58+ Headline Formulas: The Ultimate Non-Copywriter’s Guide To Writing Headlines That Get The Clicks (UPDATED)
58+ blog post headline formulas + the ultimate swipe file. Also, why you should write 25 headlines for every single blog post you publish. I tried it. Here’s how it went…
“Never judge a book by it’s cover.”
That’s what they say. But, it isn’t what we do.
We make snap judgements on things based on outside looks all the time. Books with better titles and cooler covers get bought. Magazines with the sensational headlines in the store checkout lines get bought. Welcome to… reality.
So chances are, you aren’t giving your blog post headlines their due level of importance.
I say this because most bloggers don’t. Including me, in many cases. It is one of the easiest things to get lazy about. In all our focus on making the content itself awesome, it is all too easy to kind of gloss over the headline. Almost like a little child who glosses over all the little gifts in order to get the biggest box under the Christmas tree.
Thing is, the headline can make you or break you. Sometimes, some of our absolute BEST work on our blog will fall on deaf ears – and often it is because all that gold was hidden under the blanket of a boring-as-snot headline.
David Ogilvy, known as “the father of advertising”, said this:
On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.
Of course, Mr. Ogilvy was active way before the days of the Internet. I would argue that his 5X stat is way higher today. When’s the last time you checked out the latest blog headlines in your RSS reader, or Flipboard, and actually read 1 out of every 5 posts? Probably never. 🙂
I once did a random analytics check on my own Twitter account. One post got 406 impressions, but only generated 7 engagements. Only 1.7% of people engaged. In other words, 57X more people saw the headline than clicked on it!
We see it all the time in popular culture. Sites like BuzzFeed thrive on the back of solid headlines. In politics, it is the sensational headlines that not only get the clicks, but literally drive the news cycle. Headlines which cater to the emotion of the target market and promise to deliver something meaty.
And here’s the thing…
If you’re going to take your valuable time to write a killer blog post – or a killer “redwood post” – you don’t want the whole thing to be a waste of time because you gave it a boring headline.
I want your blogging to move the needle. It is why we do this.
So, on that note, let’s talk about your blog headlines, headline formulas and how to make them earn the clicks.
Good Blog Post Headlines Require Understanding Human Psychology
The headline has to motivate a person to click on it. Because of that, you need to have a decent understanding of the things which will motivate someone to do that.
You cannot write good headlines while sitting firmly ensconced inside your own brainpan. Because the headline isn’t about you. It is about the person on the other end of the internet pipe who is going to be making the judgement call on whether to give your post a chance or not.
You likewise cannot write good headlines if SEO is your only concern. Keyword stuffing a headline isn’t going to resonate with human beings.
So, what does work?
A really great post on the subject is over on the Buffer blog, called 8 Winning Headline Strategies and the Psychology Behind Them. Those 8 strategies are:
- Surprise. Take the person off guard by having something unexpected in the headline. Example: “This post completely sucks. Don’t read it.”
- Questions. Pose a question that the audience can empathize with. Make it personal. Example: “Do You Know How To Write Awesome Headlines?”
- Curiosity Gap. I love this one. It is all about sparking their curiosity by opening up a huge “open loop” that they need to close. Kind of like leaving them with a cliff hanger. Example: “11 Proven Headline Formulas To Try On Your Next Blog Post. Number 9 Will Knock Your Socks Off!”
- Negatives. People are motivated toward pleasure and away from pain. But, for some reason, the pain side of it is the stronger motivator. So, headlines which hit a pain point and provide a path off it can work well. Example: “Avoid Making These 4 Headline Mistakes”
- How To. The classic “how to” post. Immediate communication of value, as long as what you’re showing them how to do is something they want. Example: “How To Write Blog Post Headlines Which Will Double Your Click-Throughs”
- Numbers. People love numbers. Makes it seem more specific, less vague. Also, the more specific the number rather than rounded off, the better. Example: “101 Proven Blog Post Headlines That Worked. Let’s Spot What’s Common Between Them.”
- Audience Referencing. Essentially, you’re calling out the specific target audience segment and identifying the headline specifically with them. Example: “The Ultimate Guide To Writing Blog Post Headlines: For Blog Owners Who Aren’t Professional Writers”
- Specificity. This relates closely to the numbers aspect. Again, people value specific facts that are borne out by data rather than broad theories. Example: “The 3-Part Headline Strategy That Generated 1,084 More Clicks In 72 Hours”
As you can see, this is pretty different than how you may have been taught to write “headlines” in the past.
Most blog owners’ main experience with writing before they started a blog was in school and/or college. You may have been told to put a title on the top of your essays. And we got into this mode of putting titles on things which were like little boxes in which the content was supposed to fit. It was supposed to be a general summary of what the content was about – and that’s about it.
If I did that with this very post, then I would call this post simply: “Blog Post Headlines“.
Hey, it does state what the post is about! It might even be a good SEO target keyword. But, MAN OH MAN, would that be a piece of crap of a headline!
… Because it does nothing to tap into the psychology of the reader and make them WANT to read the post.
How To Get Good At Blog Post Headlines
Yes, I know. This isn’t natural for you. It isn’t for me either.
It would be a LOT easier if we could all just slap generic titles on our posts which state what the post is about and have the world come beating down our doors. But, it clearly doesn’t work that way.
Like any skill, getting good at writing headlines requires practice. You’ve got to write a ton of headlines.
UpWorthy.com got as popular as they did solely based on their perfection of writing headlines. Hell, the content they post isn’t even original. They’ve taken somebody else’s content, re-packaged it with a killer headline, and it takes off. Upworthy shared their internal editorial process and their process for headlines was eye-opening: They wrote 25 headlines for every story they published, split-tested them, and went with the winner. (Seriously, go through UpWorthy’s slideshow on this. It has some really great stuff.)
Writing 25 headlines for every blog post seems like… a lot of freakin’ work. I went out and tried to find people who actually talked about trying it for themselves, and I came across this post about a headline experiment at Blinkist. As she says:
half of the headlines you create will be ridiculous, some of them won’t make any sense at all, and plenty of others will fall flat and boring. But man, is it satisfying when you strike upon one that’s music to your ears.
So, perhaps it would be worth it to give it a try. I thought I would try it myself by writing 25 headlines for this very blog post. I’ll do that below. 🙂 But, first, let’s talk about some formulas…
Headline Formulas To Use As A Template
Obviously, if we’re left solely to our own creative devices, it is more likely our headlines will suck. And writing 25 of them is going to be downright impossible. Even frustrating.
To ease the process, it is super helpful to have some templates to go by. To get the juices flowing. To spark some ideas.
In fact, I’d recommend keeping a headline swipe file.
A swipe file is just a huge list of headlines or copy that other people wrote, but you thought was pretty dang good. Store it. You can reference it later to spark ideas of your own. It is like creating your own list of headline formulas over time.
Evernote would be an awesome repository for a headline swipe file.
Oh, and about that swipe file, you can include headlines on any topic, but you should also include great headlines which come from other blogs in the same niche as your own. Especially from posts which you see are performing well.
Headline formulas are, by nature, completely arbitrary. It isn’t as if people are discovering something which is some kind of natural law. They basically start with some guy writing a headline they thought was good, it earned some traffic, then they slap the word “formula” on it to make themselves look super smart. But, hey, the entire purpose is simply to help spark our own ideas and save time.
Type of Post: Tutorial or Guide
- How To _____ In X Easy Steps
- How To _____ In [Some Short Time Period]
- How To Make A Strong _____
- How To _____ The Right Way
- A Complete Guide To _____
- Ultimate Guide: _____
- How to Tell If _____
- What To Do With _____
- Quick Guide: _____
- Advanced Guide: _____
- Beginner’s Guide: _____
- Hack: _____
- DIY: _____
- Practical Guide: _____
You get the idea. 🙂
Type of Post: List Post
- # _____ Ideas
- # Tips To _____
- # Secrets To _____
- # Amazing _____ To Try Right Now
- # Proven Techniques For _____
- # Examples Of _____
- # Essential Things For _____
- # Reasons You _____
- # _____ That Every _____ Should Own
- # Little Known Ways To _____
Other Misc Headline Ideas
- Who Else Wants _____?
- What Everybody Ought To Know About _____
- Headline + Headline. Example: “23 Headline Formulas: 23 Headline Strategies To Help You Double Your Blog Post Traffic”
- _____, Backed By Science. People always get a rise out of something backed by science. Works well if what you’re talking about is backed by any kind of research.
- The Big List Of _____
- X Ways To _____. [Curiosity Gap]. That last part should be something specific about one of those items. For instance: “7 Ways To Get Better At Writing Blog Post Headlines. I Didn’t Expect #4 To Work So Well.”
- How To _____ Even If ______. For that last part, insert a common barrier your market deals with.
- Lessons I Learned By _____
- A [Quick/Free/etc] Way To _____
- X Warnings Signs Of _____
- The Shocking Truth About _____
- X Lies [Group] Likes To Tell
- X Little-Known Factors That Could [Blank]
- Warning: _____
- The [Audience Segment] Guide To _____. On this one, tap into a pain point of your audience. Example: “The Non-Writers Guide To Writing Awesome Headlines”
- X Shortcuts To [Blank]
- Get Rid Of [Problem] For Good
- How To _____ Like [Famous Person].
- [Famous Person]’s Top Strategies For _____
- What [Somebody Your Audience Looks Up To] Can Teach Us About _____
- The [Awesome Example] School Of _____
- How To _____ While You [Do Something Else]
- How To Be A Great _____ In A World Of Dumb [Blank]’s
- X Steps To _____
- What No One Tells You About _____
- Who On Earth _____
- You Won’t Believe
- X Things I Wish I Had Known About _____
- Quiz: _____
- What The Heck Is _____?
- Why I Don’t _____
- Who Else _____?
- _____ Vs. _____. Great for reviews.
- Why _____ Beats _____.
So, there’s some formulas to sink your teeth into.
Finding Creative Words That Strike An Emotion
You want your headline to make a promise of what the content will contain, but you need to do so with style. Meaning, it needs to get an emotional reaction from the viewer. Don’t just state a simple fact, but use descriptive words to give the headline more “punch”.
For instance, we can call something “good”. But, calling it “snazzy” or “seductive” just has a much stronger attraction to it, no?
So, you should try to use stronger, more interesting adjectives and adverbs in your headlines. You can use a thesaurus for inspiration, although you want to be careful not to use words that most people won’t understand. For instance, everybody knows what “good” or “excellent” means, but most people aren’t familiar with the word “recherché”… which is actually a synonym. The motto is: Don’t get so fancy that you lose people.
Here are some potential adjective words you could use:
Juicy / Crazy / Awesome / Fabulous / Seductive / Powerful / Attention-Grabbing / Insane / Outrageous / Disturbing / Sleek / Mind-blowing / Seriously / Delicious / Successful / Valuable / Useful / Shocking / Alarming / Terrible / Fascinating / Brilliant
Here are some potential action words you could use:
Apply / Get / Benefit / Drive / Engage / Fail / Gain / Maintain / Illustrate / Prepare / Describe / Search / Exclude / Break / Make / Enhance / Beautify / Demolish
And, here’s a little tip on choosing the words which resonate…
Know the emotional tone and mindset of your target market.
A killer example of this is the world of partisan politics. One of the things which give partisans pure joy is to make the other side feel bad or to make them wrong. The people who closely follow politics tend to be angry and confrontational. Especially during an election. So, words like “demolish” or “schools” work well. Example: “Donald Trump Goes On MSNBC, Get’s Schooled By The Panel”.
But, did you know that Google has a resource with TONS of killer headline swipe files? Read On…
Headline Swipe Files. Its on Google, So You Can Trust It.
Here is a direct link to Google’s secret headline swipe file.
Hehe… ok, I’ll let the cat out of the bag. It is a list of search results. 🙂 But, specifically, a link to PDF swipe files. And within those search results you can find some of what marketers love to call “pure gold”. For instance:
- 342 Headlines You Can Copy And Steal To Advertise Any Business
- Eugene Schwartz Headline Swipe File – 127 Winning Headlines From A Direct Response Genius
- 65 Page Headline Swipe File from SiteFling.
- 35 Subject Line Formulas To Boost Your Open Rates. For email marketers, but subject lines and post headlines are subject to the same rules.
So, you can find a TON of headline ideas out there. I’d recommend you drop them into Evernote so you can use them for reference later on.
My Own Test Of Writing 25 Headlines For This Very Post
So, usually when I go to write a new blog post, I start out by putting a placeholder headline into the headline field. For this post, I started off with:
X Tested Headline Formulas For Your Blog Posts
I left the “X” in there because I honestly had no idea how many I could come up with when I started the post. 🙂 So, here’s my attempt at 25 different headlines for this very blog post, inspired by Upworthy:
- The Ultimate Guide To Writing Blog Post Headlines Which Don’t Suck
- How To Write High Performance Blog Headlines – Even When You’re Not A Writer
- Blog Post Headlines: How To Write Headlines That Will Make People Salivate Over Your Next Blog Post.
- Lessons I’ve Learned About Writing Great Blog Post Headlines
- Who Else Wants The Secrets To Writing Headlines That Get The Clicks?
- How To Write A Headline That Gets Clicks
- The Ultimate Headline Formulas For Your Blog Posts, Emails, Tweets and More
- Write A Blog Post Headline That Raises Their Eyebrows
- How To Write Blog Headlines So Good They’ll Never Suspect You’re Not A Professional Writer
- 32 Headline Formulas + The Ultimate Headline Swipe File
- 32 Headline Formulas + The Ultimate Headline Swipe File – Backed By Testing
- How (And Why) To Write 25 Different Headlines For Every Blog Post
- The Headline Formulas That The Internet’s Best Performing Content Use
- Think Writing 25 Different Headlines For Your Next Blog Post Would Be Insane? Think Again.
- You Will Write 25 Headlines For Your Next Post After Reading This.
- The Ultimate Blog Post Headline Guide For Bad Writers
- You Can Double Your Blog Traffic With These 32 Headline Formulas
- The Blog Headlines That Get The Traffic: Let’s Spot What Works.
- Only 2% Of Your Blog Readers Will Read Your Next Post. Here’s How To Fix It.
- The Science Of Getting More Clicks On Your Blog Posts
- The Science Of Writing Clickable Blog Headlines
- Blog Headline Lessons From Direct Response Copywriters
- The Non-Copywriter’s Guide To Writing Headlines That Get The Clicks
- Blog Post Headlines: The Secret To Getting More Traffic From Your Existing Audience
- WARNING: Your Next Blog Post Will Be Totally Ignored. Unless You Do This…
Total time it took to brainstorm this list: 16 minutes.
Now, the next question for me would be: Which of those 25 headlines should I use?
Obviously, I can go with my gut. And for the sake of getting this post published, that’s what I’m going to do. But, my gut feeling and my own personal opinion might not agree with what the metrics actually show.
Thing is, I can’t get any metrics on this until after the post is live. I can test it out after the fact. And in fact, I intend to document a new procedure for my VA to follow where we’re actually going to do headline testing internally after a post is live. Then, when we have a winning headline, I can go back and CHANGE the headline of the post.
Here’s a couple resources that I’m going to dive deeper on:
- How Buffer A/B Split Tests Their Headlines Using Twitter. My own take… We share all of our new posts several times over the course of the week. And we vary the wording around. Thing is, we haven’t been actually measuring the click-throughs on those variations. So, I think I’ll begin sharing my 25 headline variations with my VA, she can use them for the repeat tweets, then at the at the of the week we can go back and see which tweet performed better. Likely wouldn’t use all 25 ideas. Maybe just 5 or 10.
- How To A/B Split Test Wordpress Post Titles To Get More Clicks. WPBeginner has a post on on how to use a free plug-in to do exactly that.
- Blog Post Headline Analyzer. This tool from CoSchedule will scan and score your headlines so you can make it better. Cool tool.
Upgrade This Blog Post
I loved going through all this with you today. Hope you found it valuable.
But, you can take it a step further.
See, the headline isn’t the only thing to pay attention to when it comes to getting more traffic to your post. Below this post you will be able to download a full checklist of each point to optimize and tweak BEFORE you publish your next blog post. And it goes beyond just the headline. 🙂
Excellent article David.
Just not sure I have the discipline to write 25 headlines for every story before testing and choosing a winner (!)
Hehe… I get it. It is more of a brainstorming exercise, really. Even writing 5 headlines will get those juices flowing. 🙂
This Contains Killer Content!! Great stuff, David. In all my time of writing, I had never headlined with words like dead, killer etc. Not in my nature – but loved the studies that were done and can now see why I probably should delve into the ‘dark side’…. 🙂 🙂
Will share this post at my workshop in March. Very informative.
Well, keep in mind, you can tailor the wording for what works for you and your audience.
Nice Article…Thank you for sharing this interesting and useful information….
Want To Read An Interesting Comment? – Don’t Read This One Then.
I’ve just read through that article and it’s probably the most helpful article I’ve read all year. Actually you can include last year too, since this year is only weeks old and the last thing I want to appear to be doing is taking the mickey out of it. I’ve yet to click any links and get the full value from it; but what an awesome way to start 2015! – This post is glowing, and David’s on form!
– ‘See, I told you it was a crap comment, but thanks for reading it anyway. 😉
Haha, well thanks, Sharron. 🙂