Headlines matter: A simple formula for high performance headline writing

Your headline can make or break your blog post, email or landing page. We’ve all been there – we’ve spent five hours writing a killer blog post and popped in a quick headline without giving it much thought. Low and behold, the headline wasn’t catchy and the article fuzzed out and didn’t get the distribution or promotion we wanted.

A step-by-step formula by marketing and copywriting experts to help you create top-performing headlines @wpcurve goo.gl/pYsNUz – CLICK TO TWEET

This is a story I’m all too familiar with. In the past, I would use a generic headline that accurately represented the article but certainly blended in with the rest of the content clutter on the web.

However, after some recommendations from trusted experts in the space, I started to allocate more time to headlines to ensure each article, email and landing page had a strong headline that grabbed my readers’ attention and encouraged them to click on the link and/or continue reading.

I want to share with you the step-by-step process that I formulated with other marketing and copywriting experts to help you create top-performing headlines. No longer will your articles get lost amongst the content clutter. Read on to learn how to create headlines that make your content stand out.

Before we get into it, let’s look at why headlines matter:

  • According to copyblogger, 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will continue reading.
  • A recent study shows that 88% of B2B marketers and 76% of B2C marketers are creating content for marketing purposes.  With that kind of content clutter, you need an eye-catching headline to grab your audience’s attention.
  • No one likes being tricked into clicking on an article that doesn’t match what the headline suggested. Headlines need to accurately represent your content in a way that qualifies the reader.
  • Headlines are used when tweeting and sharing content. Make sure it’s interesting enough to encourage viewers to click on it while browsing social media sites.

So let’s take a look at this formula that will help you create a headline in 10-15 minutes. For readability sake, when I reference ‘content’ I’m talking about the blog post/email/landing page that you are writing your headline for.

1. Identify the purpose of your content

Before you start thinking about writing your headline, you need to shore up the purpose of your content.

Think about the reason your audience is going to read your article. Why do they want to spend 2-5 minutes of their busy lives reading your article? Why did you write the article in the first place?

Related: The best of WP Curve – content marketing

For example, let’s look at this article that you’re reading now. The purpose of this article is to show entrepreneurs a step-by-step formula to help them write catchy headlines every time.

So you know the purpose of your content, but what does that have to do with writing a headline?

Everything. To craft an awesome headline, you need to know why your audience wants to read your content. Appeal to their needs and communicate why the reader should click or continue reading.

Let’s look at an example of a popular article by Harrison Monarth for The Harvard Review:

harvard article harrison monarth

His title is “The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool.”

From the title, you immediately know the purpose of this article is to help you understand the power of storytelling and how it can be strategically used in business. But imagine if Harrison didn’t know the purpose of his article. He might of only come up with a dull title like “How to Use Storytelling in Business.” Not much punch, right?

The point here is before you can craft a headline, you need to know why readers want to read your content.

2. Determine where the headline will be used

There are five different places that headlines can be used. The way you write your headline should vary depending on where it is going to be used. For example, headlines used in blog posts will likely be different from headlines used in landing pages because the purpose of the content is different.

Here are the popular places where your headline might differ:

  • Blog posts
  • Landing pages
  • Email subject lines
  • Open Graph titles used for sharing across LinkedIn/Facebook/other social sites
  • SEO meta title used by search engines like Google

This seems like a lot of work, right? Well, it is and it can’t be treated lightly.

Let’s look at an example of a blog post I wrote for WP Curve about content marketing strategy. Here are the two different headlines I used:

  • Blog post and email subject line: “How to Build Your Business with Content Marketing: a BS-Free Guide to Content Marketing Strategy”
  • SEO and Open Graph title: “Content Marketing Strategy: a BS-free guide”

Why did I use different headlines? The main reason is because I needed to bare in mind the character restrictions with Open Graph and SEO meta titles. Best practice is to keep titles under 65 characters for SEO and under 100 characters for Open Graph.

There are a couple of WordPress plugins that can help you create different headlines for each place. Use Yoast’s SEO plugin in combination with the WP Open Graph plugin to create different main titles, SEO titles and Open Graph titles.

3. Understand your audience and what they want

A big component in marketing is knowing your audience. This is certainly necessary when you are writing headlines as well because you should be appealing to your audience’s needs and wants.

ideal audience needs wants

By understanding what is important to your audience, you can use words that speak to and connect with them. For example, if we are writing a blog post targeting users of WordPress, we can use words like “themes” and “plugins” confidently. But we wouldn’t use them if we were writing a headline to regular business owners who had no in-depth knowledge of WordPress.

See what I mean?

As an entrepreneur, you need to be constantly in conversation with your audience, getting an understanding of what they want to learn and read about. Whilst you are having these conversations, take note of any common needs and problems that they share with you.

Use these needs, wants and pain points as catchy attention-grabbing words in your headlines.

Let’s compare two headlines that are for a blog post targeting the WordPress audience. Which do you think appeals to the WordPress audience better:

  • Which of these new WordPress themes is right for your customers?
  • Which of these website templates designed for WordPress is right for your customers?

The first one, I hope you said. It’s more concise and uses vocabulary that the WordPress audience understands and can connect with.

4. Accurately communicate your value proposition

2 out of 10 headlinesYour headline needs to sell your article to the reader. Research by Copyblogger found that on average, 8 out of 10 people will read your headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest of your article.

The best way to keep your reader reading beyond the headline is to accurately communicate your value proposition for the article.

Ask yourself what it is that your audience will learn or find useful and interesting from the article.

By no means am I advocating you make your headline salesy, but you do need to accurately communicate why the reader should keep reading and what they will get out of the article.

Let’s take a look at the headline I used for this article. I titled it, “Headlines matter: A simple formula for creating top-performing headlines.”

You can see how I’ve clearly communicated my article’s value-proposition: create top-performing headlines.

If you read my headline and are interested in creating better headlines for your content, then you’ll continue reading beyond my headline.

Otherwise, you’re likely not be reading this sentence.

5. Find a way to stand out from the crowd

Content marketing is facing a big problem. With so much content on the internet, your audience is having a tough time reading it all.

How do you propose to stand out from the crowd?

You need to use your headline to grab your audience’s attention and keep it. There are three ways you can do just that:

Share new ideas

Stop regurgitating the same content that everyone else is sharing on the internet. By sharing a new idea, you instantly stand out.

Take unique angles

Creative entrepreneurs write content with unique angles and spins. Write about useful topics and then put your own spin on it. For example, look at this headline: “Smarter Remarketing: Psychological Tricks To Bring Back Abandoned Visitors.” They took the popular topic of remarketing and added the unique angle of psychological tricks. It’s different and stands out!

Be useful

The best way to help your content and headlines stand out from the crowd is to be useful. Jay Baer talks a lot about useful marketing in his book, Youtility. Use your headline to show your audience why the content is going to be useful to them.

6. Choose the type of headline you want to use

There are various types of headlines you can run with. When brainstorming headline ideas, I suggest you grab a coffee and come up with at least 5-10 headlines.

Here are my favorite headline types that have worked well for me in the past.

Strong adjective and/or verb headline

These are the most common headlines that you’ll see doing the rounds on Twitter. There’s a reason why you see them a lot – they work!

Strong adjectives and verbs give headlines the punch they need to catch your eye. Here are some examples of adjectives to give you inspiration:

  • Effortless
  • Painstaking
  • Fun
  • Free
  • Incredible
  • Essential
  • Absolute
  • Strange

Question headline

The question headline gets your audience thinking. How many times have you been intrigued by an article that had a question in its headline?

Here are some examples:

  • Does SEO Boil Down to Site Crawlability and Content Quality?
  • When Is a Blog the Right Form of Content Marketing?
  • Do Long-Tail Keywords Matter in PPC?
  • Growing an Email Marketing Blog: Do Epic Posts Work?
  • How does your pricing strategy affect customer satisfaction?

Question headlines work well because they imply that you’ll discover the answer by reading the article. If the headline appeals to you, then you’ll feel compelled to click and read on.

Celebrity headline

Using brands, influencers and celebrities in headlines help to give your article credibility and spark reader curiosity. Journalism professionals love celebrity headlines because they know people love reading about them. That’s why all those celeb magazines are so popular.

We – as humans – love celebrities because their lives always seem so interesting. We want to be like them.

Similar concept applies to business writing. Instead, you should reference brands and popular influencers who your audience might find interesting and can learn something from.

A great example of a celebrity article is this one by Jon Ball, “Google’s Matt Cutts: Link Building Is Sweat Plus Creativity.”

matt cutts celebrity headline

Everyone in the digital marketing space knows Matt Cutts, so by including him in the headline, it brings credibility and is interesting.

Context headline

The context headline is great at grabbing attention. These headlines let you combine two headlines into one or bring two elements into the one headline.

Here are some examples of context headlines:

  • Learning From Amazon: How To Improve The Ecommerce Customer Experience
  • The Psychology of Color: How It Affects the Way We Buy
  • SearchMetrics Released SEO Ranking Factors For 2014: Content Now Really King?

You can see how context headlines give you a great way to share an idea, then back it up with more details or a question. These do a great job of catching the eye, whilst also providing enough information to show the value proposition.

Break convention headline

Everyone always gets scared when someone tries to break traditional conventions. It’s in your interest to wonder why they are going against the grain.

Headlines that challenge the status quo stand out. If your article can offer a great idea or opinion that challenges a traditional way of thinking, this type of headline will be perfect!

Here’s a great headline that breaks convention and catches your eye: “Social Media: Why it’s a Big Fat Waste of Time and Money!

break convention headline

7. A/B test headlines to identify which one connects with your audience

Once you have 5-10 headlines that you want to run with, it’s time to test which one performs best and connects well with your audience.

A/B testing is easy to do with a tool like KingSumo’s WordPress plugin, Headlines. You can enter in five headlines and after enough visitors have read your headline or article, the tool will determine which headline is performing best, based on which one attracts the most visits.

Use this insight to not only improve that headline, but also all your future headlines, as it provides a good indication of trends that your audience may connect well with.

For example, your audience might prefer question headlines over celebrity headlines. The only way to test this hypothesis and to improve is to use headline A/B testing.

Here’s a screenshot of A/B testing in action over at Noah Kagan’s Okdork.com blog:


Pretty cool, huh?

Actionable tactics: catchy headline ideas to give you inspiration

I’ve put together my five most actionable tactics that you can literally copy to help you create top-performing headlines.

Tactic #1: Use and mention examples from brands, products or celebrities that your audience trusts.

Journalism professionals know the power of celebrity news. As humans, we are drawn to celebrities and just love reading about what they are doing. This same principle applies to business writing.

Your audience loves hearing about brands, products and people that they trust. If you mention a product or person in your article that you know your audience knows and considers successful, use it or them in your headline.

I’ll show you how powerful this is by showing you this recent article I wrote on WP Curve about landing pages. The headline that I chose to run for this is “The web entrepreneur’s guide to creating and using landing pages.”

That’s not a bad headline, but it’s pretty basic, isn’t it?

Now if you read the article, you’ll notice I reference Unbounce – a popular landing page tool – a lot throughout it and use the company as an example to show best practices. Keeping that in mind, I could have used Unbounce in the headline to make it more appealing and catchy. Either of these headlines might work better:

  • 12 elements that Unbounce uses to create top-performing landing pages
  • Learning from Unbounce: 12 essential elements that your landing page must have

Tactic #2: Read your article and look for small snippets or quotes that you can use as context headlines.

If you are struggling for inspiration or ideas, read through your content again. There will be lots of little snippets, quotes and references that will make really good context headlines.

Remember, context headlines set the stage for the reader and form the first idea, but need to be followed up with additional information or a question.

As I reread this article to get inspiration for a context headline, here are some new ideas I’ve come up with:

  • Cut through the content clutter: Learn how to create top-performing headlines
  • 75% of people don’t read past the headline: Learn how to create top-performing headlines

Tactic #3: Use BuzzSumo to search for top-performing articles and headlines around your topic.

BuzzSumo is a tool that you can use to search for the most-shared content based around a topic. I use BuzzSumo all the time when researching topics and learning more about what my audience is reading and sharing.

To get inspiration for headlines, you should check BuzzSumo to see what the top five headlines are for the topic you are writing about. Here’s a quick snapshot of BuzzSumo in action:

buzz sumo

Tactic #4: Come up with a minimum of 5-10 headlines.

It takes time to get your creative juices flowing. As you create more headlines, more ideas start flowing around in your head and more connections are being made. Keep on going!

When you’re brainstorming, create a minimum of 10 headlines, from which you can choose 5 to test. Don’t worry, this should not take more than 10-15 minutes. Make sure you use the tactics and strategies listed in this guide to help you streamline the process.

Tactic #5: Always be measuring and improving your headlines.

Writing top-performing headlines isn’t something that you can learn overnight. It takes an ongoing commitment to better understanding your content, your audience and what appeals to them. As you continue to write content and headlines, keep an eye out for what content gets more reads and shares. Over time, you’ll start to understand what connects with your audience. Use this insight when you create your content and headlines in the future.

For example, I do a lot of writing for a company called Client Heartbeat. I know the Client Heartbeat audience loves practical examples from brands that they consider to be leaders when it comes to customer satisfaction. I’ve used brands like Disney, Chipotle, JetBlue and Chick-fil-A in headlines and they have all attracted more reads and shares than articles where I have not mentioned a customer-centric brand.

Tips from experts: Learn from the best in the business

An article like this wouldn’t be complete without some tips from industry experts. I’ve gone out and curated headline-writing tactics from six of the leaders in the space.

Draw inspiration from these ideas to help you write better-performing headlines.

kevan lee headline writerKevan Lee, content crafter at Buffer:

  • Headlines must start and finish strong: Readers absorb the first three and last three words of a headline.
  • Combine headline writing with the science of human psychology: “This Is Not a Perfect Blog Post (But It Could’ve Been).”
  • Write 25 headlines: Draw inspiration from Upworthy. They write 25 headlines for every story, test the best ones, and go with the winner.

Read more of Kevans headline writing tips


jeff goins headline writerJeff Goins, blogger, speaker and author of You Are a Writer:

  • Use numbers: There’s a reason why so many copywriters use numbers in their headlines. It works.
  • Use interesting adjectives: Effortless, Incredible, Essential, Absolute, Strange.
  • Use what, why, how, or when: These are trigger words.

Read more of Jeff’s headline writing tips


megan marrs headline writerMegan Marrs, marketing blogger and copywriter at WordStream:

  • Use numbers, digits and lists: They’re popular because they are easy to remember.
  • Demonstrate your value: The key is to prove that you are useful and that you are providing essential info!
  • Readers should be excited to read your article.
  • Address readers directly: Use you, your and you’ll.
  • Break conventions: Headlines that elicit controversy draw in curious readers.

Read more of Megan’s headline writing tips


yaro starak headline writer

Yaro Starak, web entrepreneur and blogger at Entrepreneurs-journey.com:

  • Use a context headline: This headline format is all about placing a statement or name or phrase just before using a headline with a set of colons to break it apart.
  • Use controversy: “Is Email A Bigger Productivity Killer Than Marijuana? (UK Study Says Yes)”
  • Avoid passive voice: Your headlines should be in active voice, not passive. If you see an “-ing” word such as “Planning”, it should be made active, like “Plan.”

Read more of Yaro’s headline writing tips


matt thompson headline writerMatt Thompson, editor at NPR:

  • Make sure the headline is accurate: Does the headline accurately convey the content of the material?
  • Is it easy to understand? The more complex the headline, the more difficult it will be for users to parse and the more likely they are to overlook it.
  • Keep it short and concise: “Name the known, omit the obscure.”
  • Does it focus on events or implications? Explaining news and addressing the implications of the news can help a post stand out in a crowded environment.

Read more of Matt’s headline writing tips


neil patel headline writerNeil Patel, blogger at QuickSprout and cofounder of KISSmetrics:

  • Short and sweet: The perfect length of a headline is six words.
  • Use negative wording: Negative words tap into our insecurities.
  • Numbers work: Use digits rather than words.
  • Headlines fail because they don’t match the article or aren’t specific enough.

Read more of Neil’s headline writing tips

Your headlines don’t have to suck; take them seriously and you’ll have success

The only reason why your headlines aren’t performing well is because you haven’t known how to craft a good one. Armed with the tips listed in the article, I challenge you to start spending 10-15 minutes per content piece to create a catchy headline.

If your content is useful, interesting and valuable, there’s no excuse for a poor headline.

Top-performing headlines start with understanding the purpose of your article and why your audience will want to read it. Only then can you start brainstorming different headline types that you can A/B test to determine a winner.

As you make a commitment to writing better headlines, you’ll notice trends in what your audience responds well to. Use this insight to continually improve your headlines so that you can generate more headline views, clicks and content reads.

Over to you: What tactics do you use to craft catchy headlines? Can you think of a better headline I can use for this article? Share your ideas in the comments.


Ross Beard is a marketing specialist. He helps companies with their content, SEO and PPC. Connect with him on Twitter @RossBeard.

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