Five Rules for Writing Headlines to Beat Your Goals

The Headline is the Content

By R. Michael Brown

When so many are trying to make viral posts or become Web or YouTube stars with content marketing, the fundamentals of headline writing have been lost in the rush to be (in)famous. Here are five essentials that will help you create better headlines:

  1. First and foremost, try to get self-interest into every headline you write. Not YOUR self-interest, the audience’s. Make your headline suggest to the readers that here is something they want. This rule is so fundamental that it would seem obvious. Yet the rule is violated every day by scores of writers.
  2. If you have news, such as a new product, or a new use for an old product, be sure to get that news into your headline in a big way.
  3. Avoid headlines that merely provoke curiosity. Curiosity combined with news or self-interest is an excellent aid to the pulling power of your headline, but curiosity by itself is seldom enough. It becomes clickbait. This fundamental rule is violated more often than any other. Almost every content marketing website contains headlines that attempt to sell the reader through curiosity alone.
  4. Avoid, when possible, headlines that paint the gloomy or negative side of the picture. Take the cheerful, positive angle. That’s rare in today’s gloom and doom Internet.
  5. Try to suggest in your headline that here is a quick and easy way for the readers to get something they want.

In using this last suggestion be sure to make your headline believable. Here is the headline of an advertisement that was tested by a school:

This seems to sum up in a few words what people have wanted ever since the world began. Yet the advertisement did not bring many replies, probably because the headline was unbelievable. It seemed too good to be true.


What We Learned from 752 thousand Facebook Ads. Five Rules for Writing Headlines
Benefit: You’re going to learn it too. Five Rules for Writing Headlines

A Winning Headline that Delivered

One of the best headlines I wrote while at Motorola in terms of analytics:

My Boss Quit Today – Now I Need a New One

The open rate, click rate, and email replies were incredible. Traffic to the web ad blew the analytics over all other content.

Why did this work? Because it was written by an employee that would work for the boss – a surprising perspective. It was true (my awesome former boss left). It didn’t sound like a help wanted ad. And the payoff, self-interest for potential candidates of a creative media group, was up front and unique.

Best Boss Ever. Being a Boss is Easy
My Boss Quit Today – Now I Need a New One

Additional Aids to Headline Writing

Here are a few other aids to headline writing that have been proven by actual tests.

  1. Author James Patterson started life out as a copywriting and eventually became CEO of J. Walter Thompson – a top ad agency. His formula for writing an ad or piece of marketing content is: “Tell them something surprising, then tell them something smart.”
  2. A sensible point of view to take in writing a headline is this: Try to decide what would make you buy the product. Actually try to discover in your own mind what argument would make you, the the headline writer, part with good money in order to buy the product or service you are advertising. Then express in a few words this reason for buying. That is your headline.
  3. Do not try to make your headline so short that it fails to express your idea properly. Brevity in headlines may be an excellent quality, but it is not so important that all else should be sacrificed for it. It is more important to say what you want to say — to express your complete thought even if it takes 20 words to do it.

Awesome Examples

Take some inspiration from great iconic ads. You may not be writing ads, but perhaps your content should use the creative nonfiction techniques of these ad writers.

Porsche Ad. Five Rules for Writing Headlines
Want a Porsche or something a mere mortal would aspire to drive?
Apple Macintosh Ad. Five Rules for Writing Headlines
Flipping the surprise.

For Inspiration, See Communication Arts

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Communication, public relations, & marketing consultant, freelance writer, media producer, and speaker.

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