A powerful headline keeps readers on the page and directly impacts a company’s bottom-line. That’s a lot of pressure for just a few words, but your readers—and your work—deserve a high level of care.
It’s fun to write a clever phrase, but if your cleverness eclipses meaning, it’s time to revise. If your readers can’t understand your headline at first glance, they’ll leave. They won’t stick around and try to decode it.
Different Types of Headlines
Different headlines serve different functions. While I’ve compiled some broad best practices, the way you approach a headline will always depend on context and the answer to three simple questions: 1) What’s the purpose? 2) Who’s the audience? and 3) Who’s the speaker or brand?
A direct-response headline meant to urge users to fill out a lead form should be different from a blog article headline because they serve distinct purposes. Always think about what your reader needs and where they’re located in the customer journey—and try to meet them there. Don’t force a headline on your reader.
With that in mind, I’d love to share five tips for writing headlines that convert.
1. Make the value clear.
“Be clear over clever” is a phrase I repeat ad nauseam. I’m sure my team is sick of hearing it.
It’s fun to write a clever phrase, but if your clever wording hinders meaning, it’s time to revise. If nothing else, your headline should be a neon sign to the reader that says, “Hey! You’ve come to the right place. Stay here and read on.”
Your value proposition needs to be clear, maybe even stripped down and simplified to a point that feels “uncreative.” If your readers can’t understand your headline at first glance, they’ll leave. They won’t stick around and try to decode it.
On the surface, writing clearly sounds easy, but it’s deceptively difficult. Often you need a second pair of eyes on your work to tell you if you’ve missed the mark on clarity.
Tip #1 in Action
The main headline on CV Maker’s homepage includes a clear, straightforward value proposition. It says, “Create beautiful, professional resumes in minutes, free.”
Although this headline isn’t funny or catchy, it addresses several potential counter-arguments and quickly communicates what the reader will gain. If I were signing up for a service to create a resume for me, I might ask myself, “Will this look good?” and “How much time will this take?” and “How much is this going to cost?” This headline clearly addresses all these counter-arguments in seven words. It’s concise and to the point.
2. Use numbers.
Ranked lists abound in online content, but studies have shown using numbers in your headline can help grab attention and get users to read on.
Look for ways to work in a list, an interesting percentage point, or an otherwise helpful number. That doesn’t mean you should write an over-the-top headline to get an impressive number in there. In fact, studies suggest that readers tend to respond better to fewer superlatives and hyperbolic language and more specifics. If you can limit yourself to one superlative and one compelling number, you’re in a good spot.
Try to use numbers to create a concrete promise, and then deliver on that promise in your article.
Tip #2 in Action
Generally, titles that reference “top 5 best” lists perform well. People often search for “best” products and like to see ranked reviews that quantify quality in an easy-to-scan way.
A blog post from A Secure Life showcases this point with the title, “Top 5 Best Baby Carriers: Support and Security When Carrying Your Child.”
This simple title is especially impactful because it has an odd number in it. Educational and psychological studies have found that our brains respond better to odd-numbered lists, especially ones with three or five items. Never underestimate the power of a simple title with a number showcased in a compelling way.
3. Be specific.
Numbers work well because they’re specific, and that builds immediate trust. Tell the reader exactly what they’re getting from reading on, and then deliver on it.
Besides using numbers, you can find other ways to be specific in your headlines. For example, you can use illustrative adjectives, such as fun, free, incredible, absolute, strange or true. The right adjective can create an emotional hook and add personalization, emotion, or urgency with just one word.
Try to narrow your value propositions and tailor your message to your audience. If your specific message resonates with a defined group, your headline will be successful.
Tip #3 in Action
Search Engine Land employs specificity in their blog post title, “How a Single Guest Post May Have Gotten an Entire Site Penalized by Google.” Obviously, this is a long title. It’s not perfect, but it’s compelling to a specific audience.
As an Internet marketer, I can say this title gets me. When I read it, I’m immediately hit with a “loss aversion” trigger. I’m worried that I might be doing something that would get a site penalized by Google, and I want to avoid that at all costs. I’m going to read this article, based on the headline.
Now, this isn’t a compelling title for lots of other people. If you’re not an Internet marketer, this title probably seems boring or confusing. But for Search Engine Land’s audience, they’ve nailed a very specific value.
4. Use active verbs.
Headlines with clear, dynamic, active verbs stand out. Avoid passive voice, and use verbs that add specificity and that connect with your audience. Active voice personalizes and helps your headline resonate, while passive voice creates wordiness and further removes the audience from the action.
If you’re not sure how to avoid passive voice, you can identify “to be” verbs and then revise the phrase so you don’t need them. It’s an easy trick.
Focus on putting descriptive verbs in your headlines, and remember that a single, powerful word can make your headline extraordinarily successful.
Tip #4 in Action
AirBnb’s mission statement is “to make people around the world feel like they could ‘belong anywhere.’” The company distills the essence of its mission statement throughout its marketing materials with the headline, “Book unique homes and experience a city like a local.”
Not only does this headline encompass the company’s mission, but it also incorporates compelling verbs in a concise sentence. It’s an imperative direction to the audience and it starts with the verb “book,” which is a specific verb that describes the precise action they want the reader to take. And the verb “experience” encompasses the second value proposition from the brand with the idea that you’re not just booking a home—you’re creating a unique experience.
Purposeful verbs can resonate with your audience and make a big difference in how they feel and what action they immediately take.
5. Use “You”
Numerous studies show that headlines that include “you” perform best. In fact, BuzzSumo analyzed one million headlines and found that headlines containing the phrase “will make you” earned the most Facebook engagements.
Referring to your audience directly in your headline can help them feel the impact of the words and see the value proposition as a benefit to them personally.
Try using imperative sentences or working “you” or “your” into your headline. As an added bonus, doing so will help you avoid passive voice.
Tip #5 in Action
Some of my all-time favorite blog headlines come from The Muse. Their blog gives readers career advice: from interview tips to productivity hacks. Partly, their blog headlines are so successful due to their narrow audience and purpose. For example, one of their headlines reads, “3 Reasons You Didn’t Get the Job, But Were Oh-So-Close.”
The audience for this blog post couldn’t be clearer: someone who recently interviewed for a job but didn’t get it. This headline puts a positive spin on a negative experience and promises that if the reader can just fix three things they did wrong, they’ll nail the next job interview. It’s a personal headline, and the reader can’t help but be drawn in.
This headline knocks it out of the park. It follows all the tips discussed above: it has a clear value proposition, it includes an odd number, it’s specific, there’s descriptive verbs, and it has “you” in it.
All five of the above tips have points of overlap, and they can also harmoniously work together to create the best headlines you’ve ever written. Next time you’re writing a piece, try brainstorming a bunch of headlines that hit on the tips discussed. I guarantee you’ll see results. Because headlines have the power to get people to click on a link or keep people on a page, a good headline will have a direct positive impact on your bottom line.