7 can’t-miss tactics for reader-grabbing headlines

Make specific promises, use numerals, ask questions, and put ‘impact’ words at the beginning.

Crafting reader-grabbing headlines

Scan. Dismiss. Scan. Dismiss. Scan. Click!

That’s what your audience is doing today. That’s what we’re all doing today. In inboxes, on social media and on blogs, we scan headlines, dismissing most and clicking a scant few.

Winning that click depends, more than anything else, on the headline. We are all judged instantly and ruthlessly by that high-profile sliver of words.

To help you win more clicks and hook readers right off the bat, here’s advice for crafting scintillating headlines.

1. Make a (specific) promise.

Before any of us click anything, we do a split-second cost-benefit calculation.

Does the benefit of clicking (the value of the content) exceed the cost (two seconds of my time)?

The job of the headline is to tout the benefit and to ensure the visitor that it’s worth it—and to do so in less than a second.

The more specific the benefit, the more likely the visitor is to click. Great headlines make specific promises.

Ask yourself as if you’re the reader, “What’s in it for me?” The answer should jump off the page. If it doesn’t, you’re about to fail.

The ability to grasp the reader’s perspective is the key to headline writing success. That’s why empathy is perhaps the greatest marketing skill.

2. Use powerful trigrams.

Buzzsumo analyzed 100,000,000 headlines to decipher what tends to earn clicks and trigger social media engagement. The research found that certain trigrams, or groups of three words, proved irresistible to readers.

This chart shows the average number of Facebook “likes,” comments and shares for headlines that include certain trigrams.

When any of these trigrams appear at the beginning, the headline is much more likely to spark substantial social media engagement.

Why are these phrases so effective? Well, they all promise specific benefits for the reader, whether educational or emotional. They all quickly create a compelling case for why someone should click.

Of course, your article must deliver on the promise; otherwise, you’re wasting everyone’s time.

3. Use numerals.

List posts are enduringly popular for a reason. Our brains love “ordered tasks,” and we like knowing exactly what we’re getting into before clicking something.

Keep in mind that numerals, not just numbers, are part of the magic. In a line of letters, numerals tend to pop. So, write about “8 things” instead of “Eight things.”

Headlines with numbers aren’t always list posts. Numbers can also be data and stats, indicating that the article is supported by research. That boosts credibility and establishes authority right off the bat.

4. Ask a question.

Question headlines offer two benefits. First, they spark curiosity. The lack of completeness inherent in questions causes tension and interest in readers.

Search is the second benefit. Google focuses on the meaning of a search query, not just combinations of words. It’s called “latent semantic indexing,” which is a crucial component of semantic SEO. The natural language of a complete question helps Google understand how the article is useful.

People are using their voices, not just fingers, to search these days. Naturally, they’re asking complete, full-sentence questions. Complete questions—and answers—help Google connect people to your content.


  • Why do dogs bark at night? 5 dog trainers offer tips for quiet canines
  • Which superhero are you? Take this short quiz and find out

5. Put “impact” words at the front of your headline.

In the mobile inbox, subject lines get truncated after about 45 characters. In search results, title tags get truncated after around 60 characters. Podcast titles have the same issue.

Consider these two very similar headlines:

  • 10 simple communication tips that can help you ace your job interview
  • How to ace your job interview with these 10 simple communication tips

Here’s how they appear in a mobile inbox:

One subscriber sees the crucial “ace your job interview” bit right there in the inbox. The other would have to open the email to see that benefit statement.

Even when truncation isn’t an issue, readers scan headlines from the beginning. So, put those eye-grabbing words toward the front to make them more likely to get seen—and tapped.

6. Write long headlines.

According to that same Buzzsumo research, longer headlines win more clicks.

This chart shows the average number of Facebook engagements based on the number of words in headlines.

This study found that 15-word headlines grabbed the highest average number of interactions.

Consider these examples from viral content sites:

  • It is now legal to breastfeed in public in all 50 states. Just now. In 2018. (16 words)
  • Incredibly unfair: Even though billionaires work way harder than everyone else, they only earn 4,000 times as much money (19 words)
  • Devastating: Kid makes the ‘pull horn’ sign but the trucker accidentally pulls the self-destruct cord (16 words)

I suspect that most marketers have never written a headline that long, but it’s worth a shot. The longer the headline, the more likely the reader is to understand the benefit of clicking.

7. Put the keyword first.

Using the target key phrase at the beginning of the title tag <title> and header <h1> gives it “key phrase prominence,” which highlights its relevance to search engines.

An effective headline works for both search engines and readers. To create headlines that rank and capture attention, use a colon. This lets you separate the search-friendly keyword from the social media-friendly triggers.

Consider these examples:

  • How to research keywords: Tips, competition and squirrels
  • Neuromarketing web design: 15 ways to connect with visitors’ brains
  • Internal linking: 9 best practices for internal links
  • What to blog about: 17 sources of fresh blog topics

See the pattern? Each post is optimized to rank for the phrase at the beginning of the headline (with perfect key phrase prominence), followed by a number or words to connect with visitors’ hearts and minds.

So, here’s a handy formula for headlines:

Target key phrase + colon + number or trigger word + promise

Does it work? Search for any of those phrases before the colon in the headlines above. You probably see the post ranking for the phrase—and you might just click, thanks to the numbers and the benefit statements.

Bonus tip: Write lots; choose one.

Pros don’t write just one headline and call it a day. For any article, you should write a dozen or more to chew on. After you have a bunch to compare and consider, meet with your editor, or get input from a friendly marketer. Choose the one you suspect your readers will find irresistible.

Andy Crestodina is a co-founder and the CMO of Orbit Media. A version of this post first appeared on the Orbit Media blog.


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