How to Write Headlines That Grab Attention and Convert

Imagine that you conduct a search on Google—perhaps for information on traveling to Iceland, a beginner’s tutorial for learning how to knit, or a healthier version of chicken alfredo. The query returns hundreds of thousands of results. Even though the search engine lists the most relevant results first, you will still need to look through them to determine which will provide the results you need. Your eyes scroll down the list, and you see one that catches your eye.

But why did it catch your eye?

It was a well-written headline.

Your headline is often the first, and sometimes the only, chance to get your target customer’s attention. No matter how great your content may be, if your headline isn’t compelling enough for your prospects and customers to want to click through, it won’t get read or shared.

So what makes a killer title? The most important headline rule is that it should clearly communicate the value your readers will get by reading your content and deliver on that promise. You have to make sure the content is what your readers expected and isn’t just an eye-catching clickbait. You want to leave readers with a positive experience that encourages them to explore your content more.

How do you do that? Read on.

Quick Takeaways:

  • The size of the headline says a lot about its importance.
  • The headline needs to capture the reader’s attention, but not by falsifying or exaggerating the story.
  • Write your headline after you write the article, so that you don’t miss out on any critical points.
  • Make your headline as specific as you can.

What Goes into a Headline?

A headline is one of the most basic (and fundamental) elements of a news story, article, or advertisement. In a fast-moving world, consumers need to gauge whether or not they are interested in your content. If the headline doesn’t immediately pique their interest, they’re moving on. But well-written headlines engage the reader in seconds and make them want to read the story in full.

When it comes to traditional newspapers, the bigger the headline (in terms of font size), the more important the story is compared to others. You will still see this practice employed on some digital sites as well.

In the example above, the article “Trump: Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen is out” is the largest headline of the main three shown on the homepage. It is a breaking news story, which gives it precedence over the other stories.

Sometimes, an article will have a second headline, which is also known as a subhead. This headline is smaller in size than the main headline, and it is meant to provide additional information and support the main headline.

Let’s look a bit closer at what great headlines do for their articles.

In the example above, the article “Trump: Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen is out” is the largest headline of the main three shown on the homepage. It is a breaking news story, which gives it precedence over the other stories.

Sometimes, an article will have a second headline, which is also known as a subhead. This headline is smaller in size than the main headline, and it is meant to provide additional information and support the main headline.

Let’s look a bit closer at what great headlines do for their articles.

What Great Headlines Accomplish

We know that a well-written headline is what is needed to capture your reader’s attention. But you want to do it in a way that is correct and truthful. What we mean is:

  • It is accurate. Don’t falsify the headline just to get readers interested. When they click on the article and discover that the headline doesn’t accurately reflect the content of the article, they will become frustrated and view your site in a negative manner. Continuing such a practice will drive your audience away from the site.You’ve likely heard of or have read a “clickbait” article. Clickbait headlines are usually intentionally misleading or provide little insight as to the content of the article. Correctly implying the contents of the article is just as important.
  • It is quickly understood. Do not make the headline overly clever or so confusing that your readers cannot understand it upon reading it for the first time. You never want your readers to feel stupid or that your article is “too intelligent” for them (unless your brand is meant to come off as a condescending know-it-all).
  • It is written correctly. Few things make a reader distrustful right off the bat than a poorly written headline. Would you trust the contents of—or want to read—an article with the headline, “The top Too Things Your Doing Wrong When Losing Wait”?
  • It sets the article’s tone. Similar to how the headline needs to accurately reflect the content of the article, the headline should also set the tone. Does the article address a serious topic? Is it a light-hearted, feel-good story? A do-it-yourself article?

For being only about 60 to 100 characters—or 16 to 18 words—long, a headline has a lot of responsibility.  That’s why you need to take care when writing headlines for all of your articles. Don’t be BuzzFeed!

How to Create Great Headlines

Sometimes a great headline will break into our minds like a ray of sunshine peeking past the clouds.

But most of the time we have to stare at a blank screen until words start to form.

When writing headlines, keep these points in mind:

Write your headline after you finish your article.
You can’t exactly summarize something that isn’t yet written. While you think you may have something great in terms of a headline (and you might so keep it in your back pocket), you will not truly know until you’ve written everything you’ve wanted to say and edited it a few times. Think of the headline as the icing on the cake: You can’t put it on top until the cake has fully cooled.

Remember the basics.
Any article needs to address the most important details: The “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “why,” and “how” of the story or article. Think about your article in terms of these details and determine which detail is the primary in the article. A murder case, for example, will focus on the “who” and “what” (and possibly where). The when, why, and how are important, and while the article will eventually address these details, they are not the most important.

Be specific when possible.
If you have data to present, including one of the main statistics in the headline could be exactly what is needed to grab their attention.

Don’t give too much away.
Your headline should offer enough information to entice the reader to read the article but not so much that the headline tells them everything they need to know. It’s like watching a movie trailer that gives away all the plot points.

Avoid passive voice.
Whenever possible, avoid using passive voice. Active voice makes the writing stronger. Use short action verbs in the headline. When it comes to verbs, select one that precisely summarizes the action (versus using a close synonym).

Do try to be excessively creative.
If you’re trying to be cute or clever, don’t. If it doesn’t come naturally, don’t force it. Your audience can tell when the headline (and you) are trying too hard, and it will detract from the content.

Use your emotions.
Tugging at your readers’ heartstrings is a guaranteed way to get their attention. If it’s appropriate, consider the emotion(s) that your article stirs up in readers.

Use the TACT Test

Now you’ve written a pretty solid headline—but you’re not done yet. Use the TACT Test, or the Taste, Attractiveness, Clarity, and Truth test. According to Columbia University, the TACT Test is as follows:

Taste—Is the headline written in good taste?
How your audience interprets your headline is important. You don’t want them to be offended because they read the headline the wrong way. Offending the reader will isolate them.

Attractiveness—Does it capture the reader’s attention?
A headline that doesn’t immediately engage the reader isn’t doing its job. It needs to be accurate and stimulate their mental taste buds, enticing them to click or scroll to read the full article.

Clarity—How well does it summarize the article?
An unclear headline is essentially a nail in the coffin: If your readers cannot make sense of what the headline is saying, then why would they bother to read the rest of the article (which may make just as much sense). The headline needs to be easily understood but also succinctly explain the article.

Truth—Does it tell the truth?
Throughout this article, we’ve reiterated how important accuracy is when it comes to article headlines (and content in general) because, like all relationships, trust is important in building your relationship with your audience. If you’re flat out lying to them, they will find out eventually—and they will turn away from your site.

Now, one by one, answer “Yes” or “No” to each question. If you answer “No” to even one question, you need to re-write your headline. Once you do, repeat the test—and do it again and again, if necessary, until you answer “Yes” to all four questions.

Ask yourself — which of these makes a better headline?

Lessons from a 3-Million Headline Study

HubSpot and Outbrain analyzed more than 3 million paid link headlines from Outbrain’s network of 100,000+ publisher sites to find out what kinds of headlines can increase CTR, reader engagement and conversions, and this is what they found:

Headlines That Compel People To Click

Headlines with the word “who” generated a 22% higher CTR than those without it, whereas “why” titles saw a 37% drop. When it comes to getting people’s attention, focus on who and not why when writing your headlines.

People respond to visuals, so it’s probably not surprising that titles with the word “photo(s)” also performed 37% better than those without this word.

Titles with bracketed clarifications, which describe the type of content the headline represents, performed 38% better than those without one. An example would look like this: The Secret to Killer Content Marketing [Webinar].

Headlines That Make People Not Click

The study found that headlines with the phrase “how to” performed 49% worse than titles without it. Titles with the word “tip” also saw a drop in CTR by 59%. Similarly, headlines that used the words “trick,” “simple,” “secret,” “best,” “magic” and “amazing” also saw a decreased CTR.

As well, titles that spoke directly to the readers using words like “you,” “your” and “you’re” performed 36% worse than headlines without these words. Headlines that conveyed a sense of urgency, such as words like “need” or “now,” also saw a decreased CTR.

Wondering why these words are such a turn-off for readers? Their overuse by click-baiters and publishers may explain why these once-popular keywords are ineffective – most readers no longer trust these words when used in headlines.

Headlines That Drive Reader Engagement

Once you have a reader’s attention and click, you want them to stick around and read more content on your blog or site. So what types of headlines can help you do that?

The word “amazing” was a click turn-off for most readers, but surprisingly the study found that using the word scored higher post-click engagement levels for those who do click through. While “amazing” may only be able to attract a smaller audience, they are likely going to be readers who are more engaged.

As with CTR, headlines with the word “photo(s)” also performed 59% better than those without it. As well, titles with bracketed descriptions performed 14% better than those without one. This goes to show that people will click and engage more if your headline is able to provide a clear picture of the value they’ll get out of your content.

Headlines That Dis-Engage Readers

Headlines that use positive or negative superlatives such as “worst,” or words like “need,” “tip,” “trick,” “simple,” “easy” and “secret” have a negative impact on engagement. For example, the words “worst” or “never” decreased page views per session by 59%.

Headlines That Convert

The ultimate goal of content marketing is to get your readers to take some action beyond their initial click, to engage with your content and ultimately convert into a customer. So what headlines can generate more conversions without being overly promotional?

While the word “need” hurts CTR and engagement performance, it actually drives conversion rates up. While it may feel pushy for many, it is what seals the deal for those who do convert.

Bracketed descriptions are also another headline winner, generating 112% higher conversion rates than titles without a description.

The Optimal Headline Length

The study also suggests that, if you’re trying to increase social shares, you want to keep your headlines shorter than 140 characters so they’re tweetable.

If you’re looking to rank in search, you want to use less than 65 characters so your headlines don’t get shortened in search results. You’ll also want to include the most important information early on in our title so readers feel compelled to click through and read.

As with everything else, what works well for one sector or industry may not work for another. You should always be prepared to test, iterate and see what works best for your content.

Start Writing Better Headlines Today!

As readers, we don’t know the time or effort the writer put into crafting the perfect headline for their article. What we do know is that it captured our attention and made us want to read the article.

Writing great headlines can be something of an art; some people just naturally excel, somehow finding the right combination of words to summarize the story. But as with everything, practice makes perfect. So even if you find you can’t write great headlines right away, by continuing to keep the aforementioned points in mind, it will start to become second nature.

Finally, remember to always apply the TACT Test to each headline you write—even those that are “final.” Do not let any article get published without first applying the TACT Test. Whether your article is read or not is largely dependent on the headline that was written for it.

Having trouble engaging and converting new customers? Get in touch for some quick and easy ideas you can try right away!

Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner  is a Top CMO, Content Marketing and Digital Marketing Influencer, an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula" and he is the CEO and Founder of Marketing Insider Group, a leading Content Marketing Agency . He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael helps build successful content marketing programs for leading brands and startups alike. Subscribe here for regular updates.