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How to Write a Great Headline That Gives Value, Not Headaches

Charles Samuel

There was a store in New York City in the late ’90s called “99 CENTS OR LESS … and up.” Naturally, the last two words were in the smallest font size possible, juxtaposed against the large all-caps of “99 CENTS OR LESS.”

It was a dizzying eyesore until you really think about it. For the everyday shopper who needed some things at a decent price point, this store had it all. For the discerning shopper who needed stuff for under a dollar, this store probably wasn’t gonna cut it. But that was OK! The store owners had made up their minds about their intended foot traffic anyway.

Headline writing is similar, in that it’s part art, part science. Content marketers have to toe the line between enticing users to scroll down to read—and making sure they’re intrigued enough to stay on the site in the first place. Like those NYC shop owners, it helps to know exactly who you’re after and exactly what you’re trying to give them.

But there’s a difference between a good headline and a bunch of words on a screen.

Promises, promises

Here’s something you didn’t expect to read today: You can learn a little something from infomercials.

No, we’re not talking about the wild exaggerations and first-world problems the products promise to solve. Whatever you do, don’t do that.

What they actually do well—and why infomercials inherently work despite how hard we mock them—is show people solutions to problems. And while it’s true that not everybody has a need for a blanket that’s not quite a coat, enough people do. (Snuggies are still a thing.)

For content marketers, writing headlines that get results works the same way. It starts with the promise you’re making. Start from the buyer persona and zero in on the kinds of things that keep your users up at night. Create headlines that make bold promises, but make sure you overdeliver in the actual content you serve up.

First, identify the problem. Like any good infomercial, your headline should sit atop content that identifies a specific problem. Does your audience want to learn about risk management? How do you get people interested in investing? Articulate the needs of your reader, and they’ll often stick around to hear what else you’ve got to say.

Then, describe the value. Your audience comes to you for a reason. Maybe it’s for your industry authority. Maybe it’s for your sterling digital reputation. Make sure their visits aren’t in vain by articulating what your solution means for them. Will your product or service give them peace of mind? Is it so good that everybody will be getting bonuses this year? Don’t let your readers walk away without knowing how you can solve the problems you’ve already identified.

Finally, give them a clear call to action. Perhaps most importantly, don’t send readers away without giving them work to do. In elementary school, it’s known as homework. In content marketing, it’s known as the call to action (or CTA). Do you want them to visit a branch? Do you want them to download an asset for more information? Your content should always be pushing people forward in their buyer journeys. CTAs do that.

But what happens when every brand out there is making these sorts of bold promises?

Great minds think … for themselves

Content marketers need to think more like Justin Timberlake and less like ’N Sync. We’re not talking about Justin popularizing the frosted tips and wild perms that made the late ’90s a really strange time in human history. We’re talking instead about breaking away from the noise to find your own unique sound.

Put your karaoke punch cards down for a second.

For content marketers, there’s power in cutting through the noise. According to studies, year-over-year growth in unique site traffic is 7.8x higher for content marketing leaders (19.7%) compared to followers (2.5%). Why? Because there are many derivatives but fewer unique thoughts and true leaders. This is true across industries.

When whipping up headlines, don’t just promise what everybody else is promising. Go one step further.

One way to do this is to actually go another step further. If the leading piece of content in your industry brags about the 15 best ways to do something, find yourself a 16th. In content marketing, this method (referred to as the skyscraper technique) has been proven to make an impact on SEO. Beyond that, the impact on a reader is hard to argue. Unless it’s Opposite Day, 16 is greater than 15.

Speaking of SEO, keep in mind the two kinds of headlines that are important to digital content marketing:

  • The title tag. This is the headline you see on search engine results page (SERP) listings. It should be enticing enough that search engine users would want to click through, but make sure it includes your target keyword somewhere at the beginning. The sweet spot is 50–60 characters long, which is when search engines start chopping letters off for readability.
  • The h1 header. This is the headline you see on the top of a web page or blog post. While it doesn’t necessarily have to be identical to the title tag, you’ll still want to make it enticing enough that users want to scroll down and keep reading. Every web page should have only one h1 header, so make it count. Use target keywords to add SEO value, but avoid being stuffy.

When thinking about your headlines, consider what your competitors are doing. If you need to go an extra step or two in the actual content, do that. It’s better to be a leader than a follower in the long run.


Progress beats perfection

Critics hail Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane a cinematic masterpiece. It’s been lavished with praises and awards—even regarded as “the most influential film” ever.

But Citizen Kane is also considered confusing, with critics going so far as to call the story a “labyrinth with no center.” So even though the film won awards, achieved international acclaim, and pushed cinematography and storytelling to new heights, not everybody really got it.

If there’s one thing content marketers can take from Welles’ magnum opus, it’s this: There’s no such thing as perfect. This is especially true for headlines. Considering how social networks reach different audience segments, a headline that works in one channel may not work in another.

When writing headlines, don’t fall in love with the punchy phrase or sophisticated wordplay. Instead, test everything.

Use A/B testing (or multivariate testing) tools to show slight variations in the headline to the different subsets of your site visitors. Then dig into analytics to determine which test drives the most results. Are people engaging with the CTA? Are people clicking through to another page on the site? Are people signing up for the mailing list? When you have a clear winner, test against another variation.

The same goes for social media. Use spreadsheets and the right social media tools to test everything—from headline to featured freezeframe or thumbnail to the CTA.

If Citizen Kane is flawed, your content marketer could also probably have room for improvement. The only way to get real data behind those assumptions is to test everything. This doesn’t mean content marketers shouldn’t trust their guts. It just means that nothing’s perfect, and that’s OK. It’s a combination of quantitative and qualitative efforts that’ll get your headline to drive the results you’re dreaming of.

Here’s how you start

When it comes to writing great headlines, you can start thinking about it now. Take an inventory of the kinds of headlines that have already led to great results. Look at what competitors in your space are doing. Find out what kinds of content your audience is engaging with.

And then go beyond that. Not just with the actual copy, but also with the substance of the content you create. Your readers want value. Give them value in spades.

Sometimes brands need a fresh perspective to laser focus their headline creation and content marketing processes. That’s where we come in. Learn more about how we help brands like yours become content marketing leaders in the digital world.

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