How to write clickbait-free headlines
Writing powerfully effective headlines
Headlines are a serious problem for writers. As the aphorism goes, “If I had had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.” When it comes to writing simple, punchy titles, most writers just don’t seem to have any time to spare.
And yet, most of them are more than willing to spend days pouring over the much longer body of their text, editing and re-editing it to within an inch of it’s life. Why? Because they’re creatives who are madly in love with the generative process and find it satisfying. Headlines? Not so much.
They, and you, should care about headlines, however. Good copy doesn’t sell content on it’s own - headlines do. They’re your first impression with the reader and to “write them in” as it were is to build a beautiful home and forget to construct the door. Give people a chance to come in and find you - give them that first impression that hooks their attention.
Catch them with a title as good as the article itself.
Tricky TACKY titles
How can you go about doing this? Well, let’s begin with how not to do that, which is to stoop low and compromise your personal integrity.
Buzzfeed’s editors might be the post prime example of this. They're the infamous creators of “clickbait," the definition of which is nebulous, but as the adage goes, “I know it when I see it.” They’re typically chock-full of superlatives, numbers, questions, and let’s be honest, are tantalizingly tempting to read. Examples include:
You’ll notice that these titles appear to be linked, but they’re not. If you clicked, c'mon. Pay attention here.
These titles traffic in flagrant dishonesty - which is inherently fine. Some might argue that using them is to participate in watering down our society’s collective intelligence, but free speech is free speech. Do as you will. Mislead others if that’s your jam - just know that by using them you’re mortgaging your reputation and others may hate you for it.
Those who matter won’t mind and those who mind won’t matter
Fundamentally, steering away from clickbait means finding the right balance between attracting readers and attracting the right readers. There is, after all, a huge difference. A clickbaity headline may bring more traffic, but if people come and are disappointed or feel duped, your brand is tarnished and the only thing you'll boost is your bounce rate. If, on the other hand, you find yourself being so explicit about what your article includes (for an example, see any academic paper) in the headline that you leave them no reason to read on, readers won't.
If you’re too far down the clickbait path, step back and say more. If you’re headed down the dusty academic trail, leave a little mystery: say less.
Here’s a chart:
So, what do we actually know about writing amazing headlines?
Two things, really:
1. Long is fine, but front-load the good stuff
Research by CoSchedule, a marketing calendar software, found that articles with titles between 16-18 words performed the best. This flies in the face of the old rule of thumb “no more than 5 words” rule that’s dominated popular belief up until this point, but it reaffirms the same principle that we’ve all learned with evergreen marketing content: longer gives you the room to say what you need to say.
Less than twenty words is still a great feat, however, and the shorter your titles are, the more individual word choice can really matter. “We’ve seen e-mail subject lines where a one-word change increased click-throughs by 46%” says Neil Patel, CEO of Quicksprout, in his guide to writing headlines. “It’s because they’re the first lines of your copy that customers read. They create an initial impression that either pulls draws readers in or pushes them away.”
You’ll also want to make sure that you front-load those key words so that they’re the first ones that readers see. Place them at the beginning rather than at the end. See:
"Maintain your work life balance with these 7 awesome strategies"
"7 awesome strategies for maintaining your work/life balance"
Which stands out more to you? By placing the superlative, the number, and the lesson up-front we’ve made the title vastly more appealing to people who skim through it.
2. The content should be highly relevant
According to Moz, a search analytics software, you should “be as explicit as possible about what your content will and will not do.” That is, if you offer valuable information, tell them what they’re going to gain from it. You can do this without necessarily telling them what it is you’re going to tell them, for example:
“7 ways that psychology can help you vastly improve your intra-office communication”
To find out how to do that, I’m forced to click and read on.
You’ll also want to make sure that you include the key elements to great headlines. BuzzSumo, a social analytics software, identifies them as the following:
- Emotion - Use emotionally charged words like “love, hate, incredible, shocking.” (within reason)
- Promise - Tell them what they’ll gain from the article.
- Format - Tell them what format it will take.
- Content Type - Tell them if there are interesting tidbits like charts, graphics, and statistics.
- Topic - Be honest about what it’s all about.
You probably won’t get them all, but shoot to hit at least 3 or 4 out of the 5 points.
With BuzzSumo’s model, you can achieve both catchiness and relevance and when you do, you’ll start attracting more of the right audiences, even if that’s fewer people overall.
Ready to start writing your own headlines? Here are some of our top performing headlines and further reading!
- Don’t be clickbait
- Long is fine, but front-load
- Make it relevant and catchy