In this episode we’re going to talk about headlines for your content. Headlines are obviously important for capturing your audience’s attention.
According to CopyBlogger “On average, 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest.”
Average means content with average headlines. Content with a great headline can double or triple that number.
This is part of a series we are doing that started with episode 15 describing how to become great at every part of online business. That episode talked about taking a big topic, in this case building the perfect blog post, and breaking it down into component parts.
In episodes 16 and 17 we covered how to gather research and statistics then moved on to keyword research. In this episode we’re going to move to the next step of building the perfect blog post which is your headline.
In this episode you’ll learn:
- The top 3 resources for writing better headlines
- The “4 U’s” of great headlines
- What are power words and how to use them
- My step-by-step process for writing headlines
- How to test your headlines
- Review the top 3 resources for keyword research
- Download the keyword research checklist
- Customize the checklist to suit your needs
Links and resources mentioned in this episode:
How to Write Magnetic Headlines CopyBlogger
Hey everybody, Dave Ziembicki here. Welcome to StrongStart.fm. My mission is to help you design, automate, and outsource the technology of your online business. In this episode we’re going to talk about headlines for your content. Headlines are obviously important for capturing your audience’s attention. According to copy blogger, on average about eight out of 10 people will read the headline copy but only two out of 10 people will actually read the content of your post. Average means content with average headlines. Content with great headlines can double or triple that number.
This episode is part of a series we’re doing that started with episode 15 describing how to become great at every part of online business. That episode talked about taking a big topic, in this case, building the perfect blog post and breaking it down into component parts. In episode 16 and 17, we covered how to gather research and statistics, then we moved into the topic of keyword research. In this episode, we’re going to move in to the next step of building the perfect blog post, which is your headline.
As with all of my podcast episodes, I’ve created a free resource for you which is my checklist for creating great headlines. You can find out more over in the show notes at strongstart.fm/018. Like everything else in online business, when you start digging into any individual topic, you can keep digging deeper and deeper forever. There’s entire books out there written about headlines and any other topic that you can think of. If you listened to the previous episodes, you know that our process for becoming great at any topic in online business is to read the top three resources about the topic, distill what we learned in to processes and checklist of best practices, then determine how much of it we need to do ourselves, what we can automate, or what we can outsource.
For headlines, let’s dig in to the top three resources that I have for you. As I mentioned, there are books and other dense resources out there all about copywriting and headlines. W\e’ll save those for our later episode on copywriting specifically. With headlines, we can save some time by leveraging the several hundred years’ worth of proven headline formulas and data that are out there. What I mean by that is, we don’t necessarily have to be experts in psychology and copywriting in order to be able to write better headlines.
Over the years, you know, starting out with radio, broadcast and then moving into television and video and now online into the internet, there’s been a ton of advertising and marketing and all other related research done that have basically narrowed the whole topic of headlines and getting people’s attention and compelling them to action. We don’t have to go relearn all of that stuff from scratch, we can basically leverage all of that research and all of that money that’s been paid by huge advertising and marketing agencies and basically take their formulas for headlines and use them to our advantage with our own content. For now, we just need to learn the basics and then leverage some of the resources that I’ll provide here and then list for you over in the show notes at strongstart.fm/018.
The first resource that I recommend you read through is the short eBook called How to Write Magnetic Headlines by Copyblogger. Now, this one, you have to do an email opt in for but it’s basically free content and it’s a part of a library of content that Copyblogger puts out there on the topic of copywriting. In there is some pretty good guidance on how to think about headlines, how to write headlines, and some examples of the different headline formulas that we’ll talk about a little bit later in this episode.
The next resource is The Step by Step Guide to Writing Powerful Headlines by Neil Patel. This covers a bunch of good content related to headline. It also gives you the beginning outline of a process for writing headlines for each piece of content that you’re going to create. So the topic of this episode and the outcome is basically to provide you a checklist and a process for creating headlines. This article is a good starting point just so you can think about the topic and how to become consistently better at writing headlines by following a standard formula.
The last one is actually a list of headline formulas itself. It’s called 30 Plus Ultimate Headline Formulas for Tweets, Posts, Articles and Emails and that’s by the Buffer team. Now, what you’ll notice about all the three of this great resources when you read through them is they explain the background and psychology of headlines but pretty quickly, they move into what are called headline formulas. Now, what I mean by headline formulas is basically, almost like a fill in the blank type of exercise. A classic example of a headline formula is called the how to formula. What the formula looks like is how to X and Y. Where X and Y are benefits that the audience will be interested in.
So an example for my blog is, How to Go Live On Facebook Without Complicated Software. Okay, so the two benefits are “going live on Facebook” and the second is “without complicated software”. If you think about it, you see this types of headlines all over the internet and why is that? Well, it’s basically because they work and what headline formulas are all about is taking again those hundreds of years of history we have with the psychology of audiences and picking out the formulas or the approaches to headlines that just tend to work over time because they basically resonate or align with human psychology, which generally doesn’t tend to change very much over the years.
Another great example of that type of headline formula, the how to, is mentioned in Copyblogger’s Magnetic Headlines and that’s one we’ve all heard before, which is How to Win Friends and Influence People. Two big benefits right there after the how to: “win friends” and then the second is “influence people”. Another headline formula is do X like Y, where X is the topic and Y is a world class example. Something like Swim the Butterfly like Michael Phelps right? You know that the article is going to be about swimming the butterfly and you know it’s going to include tips from a world class swimmer and that’s a reason why, “Hey, maybe I should read this article. If I’m interested in swimming the butterfly stroke then who better than Michael Phelps to get some tips on that.
If you Google headline formulas, you’ll be inundated with results there and that’s a good thing. Because basically, again, you get to benefit from the billions of dollars that have been spent over the years by advertisers and marketers, figuring out what works in terms of headlines. You can basically go right to the end game, which is, “Okay, what are this formulas, what do I need to substitute into those to make the headline relevant to my particular topic?” One of my favorite resources for headline ideas and formulas is OptinMonster’s, 130 Plus Proven Opt-In Headlines Ideas To Get More Email Subscribers.
Now, this list isn’t just about email headlines and most of it can be used on any form of content. But if you think about just that headline itself from OptinMonster, you can see some interesting notes in there, “proven opt in headlines, to get more email subscribers”. You can see already, there’s some proof and some benefits in that headline.
Now that you’re sort of thinking about headlines as we go through this podcast episode, one thing you want to be doing is as you surf the web, as you brows different sites and click on different articles, stop and think to yourself, “Why did I just click on that article? What was it about the headline that sort of drew my interest and made me click or read into the article?” If you keep doing that over and over again, you’re going to get better at noticing these things and better it being able to build some of those techniques into your own headlines.
Now, for some extra credit, if you do want to get in to the psychology a little bit on headlines and understand some of the things that are behind the formulas. Again, Buffer has a pretty good article on that called 8 Winning Headline Strategies and the Psychology Behind Them. Basically they take eight of the more common headline formulas and then sort of dig into some of the psychological reasons of why the work.
Now, if you’re intending to do a ton of online content, which I assume you are, since you’re listening to this podcast, as with everything else, these are some core things that you might want to read more about over time. Because basically, understanding psychology and especially how it relates to the written word or the spoken word through podcasting and videos.
It’s something that’s going to make it easier for you over time to really connect with your audience and provide them the benefits of whatever your content is. Again, this one’s extra credit, you don’t have to do that but I recommend it because it’s good introduction to the psychology behind that lines and it’s a pretty quick read. It only takes about five or 10 minutes to go through that article.
Now, if you don’t have time to do that. Most of the research about headlines can be distilled down into what are called the Four U’s, which is a formula created by Michael Masterson. That’s the letter U. So the Four U’s say that headlines should be urgent, unique, useful, and ultra-specific. Then the order of those is important here and you can basically come up with a simplistic ranking system for your headlines by always making sure that your headlines have at least two out of the four U’s, while always aiming to try and get to three or four.
It’s very difficult to get to a headline with the four U’s. It sounds simple but if you started thinking about trying to do that while also keeping the headline relatively short and direct, that is a difficult challenge of vocabulary and copywriting and is a great sort of test to sort of strive for with your headlines. From here, there are many other list of headlines, best practices like this one from Orbit Media. My headline makes a promise, my headline triggers curiosity, my headline uses numbers, my headline ask the question, my headline uses power words, my headline is sized to fit its purpose and my headline puts the keyword first.
One bit in there is very important the term “power words”, this is another area where we can simplify because there are a lot of list of headline power words that we can also use as a reference. In 1963, David Ogilvy, one of the most successful advertisers ever, published a list of the 20 most influential words he used in his copy. Examples are words like suddenly, announcing, remarkable, quick, easy. The idea of high list of power words is the same as with headline formulas. They’ve been proven over time, the trigger reactions in the reader like curiosity or interest. As you can see, already there are a lot of formulas lists and so on out there.
As with everything else, I recommend capturing all this in Evernote, OneNote or whatever your note taking platform of choice is. I have a notebook in my Evernote called “Swipe File” where I collect all these different type of list to use as a reference. Now, before we put all of this together into a headline writing process, first, a word of caution. Like any powerful concept, these can be used for good or evil. Good is a headline leading to a great piece of content that will actually help someone. Bad is the click bait headlines that are littering the internet today that all lead to useless content.
So how do we put together a headline writing process? Well here’s the one that I use. The steps are headline research, write my draft headlines and inside of that, I use headline formulas, power words, and swipe files. Then I analyze and score my draft headlines. Then I create a list of final candidates to a final quality check, and then sometimes I’ll even test to a couple of different headlines. We’re going to dig in to each of those in a little bit of detail.
First up is headline research. Headline research means taking the research that you’ve done for your topic, which we discussed in strongstart.fm episode 016, and pulling out the elements that might be useful for headlines. So as an example, ask yourself some of this questions: What is the main benefit of the content you’re creating, what’s unique about the topic or something you found in your research? Did you find a good statistic quote or fact in your research that might be good to use in a headline? Basically, anything that relates to one of the four U’s, which were urgent, unique, useful or ultra-specific, you want to highlight in your notes. Then you can use them once you start getting to writing your headline drafts.
The next step is writing your headline drafts and this is where you’re going to think that I might be a little bit crazy but most sources recommend creating between 10 and 25 headline drafts for a single given piece of content. Then going through a process of scoring, and improving, and refining them down to a small list of vital headlines. This may seem like a lot of work, and it is, but it gets easier the more you do it and the more familiar you become with your headline formulas.
I know for me, if I had to sit down there with a blank sheet of paper and try and come up with 10 to 25 reasonable headlines to start, it would take me all day. But when you think about the headline formulas and the swipe files and some of the stuff that we’ll talk about here, it actually doesn’t take that long. It might be 10 or 15 minutes, and then the thing I always have to keep reminding myself of as I’m trying to get used to doing this process is the stat at the top of this episode that only two out of 10 people are going to read your content where as eight out of 10 aren’t going to see the headline and how do you flip that around so that a larger percentage of people are reading your content? And that’s all about having a great headline.
As we’re about to start creating this, I recommend using a spreadsheet in this case and not really a note-taking thing because we’re going to record all of this draft headlines and then later we’ll be scoring them or adding some numerical values so it’s a lot easier if you have it in the spreadsheet there because you’ll be able to sort by a couple of ranking factors that we’ll talk about in a few minutes.
Now that our spreadsheet is setup and ready to go, the next thing you want to do is consult the list of headline formulas. Now here, you want to pick about seven or so headline formulas to use, write those down, keeping the blank spaces for now and then for each formula, write it down three times in your spreadsheet because we’ll be creating a couple of variants of each headline formula shortly.
Now, depending on your source and I’ll include a couple in the show notes for this episode over at strongstart.fm/018, some of the headline formulas are sorted by category. Like if you’re announcing something or if you have a case study or something like that. Depending on your topic type, your list of headline formulas might be sorted to the point where you can just go grab a couple out of that particular section.
Next you want to grab your list of power words and pick 10 to 20 power words that makes sense for your topic or content and again, this is where you have to watch out for click bait territory. If your content isn’t remarkable then don’t use that word. You know, it would be misleading to your audience to really put this crazy headline on something that in the end is just going to be an average or even poor piece of content. Again, you really need to have your headline aligned to your content and I want to assume that you’re creating great content so therefore you want to have a great headline that leads into it. As a general rule, misleading your audience is not a good way to build a relationship with them.
The final resource we want to gather up before we dig in to the headlines is your swipe file. What you want to do here is review your headlines, swipe file for inspiration. This is what I’ve been starting to use at the beginning of my process, just to sort of get in to the mood of writing headlines. I mean, I’m not a magazine writer or somebody or an editor that’s doing this all day every day. It’s really only a couple of times a week when I’m doing my blog post or my podcast episodes and so forth that I’m really thinking about headlines.
I like to go through that swipe file and look at a lot of the successful ones that have worked in the past and generally get my mind into that mode as I’m about to go into trying to write 10 or 25 of my own. That’s one thing to really be aware of is that it’s okay to swipe or model your headlines after others.
I mean, obviously you shouldn’t copy or mimic word for word, but remember that one of the four U’s is unique so while we can use this formulas and these list of power words, we do need to be looking for ways to make our headline unique. Maybe a little bit more specific, maybe a little bit more urgent or maybe a little bit more unique or niched down to a particular target audience.
Again, now that you’re used to this headline formulas and want to start being more familiar with the power words, you’re going to see all over the web and TV and every form of media that people are borrowing from each other in terms of creating headlines, right?
Like I mentioned, a lot of this stuff and this things that originally was figured out during the radio era right? The initial 10 or 15 years of television and so forth. You know, you’re going to see a lot of repeating in headlines and that’s okay. But again, just always be trying to look for a way to make it a little bit unique and specific to your content.
Using those resources, what you want to do there is go into your spreadsheet, you’ve got seven headline formulas in there, each written down three times so what I want you to do is to try and create three headlines for each formula, mixing in a couple of different power words and trying out a couple of different variations. The first couple of times, this may take a little while, this may take half hour, 45 minutes or something like hat.
But at the end of it, you’re going to have a pretty significant list of headlines and because you’re using this formulas and this power words, all of them are most likely to be better than a headline you would have just created at random. That’s the initial positive of doing this whole thing right off the bat, you’re probably improving your headlines and now we’re going to refine it down to pick the top couple out of the 25.
So how do we go through and narrow down and pick the top three? Well, in this section, what we want to do is analyze and score our headlines. Now, you could call a hundred of your friends and read all your headlines to them and see which one resonates and so forth, but that might take a little bit too much time. Instead, there are a few free headline analyzer tools out there with score headlines based on a number of different factors we’ve discussed in this episode. I’ll include the links to those tools over in the show notes at strongstart.fm/018.
First is CoSchedule’s headline analyzer. In this tool, you type in your headline and you get a numerical score from zero to 100. Some of the dimensions that measures or word balance, length, the sentiment your words inspire, what type of emotional response, and previews of what your headline will look like in Google, email, et cetera. What I want you to do is basically take all of your 25 draft headlines and run it through this analyzer and then record the results on your spread sheet.
Now, for any of them with a score greater than 50, I also want you to save or print the results page so that you can refine it later if needed. Because basically the result page will say some things like it’s a little bit longer than the average good headline or the sentiment that it inspires could be changed a little bit, maybe just by changing one word. The reason for using this tool is it gives you a quantitative view of generally how good your headline is and then for the ones that are already starting from a good base, you might just take a couple of tweaks to really raise the score of that headline.
The second analyzer is the advanced marketing institute’s headline tool. This one scores headlines based on what’s called an emotional marketing value, or EMV words. Remember that one of the Four U’s “urgent”, which is why the EMV words are important. According to AMI, most professional copywriters will get a score of 30 to 40% on this tool, while great ones will get between 50 and 75%. Again, take ab out five or 10 minutes and then run all 25 of your headline drafts through this tool and record the scores in your spreadsheet.
Finally, I’d also add one more column to your spreadsheet for the Four U’s score. In this column for each headline, determine how many off the use it contains. This is going to be a numerical value from zero to four. The next step is creating the final list of candidates and this is where we want to get down to about three headlines. At this point, you should have 25 headlines in your spreadsheet and the scores from the headline analyzers and the Four U technique should be in them.
Now it’s basically time to sort your spreadsheet by those values and use your judgement to narrow down the list of the top three candidates. Generally, at this point, out of the 25, there should be a handful that are significantly better than the others. When you do the sort, you should see that generally, they will have pretty high scores across all of the different tools and those are the ones you really want to zone in on and start thinking about and get down to the absolute best three out of the 25.
We’re going to call this three our final candidates and now that you’re down to three, it’s time for a final quality check. This is where another checklist comes in, which is a list of questions about your headlines. The more this questions your headlines address, the better. The red flag is if your headline only answers a few of them. Again, I’ll include this list over in the show notes at strongstart.fm/018.
Here’s a few examples of the questions you can ask about your headline. Does the headline reveal a benefit, does it communicate in one point only? Is it specific? Does it grab attention? Does it want to make you want to read the rest of the content? At this point, if possible, this is where you want to run some headlines by some of your friends or colleagues or somebody that’s going to give you some honest feedback.
Now, the last step here is something at almost nobody does that I know of, unless you’re at a medium or large company but can be really powerful and actually can be done relatively inexpensively. That’s testing your headlines. At this point, you’re down to three candidates and you have two choices. You could just sort of flip a coin or something and select a final headline and then move on to creating the rest of your perfect blogpost or you can use a method and tools where you keep your three final headlines and effectively split test them when your content goes live.
How the heck do we test multiple headlines on a single blog post? Well there’s actually some WordPress plugins out there that help you do this. The most popular one I could find was called King Sumo Headlines. What that does is it lets you add multiple headlines to your post and then as traffic hits your post, it rotates through and split test each of the headlines to see which one results in more read time and more sharing.
The way that works is it basically just extends your WordPress post editor, it lets you type in your three headline, and then once it goes live, it’s basically going to serve up the different headlines to different sets of people. Simplistically, think about the first person that shows up and clicks on that article, they’ll see the first headline, the second person will see the second and the third will see the third.
As the fourth person comes on, maybe it rotates back to the first one. If you think about it over the time once you get a couple of hundred views, what it started to do is track, well what does a user do once they see versions of that different headline? Are they clicking your share buttons on your site? Are they staying on the page longer? So on and so forth.
It’s basically determining which one of these is getting more clicks and over time, if you turn this part on, it will just automatically start serving up the higher performing headline out of the three more often and then eventually it will just settle on okay, this is the best one and then that’s the one that uses from that point forward.
Now, I haven’t tested this one myself but it is a pretty cool concept and I’m definitely thinking about considering it as my site’s getting up to a level of traffic where I think some of this results will be statistically significant. There are a few other plugins out there that do the same thing and are less expensive.
But when I did a quick review of those and was taking in some of the reviews and feedback, it looked like some of the other ones maybe put some performance issues on your WordPress install and had some other challenges whereas the king sumo one is from a higher end sort of reputable plug in maker. If I was looking at testing this, I would almost certainly do the King Sumo headlines unless in the interim something a little more interesting has popped up.
Now, at the high end, there are other ways to do this, you can use some of the higher end split testing tools to do this types of things but that’s getting into a pretty significant expense and you know, time commitment in most cases. So at this point I’m not recommending that, but I do think this is something maybe to look in to especially once your traffic is maybe you’re getting a thousand visitors a month or more, then you might want to start looking at split testing these headlines.
That is it for our headline writing process. As a quick review, the process included a couple of steps: Headline research, writing draft headlines, using headline formulas, power words and swipe files, analyzing and scoring your headlines, creating final candidates, doing a final quality check, and then optionally testing your headlines.
Now, this episodes was another pretty dense one with references and check list and so forth. I encourage you to head over to the show notes at strongstart.fm/018, for access to the check list and links to all the resources mentioned in this episode.
You can put this episode into action by reading the top three resources on the topic of headlines, customizing the processes and checklist on what I provide you, then deciding how much of it to do yourself, automate or outsource.
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