Your headlines are the first, and possibly only, impression you will make on a potential reader or buyer. Why should they spend their precious time reading your content? There must be a compelling promise in order to turn a casual browser into a reader. Otherwise, the rest of your effort is in vain. Writing great headlines that will get people interested and engaged in your content is a critical skill.
Rules for Good Headline Writing
First things first, rule #1 in headline writing is:
The main goal of the headline is to get your first sentence read.
The following four guidelines, known as the “four U’s” of headline writing, will give you a basis on which to build your headline writing process.
The four U's are as follows:
- Your headline should create a sense of urgency.
- Your headline should be unique.
- Your headline should be useful.
- Your headline should be ultra-specific.
It will be a rare situation when all four will fit into a single headline, but aim to include at least one or two in each headline. By using at least one 'U' in each headline, you will be more likely to entice your prospective audience to continue reading.
Headlines that convey a sense of urgency persuade people to click through to the article, open the email, or buy the ebook. Adding urgency to the content itself can give readers a greater feeling of usefulness, prompting them to solve their problems or attain their goals faster.
If you must skip any of the four U's, urgency should be the one to get cut out. Being unique, useful, and ultra-specific are much more powerful in the body of content than urgency.
Uniqueness is a significant factor because readers who have seen the same content or advantages elsewhere will be less likely to be interested in your content. Creating unique copy includes everything from your tone and writing style to the actual benefits readers will receive from your content.
This is the most important guideline! If your content has no use to your readers, why should anyone bother reading it? Your copy may be unique, it may be ultra-specific, and have a great sense of urgency - all without even the tiniest bit of usefulness. The uniqueness of your content may get your audience's attention, but it is the usefulness that keeps them reading. By offering a benefit, solving a problem, or otherwise providing value, you give your readers a reason to stick around.
It is, of course, possible for your content to be useful without being very specific. But by making your content more specific, it will have a greater chance of being useful. Be careful though, since it is possible for ultra-specific content to be of little use. This issue arises when your content doesn’t match your audience or when it doesn’t solve the problems your audience has.
Headline Writing: Why More is More
Tim Hurson illustrates an intriguing phenomenon in his book Think Better - one which clearly demonstrates why writing more headlines is better than writing just a few for each piece of content. One of his fundamental points is the revelation of the third third. Let's say you need to come up with 100 different ideas. Studies have shown that these ideas will, in general, fall into three distinct groups:
The first third (ideas 1-33): This section will be the most obvious and unimaginative ideas. They will be the usual concepts and won't express anything unique or compelling. These will inevitably be the least creative in the bunch.
The second third (ideas 34-67): In the second third, the ideas start to pick up, and you may begin thinking in a more creative way. Generating some actual “new ideas.” But many of these "new" ideas are coming from a base of prior information and experience.
The third third (ideas 68-100): Now the last third of the group will embody the best chance you have of creating an uncommon and ingenious idea. This is because, in the first two-thirds, you successfully depleted the obvious ideas, forcing new and novel ideas to rise to the top of your mind.
Build a Better Headline Writing Process
# 1: Write 10 Headlines
The first step is simply to start writing. Write out a minimum of ten headline ideas. It is important to make a habit of each step in order to get the most out of this process. Even when you think the headline you have is good, you must force yourself to write at least ten more.
# 2: Write 15 Headlines
Repeat step #1. This time you will write 15 headlines.
#3: Eliminate The 5 Worst Headlines
Often, choosing which headline is worst is easier than picking the one that is best. Things become clearer when you remove your least favorite options right from the beginning.
# 4: Highlight Your Top 5
What remains at this point will most likely be a few good headlines, several tiresome ones, and perhaps one or two excellent headlines. Choose the five best and highlight them.
# 5: Conduct A Poll
Whether you work with a writing team, have an editor or have some nearby friends or family - show them your list and let them decide which headline is the best. Does it look like your list? Get as much feedback as possible.
# 6: Measure Your Results
A/B testing is a great way to test whether our assumptions are working. Instead of simply picking the headline you like best, pick two and test them against each other. One way to do this is with email headlines. Send out an email with two different headlines and see which gets the best results.
Another easy way to test your headlines is by using Twitter. Send out a variety of tweets with each headline linking to a post; the headline (tweet) that gets the most clicks is the winner.
# 7: Go With It and Learn From It
Eventually, you need to pick a headline and just get on with things. It may be right, and it may be wrong, but either way, you need to move on. Just make sure to track the results and keep learning. The key to writing better headlines is by putting in the practice.