• Innes McArthur

Headline Mistakes Everyone Makes - And How to Avoid Them

We’re surrounded by dull and uninspiring headlines. Discover the simple human psychology of writing headlines that generate traffic and sales.

The most difficult and complicated part of the writing process is the beginning.”

- A. B. Yehoshua

What was the last great article or post you read online?

What made it so great? What was it about?

What engaged you?

What made you laugh?

There were probably a great deal of things about the article that made you love it. Now scrap it all! ... Okay, maybe don’t really do that.

However, even the most well written articles are rendered meaningless if they don’t have a headline that grabs the attention and intrigue of potential readers.

Before beginning any article or piece of writing, don’t forget the 80/20 rule for headlines. On average, eight in ten people will read a headline. However, only two in ten people actually read the article that follows. Your headline decides whether or not your work will get noticed and read by your intended audience.

A good headline engages and entices those who read it. They want to know more about your article from the headline alone. The only problem is, writing headlines is hard work.

Engage Your Audience

To have your work read, your headline has to attract people to actually read it. That may seem rather obvious to you and me, but so many articles out there have headlines that are dull, unoriginal and just downright boring.

The biggest mistake with most headlines is that they do not engage the audience or give them a reason to read their article. We often see headlines that are crammed full of SEO keywords to the point that the headline is needlessly complex and even intimidating to readers unfamiliar with the words being used.

A good headline is one that engages the audience; boosting your search engine optimisation (SEO) is great, but that doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily get read. Luckily, with the help of these easy tips based on simple human psychology, you can begin writing headlines that will generate traffic and engagement.

Ask Questions

What makes a good headline? What generates intrigue with readers and generates traffic? Want to find out? It’s simple, and I’ve just done it three times - ask questions! Readers find questions intriguing: it makes them engage with your headline and forces them to mentally respond and answer what you’re asking.

However, a good headline question isn’t always a simple “yes” or “no” answer. These kinds of headlines are often too vague and don’t really suggest your article will actually help them.

Instead, your question should generate intrigue and suspense. Make them consider the question you’re asking.

Questions are fantastic ways of grabbing your audience’s curiosity and reeling them in to want to read more. A good question hooks the audience and intrigues them just enough, before leaving them anxiously worried of missing out if they don’t read your article.

Less is More

Did you know that people generally only skim the first and last three words of a headline? It's true! So you’ve really got to make those words count. Your headline’s first and last three words have to tell your reader exactly what your article is about.

For example, included in the first three worlds of this article’s headline is “Marketing Mistakes”, I don’t specify what the mistakes are, but this gives the reader an instant idea as to what the article is about.

The last (admittedly four) words of the headline are “How to Avoid Them”, clearly highlighting the use of the article for those that read it – they would learn what the mistakes are and how to avoid them.

However, while some argue this means the best headlines should be six words, this is incredibly difficult and highly unlikely to manage. Try and write a six word headline and see how tricky it really is.

Ideally, your headlines should be no more than 55 characters, or about ten words. Not only do long headlines turn off possible readers from clicking on your article, they will be cut off on search engine result pages (SERPs) leaving people unaware as to what the article is actually about.

Like much of writing, simplicity is often the best route to take. There’s no point in trying to sound as fancy and well-spoken as you can. Make it clear and evident what your article is about.

Good examples of this include the very popular “How to…”. These are incredibly simple, and the reader knows exactly what reading the article will do for them, it’ll teach them how to do whatever the topic is about.

Don’t try and impress your reader with your vocabulary. They don’t care about that, why would they? Instead they care about what you can offer them, so intrigue them with a headline that lets them know your article is both helpful and useful to them.

Choose Your Words Carefully

What sounds like the more intriguing headline? “Marketing Tips from a Pro”? Or, “Discover These Secret Marketing Hacks for Instant Success”? It’s obviously the second one, right? Both headlines could be used for the same article but what makes the second headline better is its word choice - more specifically, its use of ‘power’ words.

Power words are specific words that are strategically used to create a psychological response and invoke the reader's emotions. Copywriters deploy power words in their work to make readers feel a specific way, usually leading them to purchase something or complete the desired call to action.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of possible power words, each best suited for invoking a specific emotion. You might want a headline that invokes anger at a problem so you can swoop in with the solution like the hero you are.

People are lazy and therefore love headlines that offer quick and easy fixes to their problems. “Fastest way to…”, “Insanely easy life hacks for…”, “Simple trick for…”. These kinds of headlines make readers see your article or post as a service to them.

You are offering a quick and easy solution to the problem(s) they are experiencing. Better yet, your solution requires minimal effort from your reader, making it even more appealing to them.

The best and most effective headlines deploy these power words and utilise the simple human psychology behind language and the emotional responses words can provoke. Give it a try - just make sure that the emotion you try and invoke makes sense in the context of your copy.

Use Numbers

Headlines also prove that you don’t have to be a mathematician to love numbers. Readers love headlines that include numbers and/or lists.

Numbers are great in headlines for all mediums. Why? Because they are associated with facts and attract the eyes of readers who think there is valued information in your list of “best tips for…”.

The use of numbers also appeals to audiences as they know your article will have a clear and easy to follow structure. Most people are busy, they don’t have the time (or energy) to read an article that drags on and has no coherent structure.

However, a list of “5 Ways to Improve Your Headlines” cuts to the chase. Your reader knows exactly what the article is about, as well as knowing the structure will follow a simple numbered list that’s engaging and easy to follow.

As trivial as it may seem, numbers have a great deal of power when it comes to stimulating the human brain and enticing an audience to read your article. A headline that begins with a number will increase traffic by 12-25%, compared to a headline for the same article that doesn’t use numbers.

But what numbers should you use? Well to begin with, for the purpose of headlines, ‘five’ is not a number… it is a word. ‘5’, on the other hand, now that’s a number.

People find the numerical digits of a number far more engaging than that number written as a word. So, avoid written numbers like the plague and always go for the digit(s) instead.

What’s more, a study from BuzzSumo found that the number 10 was the most successful number used in headlines for generating traffic. The use of the number 10 generated almost 10 times as much engagement as articles using the number 30 in the headline.

When it comes to your next article or post, consider how, if at all, you could turn your headline into a numbered list.

Make Bold Claims

Do you ever walk past the magazine section at the shops and see some ridiculous magazine with a headline like “Docs removed my brain for NOTHING!” (no, really, this is a real headline). Of course, you likely laughed at this example… But, aren’t you even a little curious?

Despite how nonsensical these headlines sound, they are written to attract readers through their shock factor alone. Providing your readers with a completely outlandish headline leaves them wanting to know more and increases the likelihood that they click on your article.

However, if you are writing business related content, then I obviously don’t recommend a gossip style magazine headline such as “I Swapped a Bowl of Pasta for a Baby” (again, yes, this is real). But that doesn’t mean you can’t make bold claims and introduce a shock factor into your headline.

The most common examples include headlines like “Become a Millionaire at 30!”. Bold, opinionated and controversial statements are sure fire ways to generate clicks and traffic to your article. However, that does not mean you have free reign to blatantly lie and offer clickbait headlines.

Use bold claims cautiously and always use some form of evidence and proof to your claims. Exaggerating is fine, if you can back up your statements in some way. Lying and writing clickbait headlines that don’t relate to the article however will result in you losing your audience and reputation.

Putting it all together

By all means, I don’t recommend you try and tick all of these boxes for a single headline. You have to make sacrifices based on what it is your article is actually about. Trying to use each of these tips just isn’t feasible and the headline, and purpose of the article, would become incomprehensible.

If you can combine just a few of these tips then your headline should generate more clicks and increase traffic to your articles in no time. If you’re trying to write a headline but not sure if it is any good, try one of the many headline analysers that are available online.

A personal favourite of mine for headline analysis is by isitwp. Each headline is scored out of 100 (anything above 70 and you're looking good). They also show your scores within specific sub-categories, explaining how you can boost your overall score. Try and draft 20 different headlines you can use and find out which scores the highest.

Time to Start Writing

A good headline is an engaging headline. That’s rather obvious, but what makes an engaging headline? The simple psychology behind language and the way we use it, is the key to writing an attractive and enticing headline.

When writing headlines, consider to yourself, would I even click on this headline? If not, why? What about it would make it more enticing to you? The chances are, a headline that entices you, is also enticing to your target audience.

Don’t forget to use the tips and tactics on how to use language to engage your audience in all of your headlines. If you do, your articles will stand out from the crowd and draw in an intrigued audience naturally.

Remember, you don’t have to use all of the methods provided but using as many as is appropriate ensures you have the best chances of generating traffic and increasing the exposure to your article or post.

So, why not get out there and start writing headlines for articles people actually want to read? Nothing is stopping you!

Want to find out more marketing tips to boost traffic, engagement and sales? Check out our blog for more!