How To Write Great Headlines in 7 Steps

Before the days of iPads, laptops, and AI writers, writing great headlines required the very specific skill of counting.

write great headlinesLetters had value based on their size. Uppercase letters were 1.5 while lowercase letters were 1. Wide letters like w and m were worth 2 and thin letters like l, t, i, and j were worth .5. Every printed piece had an identifiable space dedicated to headlines and columns determined by the designer. The designer then communicated that info to the editor who created the headline and copy based on the available space.

Fast-forward about 600 years and we can now edit type and design with a few clicks on a mouse. One thing that remained the same is the need for the headline to fit the space provided. Today we have more spaces provided with social media, blogs, email, text messages, websites, etc. but they all need great headlines that fit their respective space.

Headlines that fit their space get the best results.

Here’s a guide to help you write great headlines that get results.

1. Identify the brand purpose for conent

Content marketing is a strategic placement of content specific to a campaign or objective. The purpose of the content can be all of the following and much more.

  • Enticing an action: to click or to open something
  • Encouraging a read, like, share, or follow
  • Improving on-site or off-site SEO
  • Increasing search engine rankings for more traffic

How every many reasons there are, pick the most important one and craft your headline and URL around it. Headlines can also have secondary and tertiary uses so be mindful to multipurpose. 

2. Detail the audience for the piece

Your content should always be intended for your target audience, so when thinking about your headline how can you speak specifically to that audience?

While you may be tempted to write to a general persona, i.e. anyone reading your content, remember our first step of purpose and instead write directly to your targeted niche audience for greater impact. 

A letter addressed directly to you has a greater chance of being opened than direct mail addressed to current resident. Here another example:

Imagine that your target audience is first-time homebuyers with little money to buy a home. An article about first-time home buying programs with zero down offering paid closing costs would be a great start.

The marketing purpose of the article would be to get e-newsletter recipients to click and get to your landing page with all the details. You should format the headline to speak directly to these first-time homebuyers who have already subscribed to your newsletter looking for this type of information. Your subscribers may or may not be ready for this information at the time and that’s ok. It’s your job to entice them by saying how they could benefit and stoking their curiosity: 3 Programs That Offer You Down Payment and Closing Cost Assistance.

If your article’s marketing purpose was SEO, then your audience could be people unfamiliar with your brand but seeking information on the topic. An SEO-targeted headline for the same article would speak to your audience and anyone generally looking for information of this topic: First-time home buying with zero down.

When you connect your audience to the purpose of your branded content that’s called winning.

3. Understand why someone would consume this content

It’s important to consider how the article will be viewed and what would make it attractive to readers.

A lede is the introductory part of a news article that hooks a reader to want to know more. It convinces them to stop, look, and explore. It reveals the article’s value and can be entertaining, educational, or actionable. So at this point, your lede explains unique attributes of the article.

Be creative. They need a reason to read your article in a sea of similar content, but this is the crux of how to write great headlines.

When you search for information, millions of results appear and let’s face it, most people don’t journey beyond the first page. If headlines are similar then viewers will most likely click the very first result thinking it’s the best. Let’s assume your article isn’t at the very top of these search results. What makes them click on your article is a great headline with a detailed description that stands out from the rest.

If we refer back to our earlier example, if a first-time homebuyer with little money was searching for information on buying a home on a budget:

how to write great headlines

The first headline doesn’t really speak to the first-time homebuyer ready to buy a home soon. The next two are vague and aren’t really enticing for a person that’s ready to buy. The last one, 4 Tips for Buying a Home on a Limited Budget, speaks directly to the cost-conscious homebuyer that ready to pull the trigger to get a home.

Now that you understand purpose and how to tailor content for that purpose you’re ready to take the nexts steps to write great headlines that make headlines.

4. Keep it accurate

Yes, we had to add this one in the mix because apparently people post fake news or false information on the Internet; can you believe it? Some do it to polarize society or the sensationalize content or for no other reason than they have no credible sources. Hear me now. Always be sure that your headline is accurate in fact and sentiment.

Even if you don’t see immediate results, one day they will find you and because you served them truth loyalty will be your reward.

5. Pack a punch

Powerful headlines have:

  • Clear benefit to the audience
  • Both familiar and unexpected words
  • Active verbs
  • Clear concise language

Let’s revisit the first-time homebuyers example with these headlines:

  • How to Buy Your First Home With No Downpayment or Closing Costs
  • Homebuying: Tips for the First-time Homebuyer in Today’s Market

The first headline is strong and directly addresses the need of the target audience in a clear concise manner. First-time homebuyers instantly realize the value of this content, (buying a home with no downpayment or closing), and it speaks to their budgetary needs which further sharpens the hook.

The second headline speaks to a much broader audience which can be a good thing in some cases but here we are learning to write great headlines. It doesn’t call the reader to take an action. This headline could easily be archived or forgotten all together. Many articles can provide tips on home buying but not every one will show you the specifics of how to do it while saving thousands on down payments and closing costs.

Work and polish your headlines until they develop a luminosity that draws people near. It needs to be short, powerful, and intended for your audience.

6. Use your voice

Your headline should read in your brand’s voice, reflecting it’s values and benefits clearly. Is it funny or more structured? Do you keep the audience at arm’s reach – third person or in your inner circle – second person?

IKEA’s vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people – for customers, but also for our co-workers and the people who work at our suppliers. It’s website states, “We may have come a long way since our humble beginnings, but our vision remains the same: to create a better everyday life for the many people.” 

This voice is reflected in headlines used to explain more about their company culture:

  • We’re all in this together (About Us)
  • Shared passions: The key to success (About Us)
  • One brand – many companies (About Us)
  • How will we create happy homes for the future? (blog)

Your brand voice has it’s own frequency – resonate that in your headlines.

7. Go before a sounding board

While A/B testing is amazing, it’s a live test and you want to be able to test before you publish. If you can get feedback from your team or a select group of readers you’ll have even better results.

You can ask:

  • What do you think the content is about?
  • Would you click on this headline to read more?
  • Why?

The answers that matches your original intent are keepers.

7 check marks for great content marketing headlines

Writing powerful headlines isn’t easy and is even more challenging when content marketing is the goal. The headline must speak directly to the audience using your brand’s voice in a clear, concise, and powerful  manner in order to accomplish the business goal of the published piece.

Get that right and the intended marketing purpose for the content will be fulfilled. Your headline with resonate your voice and pack a mean punch. This will not only attract your targeted audience, but it will keep them coming back for more.

That, is the formula for any great headline.


Reico is the owner and team member of The Applied VIsual, website design and development company. He is also available on Twitter @AppliedVisual

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