Statistics about headlines are dire enough to push anyone into a terminal case of writer’s block. If I believe the blog posts that say some 8 in 10 people will read my headline but only 2 of those 10 will read my body copy, it’s enough to stop my writing process altogether.
Let me be the first to remind you: these stats aren’t junk. There’s a great deal of content available in the world today, so readers simply must be discerning. If they aren’t selective about what they read, they won’t get anything else done. Being choosy is just part of being smart.
But, there are easy and reliable ways to pull together headlines that work. And if you do that, you can get the reputation management results, or the awareness-boosting stats, you’re looking for.
Here’s my 5-step process:
Step 1: Find Your Hook
For my reputation management clients, this is a really easy task. They simply must tell me what terms are delivering content that harms their reputations. When they do that, I can work on incorporating that term into the headlines of the articles I write. Easy-peasy.
But people writing business blogs or personal blogs may have a harder time finding the right terms. For example, a 2014 Contently study suggests that 73 percent of brand marketers develop content with one goal: To raise brand awareness. That’s a great goal, but there might be all sorts of ways to accomplish it. In fact, if you’re writing a blog like this, you might have an entire cloud of terms you may or may not want to target with your writing. How in the world can you nail it all down?
The tried-and-true Google AdWords tool can help. Pop in a few phrases that relate to the organization you’re writing for, and you’ll be shown a number of different terms that might be blog headline gold. Look for phrases with high search volumes, or seek out long-tail phrases that others seem to ignore. In minutes, you’ll know what keywords should be a part of your headline.
Step 2: Figure Out What Readers Want
By doing some brainstorming about your goals, and using Google AdWords to hone those ideas, you can come up with data that helps find your hook. But what about your readers? Shouldn’t their needs be included, too?
I say they should, because your readers have the power to either click on your articles or skip them. You can’t make them read. You must compel them to do so. And it’s easier to persuade when you know just what they’re looking for.
Dive deep into your analytics data and determine what your readers are searching for. Look for terms they use when performing site searches, and check out reports concerning the search terms that brought them to your page. Then, read the comments on your prior posts, looking for questions you’ve not answered before. All of that data helps you to understand what your readers want, and how they describe what they want – and those terms can really infuse and inform your writing.
Step 3: Write Without Erasing
With all of that rich data in front of you, it’s time to start writing. And at this point, it’s best to write without erasing anything. Just get all of your ideas out there in one big scramble of writing.
Sure, some of those ideas might not be perfect. In fact, a lot of them might be clunky or terrible. But kernels of those bad ideas might be recombined and reassigned, and with that kind of shuffle, you could discover the headline you’ve been looking for. If you delete everything you write because you think it isn’t good enough, you won’t have raw materials to work with. Just write your little heart out. Edit later.
If you simply can’t resist hovering over that delete button, consider doing your brainstorming with pen and paper. Some writers swear by this technique (and they write eloquent blogs on the subject), insisting that the act of writing words down allows the editing portion of the brain to go silent. Brainstorming has less of a critical feel, they say, when it happens on paper. That might be an excellent technique to try.
Step 4: Test, Test, Test
When all of your furious writing is done, you’ll have a mess of headlines to try. There are a number of different tools out there that can help you pick the perfect headline.
I’ve been playing with the catchily named “Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer” from the Advanced Marketing Institute. This free tool allows you to pop in a headline, choose a category and then get an immediate score of the emotional impact of your headline. I know it sounds a little hokey, but as a test, I used this tool for on the five top Search Engine Journal headlines for the week of February 23, 2015, and only one of those heads had a score lower than 20 percent. Most were in the 40-50 percent range. Clearly, there’s something to this tool, as well-performing headlines rank well.
If you’re using WordPress, you have even more options. Plug-ins like KingSumo allow you to type in a few different headlines so you can test them on the fly, in the real world. After a few minutes, the program will select the dominant hed for you.
Step 5: Check for Lies and Simplifications
Headline optimization works best when the words you use to describe your article are accurate. In other words, the little hooks you use to draw a reader in should be correct, down to the last detail.
It’s easy to get this wrong, particularly if you’re describing something detailed, like a study result or a scientific finding. The headlines you write for these technical pieces can be super snappy and compelling, but they might also be short and a little misleading. When that happens, your readers walk away from your content feeling mislead and lied to. They might not be willing to trust you again.
This blog entry from Big Think describes the issue perfectly, and it’s worth a detailed read. But the condensed version involves simple common sense. If your headlines are too simplistic or they distort the truth just a touch, then rework them. The clicks you get from heads like this aren’t liable to help your traffic in the long run.
A Work in Progress
Headlines are like puzzles: It takes time to put the pieces together and create a perfect picture. But, solving a headline puzzle can be a great deal of fun. When a piece you’ve written has the perfect word combination, and you’re able to march in to your next client meeting with absolutely awesome traffic numbers, the pride you’ll feel will be well worth the effort. And if you follow these steps, that happy meeting might come soon.
Did I miss any headline tips you’re using and loving right now? Any sites you think have excellent headlines we should copy? Let me know in the comments section. I’d love to hear your ideas.