind of content we want to consume. As content creators, headlines spearhead our blogs and generate traffic. And in many ways they act as the cornerstone of our content pages.

In the words of David Ogilvy (aka the King of Copywriting), “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” 

It goes without saying that headlines are important. But the real question is, what separates a good headline from a great one? And it turns out there’s an answer to that. . .

So in this blog we’re going to look at the craft of headline creation (4 techniques in particular). And we’ll see what makes titles pop, compel, and drive traffic. 

1 – Pump up the adjectives

This one can be a little controversial for some businesses, as the type of adjectives you used can sometimes be restricted by the tone and voice of your brand.

Pick up any magazine or scroll through Google or Facebook and doubtless you’ll see many adjective-exploiting headlines. Words like essential, killer, incredible, wonderful. They evoke a sense of urgency in the reader, and a feeling of desire. Compare the following headlines:

How To Write Good Headlines” and “How To Write Killer Headlines”. By simply changing the adjective, the headline has gone from being neutral and instructional to urgent and intriguing. In most people’s minds, there’s a big between how they perceive something that’s “good” and something that’s “killer”.

Of course, the problem is that if your brand’s voice doesn’t suit a word like “killer”, then it will come across as a click-bait title. Readers will see through your techniques, and there’s a possibility that they’ll consider your content disingenuous.

So the rules for beefing up your adjectives are as follows. 1) Take an existing adjective in your title and change it to something more colourful and evocative. 2) If the new adjective suit’s your brand voice, keep it! If not, bin it. 

2 – Use trigger words

“What”, “Why”, “How”. These words trigger curiosity because they imply that a question has been asked. And when we think a question has been asked, we naturally want answers.

Trigger words also point to shortcomings and force the reader to question their own knowledge of a subject. For example, compare the following headlines: “How To Make Perfect Cupcakes” and “The Perfect Cupcake Recipe.”

“How To Make Perfect Cupcakes” is a promise of knowledge. It’s going to teach you how to do something that you might not have previously known how to do. This is the shortcoming that the headline highlights: You don’t know how to make the perfect cupcakes but I’ll show you. There’s a promise here of long-term, retainable knowledge.

“The Perfect Cupcake Recipe”, on the other hand, focusses more on a current need. It’s saying: Are you making cupcakes today? Here’s a recipe. There’s no shortcoming other than that you don’t have any other recipes to hand. And it’s not promising to teach you anything, only to show you something.

This is where trigger words are so useful, because they make subjects appear more important. They promise to ask questions that readers may not have known they had. Headlines with trigger words are active. They’re making subtle promises to the reader: Read this an learn something valuable.

3 – Use numbers

Numbers — You’ll see this all the time (especially on the Red Square blog). But it’s because it works. Numbers grab people’s attention, and give them an idea of how much content they can expect. Headlines like “5 Top Tips On. . .”, “The 10 Best. . .”, and “7 Signs Your Business Is. . .”, all make promises. They’re offering a specific number.

4 – Be compelling

Sounds like a no-brainer, but for many people it isn’t. Lots of blogs and articles sport headlines that make little if any sense unless you’ve already read the content that follows.

Things like “A Pot Of Coffee And A Dog In The Office”, “Our Week In Brief”, and “Presenting At The Expo.” There’s nothing compelling about any of these headlines (apart from maybe the dog in the office). They don’t promise anything to the reader, and they don’t answer the fundamental question of “What’s in it for me?”.

The reality is that most people are busy and have very little time. So your content needs to be sharp and punchy. It needs to give them something they want, presented to them in the simplest manner. 

Headlines need to literally compel people to click them. And the only way to compel is to promise something that might actually be compelling

Remember, if you’re ever stuck between a clever, wordy title and a short, simple one, go for the latter! Because when it comes to online content, most readers prefer the “does what it says on the tin” approach.

Keep writing

For more on fundamental copywriting skills, see How To Write A Compelling Call-To-Action, and How To Make Content That Sticks, Compels, And Sells.