If you’re reading this article, you’re either a member of my family, or you were intrigued enough by the headline to click on it. There is only one goal for headlines when you’re writing articles. It’s to get the reader to click on it. It’s not to sell a product, make them laugh, or make them think how clever you are. The goal is the click. You need to get them through the door, then you can attack them with sales messages, charm them with your wit and clarity, whatever.
It’s great when you find a headline style that works, but when that style is misleading, or just like everybody else’s headlines, is that really what you want? If everyone flocks to the same style, surely it will lose its impact sooner rather than later? Surely, if you want to provide value to your audience, you owe them more than clickbait headlines?
100 million headlines
A recent article from Buzzsumo is making waves in the article-writing world. Here’s a link to it. Read it as soon as you’ve finished here. Buzzsumo analysed 100 million article headlines and discovered, amongst other things, phrases in headlines which received the most social engagement (likes, shares or comments). The top 3 were:
- will make you
- this is why
- can we guess
‘will make you’ is the runaway winner, gaining more than twice as many engagements as the runner-up. Here’s an example:
It’s clear why these phrases work in headlines. They promise the reader they will receive something that will impact their lives. They created an emotional response. They provoke curiosity. There’s no doubt these are effective phrases to use in headlines.
The Coschedule Headline Analyzer devised a formula for effective headlines, so you can type in a headline and it will give you a score. You can tweak the words until your score is at the maximum.
Data like this is interesting and useful. Data tells us which words work in headlines. As a result, expect to see more of those words. Expect every online publication you visit to list articles consisting of ‘will make you’ or ‘this is why’ headlines. I mean, why would you write anything else, when you can use the top-performing words in the English language?
There’s a downside to this, however. If every headline is designed to get a big score on Coschedule, by definition, they’ll be very similar. If headlines become a blob of ‘will make you’s’, the words will lose their impact. Readers will tire of seeing the same headlines and will want to click on something different.
Also, in so many articles, the headlines are misleading. How many times have you clicked on an article that promises something, but doesn’t deliver? That article you clicked on that promised to ‘make you feel things’. Did it really?
While this style of headline is very popular at the moment, it can’t last forever. What will replace it?
I hope that headlines become more honest in their language, more descriptive and less exaggerative.
This article from Smartblogger shows how some writers have made headlines that are extremely effective, but subvert the ‘will make you’ and ‘can we guess’ style. They use descriptive language, unusual words, even shock tactics to get you to click. I mean, who could resist clicking on:
- Choose to be outstanding (or choose to continue to suck)
- Marriage isn’t for you
- SEO is dead. Link building is dead. Your pony is dead.
(Again, after you’ve finished here please.)
Why do we have to underestimate our audiences? Why do we have to go for the lowest common denominator? Why can’t we credit our readers with some intelligence?
We should always aim to be honest with our audience, and provide value. We should be able to write a headline that performs well without resorting to gimmicks. We have the power to stop our readers in their tracks. We can stand out from the crowd, rather than follow it.
How I do headlines
My responsibility as a copywriter is to write material that works for the client, first and foremost. However, I believe the best way to do this is by driving forward standards of communication. (Pretentious? Moi?)
I have developed a regimented system for producing articles. I wrote an article about it here. I’ve also written a longer eBook on this, called ‘You Can Write Anything’, which you can get free by registering at my site.
My style is direct and to the point. My headlines are the same. They refer to what’s in the article. They don’t promise without delivering. I let the reader draw their own conclusions without telling them what to think. Sure, some of my headlines are in the ‘how x does y’ style, but I do make sure I tell the reader how ‘x’ does ‘y’ by the end of the article. My process may be regimented, but my output isn’t.
At the moment I’m learning a lot about Facebook ads, Clickfunnels and other state of the art channels, as I attempt to grow my copywriting business. I’m not sure how I’ll proceed with them yet, but one thing is for sure, I won’t be stooping to the level of the lowest common denominator.
I’m lucky. My clients (startups, entrepreneurs) and their audiences wouldn’t want that anyway.
Whatever business you’re in, it’s best to be yourself. Generic clickbait headlines will never be my style. I’m comfortable with that.
Headlines matter, but we should always try to aim higher.