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headline

You put in hours crafting a great post, but then you come to the hardest part:

The headline.

It seems like it should be easy to create a solid headline, right?

I mean, it’s usually 5-10 words long. How long could that possibly take?

So you write a few different headlines, but they just don’t quite click. They’re okay, but your audience isn’t going to go nuts over them.

And while you’re trying to come up with other headline ideas, the frustration creeps in. How can writing a single line take so much time?

Because you expect to be able to write headlines quickly, it gets frustrating when you can’t do it.

Most marketers end up just picking the “least sucky” headline and getting subpar traffic as a result.

The solution is actually really easy:

Expect to spend more time on your headline.

Copywriting legends like David Ogilvy would spend up to half of their time creating a headline for an advertisement or article they are working on.

Ogilvy once reported that he rewrote a headline 104 times for a Rolls Royce ad.

Another master copywriter, Gene Schwartz, often spent a whole week on the headline and an intro of a sales piece.

So when you don’t have a great headline after two minutes, don’t worry about it. That’s completely normal.

As long as you understand that, you won’t get frustrated, and you’ll be able to continue until you find a headline that’s right.

Your headline is the biggest factor determining the number of social shares your content gets: The fact is most people don’t read your content, no matter how good it is.

What they do is read the headline.

Around 80-85% of people will read headlines, while only about 20% will read the actual article.

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Based on the headline itself, people make the choice of whether or not to read on.

This is one of the biggest reasons why a great headline is so important.

But there’s one reason that’s even more important:

Most people will share content based on the headline alone.

It seems strange, but it’s been shown time after time.

After extensive split testing, the co-founder of Upworthy found that an excellent headline can make up to a 500% difference in shares and traffic.

Through research, we (marketers) have learned a lot about which headlines attract the most shares and traffic.

And I want to show you the 11 best types of headlines to write as well as ways to use them effectively.

You can use them immediately to increase your website’s traffic and social engagement.

Understand the potential of a headline: Before we dig in, there’s one last thing you need to understand about headlines.

Even if your headline is the most impressive headline ever written, that doesn’t mean you’ll get thousands or millions of shares.

Why?

Because there are two other factors at play:

Your topic/niche
The number of people who see it

Some niches just aren’t “sexy.” You’re never going to get millions of shares on an article about cleaning floors.

In addition, if you only have 1,000 followers on social networks, it’s going to be difficult to hit that viral threshold of initial shares.

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Simply put: the more followers you have, the more shares you’ll get.

One way to make up for a lack of followers is paid advertising. But you’ll need a decent volume of one or the other.

The reason why understanding these factors is important is to help you keep your expectations realistic.

In this post, you’ll see headlines of content that has hundreds of thousands of shares. You may be able to produce similar content, but you may also be limited based on the above two factors.

Your goal should be to get as many shares as possible (based on your headline). If you do this well consistently, your site will grow.

While going viral is nice, consistently maximizing your shares and traffic is what will bring you reliable success.

Ready? Let’s get started.

1. The “ultimate headline”

This first headline formula is a great way to break down headlines into specific components.

Although it’s probably been defined many times over the years, I came across it in a post by the infamous Jeff Goins. Let’s call it the “ultimate headline formula”:

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The idea behind this formula is that it can describe just about any highly effective headline.

There are five main parts to it:

Number – You know what a number is.
Adjective – A word that describes a thing (noun). For example: best, adorable, surprising.
Keyword – A keyword or short phrase that tells us what the content is about (possibly also for SEO)
Rationale – The main way that value is delivered in the content. For example: reasons, ways, secrets.
Promise – What will the reader get from reading the content?

These are pretty simple, and you can probably get your head around the main components.

That’s actually the easy part—many bad headlines also have these components.

The hard part is combining the right parts together to produce something special.

And that’s why I started with this formula. Now you understand the main parts of a headline. It’s essentially an overall strategy.

However, for the rest of the headline types in this post, we’ll look at specific implementations of one or more of these components (think of them as tactics).

2. “X” Reasons why list headlines are amazing

Let’s start with the first component of most great headlines: the number.

List posts are not only highly readable but they are also very handy when it comes to writing an effective headline. You automatically have a number of items in your list to add to your headline.

In an analysis of about 1 million most popular headlines, it was found that list posts are by far the most shared.

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People love list posts.

And we have more data to prove it.

A comprehensive Conductor survey showed that people actually prefer headlines with numbers in them.

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These types of headlines make a specific promise, and the reader knows what to expect going into the content. This is likely why these types of headlines are preferred.

On top of that, the survey also had participants rank the clarity of different types of headlines.

As you might have guessed, list posts were viewed as the clearest:

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While we’re on the subject, list posts not only attract extra attention (because of their headlines) but they are also typically read more.

Lists are much easier to read, and readers can skim them, moving quickly from one section to another to see if there’s anything they’re interested in.

List post headlines in action: Take a few minutes to visit some of your favorite sites. If they have a “popular content” section, pay attention to which headlines are list posts.

In most cases, a large portion of them will be.

If you go to Boost Blog Traffic, about half of their most popular posts (in the sidebar) are list posts (the number at the start makes it obvious):

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In addition to the already mentioned reasons why readers love list headlines and posts, there’s one more great aspect to them.

You have the option of creating incredibly long lists.

Long lists automatically make people value the content higher.

Let’s say you saw these two headlines:

“3 ways to lose 20 pounds”
“178 ways to lose 20 pounds”

Which one would you be more drawn to?

In most cases, it’s the one with the bigger list.

Many bloggers have taken advantage of this to create content that automatically gets extra shares and traffic.

For example, Brian Dean made a list of all known possible Google ranking factors. It’s accumulated over 10,000 shares to date:

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An article about five ranking factors wouldn’t be impressive. But 200? Wow, that’s incredible.

And that’s exactly why it has been shared so much.

Making your own list post headline: The good news is that one part of your headline is decided for you.

If you have a list of 25 items, then “25” will go into your headline.

So, that just leaves the rest. The other tactics in this article will help you fill in that part.

3. “How to” write a descriptive and interesting headline

Another effective type of headline is a “how to” headline.

The general format is:

How to + Action (do something) + Unique benefit

For example, “How to Fall Asleep In Under 1 Minute”, which is actually a real post.

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To say that it went viral on social networks is an understatement. It’s received over 300,000 shares on Facebook alone:

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In this case, the “action” is falling asleep, and the unique benefit is that it can be done in under a minute.

The real selling point comes from the unique benefit. It has to be something desirable.

With this example, people are desperate to fall asleep quickly, so if you have a solution that works fast (as the headline claims), readers will be interested.

If you actually have a good article to back up your headline, it will get shared.

Why it works: There are a few reasons why more bloggers should be using “how to” headlines when possible.

First, they’re simple to write.

Break it down into the two main components:

the action
the unique, desirable benefit

The action is usually pretty straightforward, but spend a few minutes looking at different ways to incorporate it into the headline.

For example, with the action of falling asleep, you could follow “How” or “How to” with:

“I learned to fall asleep”
“Fall asleep”
“Get to sleep”
“I nod off”

The reason why the first one won in real life was because it included the word “learned.”

Think about it from the reader’s point of view. They don’t really care about your falling asleep quickly—they want to do it themselves. If you were just born with the unique ability to fall asleep quickly, it wouldn’t be an interesting article.

However, if you’ve learned how to do it yourself and can share that solution, all of a sudden the headline becomes much more intriguing.

Now, to the second part of the headline. This is a bit harder.

Make a list of all the potential benefits of the action you’re telling the reader to take. Again, try to focus on it from the reader’s point of view.

Let’s come up with a few for our example:

“In under a minute” (the original)
“In less than a minute” (a variation)
“In under 60 seconds” (another variation)
“No matter where you are” (a different benefit)
“And wake up energized” (another benefit)

You could come up with a list of 20 headlines pretty easily, composed of different benefits and different ways to describe them.

It still takes practice and experience to be able to create and pick the best option. But at least this way, you have a formula that you can repeat over and over again and improve your headline writing skills.

4. Three common mistakes of headline writing

Okay, time to come clean…

This section isn’t actually about mistakes of headline writing.

But admit it, it made you curious.

What this is about is incorporating the word “mistakes” into your headline. It’s a magical adjective that draws the attention of just about any type of reader, which makes it versatile.

In general, people are afraid of making mistakes.

No, it might not be a crippling fear—many understand that everybody makes mistakes.

However, it’s ingrained into almost everyone that we should try to avoid making mistakes whenever possible.

So, when you see a headline with the word “mistakes” in it, you want to make sure that you’re not doing something that might be considered foolish.

Here’s an example:

20 Beauty Mistakes You Didn’t Know You Were Making

Even if you’re not in that audience, you can understand the allure of that headline.

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So far, that post has over 204,000 shares on Pinterest.

Here’s another example:

Eight mistakes parents make to teach discipline

So far, it’s received over 148,000 likes and shares on Facebook:

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I encourage you to go look at this second example. The content is very mediocre. However, the strong headline, combined with a solid social following was enough for this post to get viral traction.

What mistakes should you write about? The good news is that you have one word in your headline already decided for you: mistakes.

The part that requires some practice is determining if your audience is interested in a certain type of mistakes.

It’s a good idea to consider this before creating the content as well.

And to do this, you need to answer one major question:

What do your readers care about but are uncertain about?

First, your audience needs to care. If I write an article about mistakes marketers make when choosing their hairstyles, you probably won’t be very interested.

But if I write an article about mistakes marketers make when trying to sell something with email marketing, a very large portion of my readers will be eager to read it.

My readers care about revenue, traffic, conversions, social media shares, etc.

If I’m writing about mistakes, it needs to be about mistakes marketers make that could affect one of those primary goals.

Secondly, your readers need to be uncertain about it.

The parenting headline is a great example of this.

No one knows how to be a perfect parent—there’s no manual. And yet, people care a great deal about being a good parent.

So when readers see the headline about discipline mistakes most parents make, they are uncertain whether or not they’re making those mistakes. It forces the reader to read the article to find out.

If most of your readers are already experts on the topic you’re writing about, they will know that they’re not making any mistakes and won’t be interested.

This is why these headlines work best on readers with little formal education in the subject (like parents).

One other bonus: While you can write articles about a single mistake your readers might be wary of making, you’ll often create content around multiple mistakes.

Reminds you of something? That’s right, it turns into a list post.

You can combine using “mistakes” in your headline with the number of elements in your list (for the reasons I showed you before).

5. What is the secret to a great headline?

One type of headline that can help you get more social shares is a question headline.

You ask the reader a question that they would be interested in learning the answer to, and it’s implied that your content will provide the answer. The subheading to this section is a basic example.

Here’s a more complex one:

A Renowned Psychologist Says There Are 4 Personality Types Based On 4 Colors. Which Are You?

Since being published, it’s been shared on Facebook over 3.6 million times (3,600 thousand times!):

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Social media is a great platform for headlines like these to spread because they are all about the user.

It makes sense that they see headlines asking them questions on social media.

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In particular, you’ve probably seen question headlines for just about every popular quiz on Facebook.

One key note to include: The best question headlines are the ones that speak to your reader directly.

Don’t just ask them:

What is the best way to fall asleep?

Ask them:

Do you know the best way to fall asleep?

It forces them to answer the question, and if it’s “no”, it often makes them seek an answer.

6. This is the best type of headline EVER!

A famous researcher Dr. Hakim Chishti taught the marketing world a lot.

He was most interested in figuring out what causes emotional reactions in people.

And what he discovered was that certain words evoke emotion more than others.

He also found that emotion drives action.

When people have a feeling about your content, positive or negative, they will take action. It could be a comment, share, or anything else. Typically, it’s something that you want to encourage.

And most of that emotion will be stirred up when they read your headline.

This is why you should focus on making emotional headlines.

Try to get your readers to get as positively—or as negatively—charged as possible.

The EMV index: The emotional marketing value (EMV) index was created to try to quantify the emotional impact of words in a sentence (or headline).

According to an analysis of 1 million of the most popular articles, an EMV score correlates very well with the number of shares an article gets.  

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The higher the EMV score, the more shares an article typically gets.

Technically, the highest score is 100, but that’s not realistic.

Instead, good copywriters usually get 30-40% with their headlines.

To check your headline, use this EMV headline analyzer. Type in your headline, select a category, then submit it for analysis:

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It will promptly spit out an EMV score for your headline:

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How to use this tool: My best advice is to create at least 20 different headlines for your content.

Then, get the EMV score for all those headlines to determine how emotional they are.

Pick from the top scores.

7. Can’t explain complex topics? Here’s how to write headlines like…

One of the most difficult parts of crafting a great headline is figuring out a way to stand out from all the others who have written about your topic.

If you need a post about writing faster, you don’t just want to say:

5 tips for writing fast (really, really fast! I promise!)

There are thousands of articles about the topic, so even if your content is great, it’s really difficult to convey just how useful it is.

But here’s a simple solution: start name dropping.

What if you wrote a headline like:

5 tips for writing as fast as Neil Patel

Assuming that your audience is interested in marketing, just adding my name makes it easy to add emphasis to the result your content can bring the reader.

Here’s an actual example:

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It’s not the most concise headline, but all those highly recognized brands significantly up the amount of perceived value for a reader.

There’s only one key to using brands in your headlines: This is a very simple, but effective technique.

However, you’re probably wondering which brands to include in your headline. It’s crucial that the brand is well-known among your readers.

And not only that, it should be related to your topic.

8. One simple way to cure your headline problems forever

Did that subheadline get you excited?

If so, I’m sorry.

There’s no simple way to become an expert headline writer overnight. Although if you use the tactics in this article, you’ll be ahead of 90% of other marketers out there.

This technique, in particular, is to say that you have a simple way to solve a fairly complicated problem that your readers have.

For example, how about a “simple way to cook rice that could halve the calories”?

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Or how about “5 simple and healthy ways to cut portions”?

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It’s no secret that if you want to add value to your readers’ lives (and get the rewards of that), you need to solve problems in their lives that they care about.

However, what’s just as important is the way you solve them.

The vast majority of people want a simple solution.

If someone needs a computer, they don’t want to learn how to build one from scratch; they want to know which one to buy.

They’re both solutions, but one is much easier than the other.

And that’s why using “simple” in your headline is a great way to capture attention.

The second benefit of simple solutions: When you’re creating your headline and describe a solution as simple, it forces you to define the problem really well.

You can start with something like:

I’ve discovered a simple way to (solve a problem).

People want a solution to one problem at a time. Otherwise, they get overwhelmed, so this works perfectly.

Try to get as specific with the problem as possible.

9. A way to combine headlines and subheadlines

The reason why creating great headlines is so difficult is because your goal is not only to induce curiosity but also provide clarity.

If you read about copywriting, you already know that being too clever is a bad thing.

At the same time, a certain level of cleverness is how you create the intrigue.

So, you need a bit of both.

One of the best ways to accomplish this is to write a really short clever headline and include a more traditional subheadline, all in one.

I do it fairly often for my blog posts.

Here’s an example:

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“Get more out of Facebook” is a little abstract, but it’s a phrase my readers would use, and it provokes a bit of curiosity.

That part is immediately followed up by a more traditional headline for a list post.

That post, in particular, was shared over 1,000 times on just Facebook and Twitter alone.

10. Social proof works everywhere, especially on social media

Here’s a very simple way to write a good headline.

You can’t use it all the time, but it does work well consistently.

Start your headline with “Who else wants…”.

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The reason why it works is because it shows that at least one other person wants something already.

Most people follow others, so if they’ve approved an idea or product, most readers will give it a chance.

The second reason it works is because it asks the reader to join a group. Do they want to join this group of people who want something?

People are social creatures and like belonging to groups, which draws even more attention to your headline.

11. Make your headlines SHINE with this method…

A final check that you can do to make sure your headline covers all of its basis is to see if it meets every point on the “SHINE” list.

SHINE is an acronym often used for headlines. It stands for:

S: Specificity
H: Helpfulness
I: Immediacy
N: Newsworthiness
E: Entertainment value

1. Is your headline specific? It should be clear that your content is about one specific topic.

Consider the headline, “What’s the best way to cook it?”

That could be about anything.

A better headline would be, “What’s the best way to cook steak?”

Now, it has a specific subject.

2. Does it display helpfulness? At the heart of every piece of content, there needs to be something of value to the reader.

Your headline should make it clear that your content will solve a problem or provide something else useful.

3. Is there some sort of urgency? There should be something that encourages the reader to read the content right away.

If a reader isn’t compelled to do it right away, it’s unlikely that they will later.

If you’re solving a big problem, the urgency is built in.

Otherwise, you need to promise some sort of immediate benefit that a reader will get out of the content.

4. Does it need to be said? All content should have something new in it, no matter the topic. Otherwise, why should someone view your content when they could have seen it in the past?

What is about your content that’s newsworthy?

To show that you have something of value to share, use the following words:

dates (e.g., an SEO guide for 2016)
“updated”
“discovered”
“new way to”

5. Does it sound fun, even a tiny bit? Unless you have extremely motivated readers, no one looks for content that bores them.

If they get the impression from the headline that your content is boring, they’ll likely pass on reading or sharing it.

Some topics, admittedly, are a little dry. Use adjectives to spice up your headline to make it sound a little more fun:

“attract”
“clever”
“fun”
“inventive”

Conclusion

Your headline is the most important part of your content when it comes to getting traffic and social shares.

But creating a great headline isn’t easy; it takes a lot of practice and knowledge.

I’ve shown you 11 different ways that you can immediately apply to start writing better headlines.

Start using them as soon as possible. You’ll improve right away and will continue to improve as you use the tactics over time. 

Do you have any questions about what makes a headline great? Let me know in the comments below.