How to write powerful headlines that drive traffic

Headlines aren’t a blog post’s finishing touch, but rather the determining factor in whether people will engage with your content. Don’t botch your greatest opportunity to get clicks.

If you flub your headline, it doesn’t matter how great your blog post is.

Posts with weak headlines get drastically fewer shares, clicks and readers. However, if you get your headline right, you’re halfway to success.

Writing good headlines doesn’t have to be difficult, but every extra minute you spend making them great will pay off. That’s why old-school copywriters (of the snail mail era) spent half their time writing headlines.

David Ogilvy said: “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

Ogilvy might have even underestimated headlines’ value. Your headline might be the only part of your post that people read. Most people don’t read the articles they share. They see the headline, source and catchy image, and they share.

This sharing-without-reading habit makes headlines even more crucial. So, how do you write good headlines?

There isn’t a foolproof process, but these techniques should put you ahead of the pack:

1. Write 25 headlines for every one you need.

This advice is from the king of viral content, Upworthy. The publisher has a fantastic SlideShare titled, “How to Make That One Thing Go Viral“:

This SlideShare emphasizes a number of content creation and promotion principles, but the two major tenets are:

1. Don’t try to make something to go viral. Even Upworthy has only a 0.3 percent success rate for truly viral content.

2. Write 25 headlines. Yes, 25 headlines. No excuses.

Few content creators ever write 25 headlines per article—it seems too darn hard.

I tried it for this piece, and it took me less than eight minutes:

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9. What your readers wish you knew about writing headlines

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13. Why your headline is 5 times more important than the rest of your content

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15. Headline hacks for more effective content 4 minutes

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23. If you only get one part of your content right, make it the headline

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25. 80 percent of content marketing success rests in the headline 7 minutes 20 seconds

Your list might have some obvious dogs, but run each one through a headline analyzer. Two of my favorites are CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer and the Advanced Marketing Institute’s Emotional Marketing Value HeadlineAnalyzer.

Here are the scores each tool gave my headlines:

What do all the numbers mean?

CoSchedule scores headlines on a scale from 1 to 100. That score reflects how long the headline is, whether it’s associated with more or few shares, and several other attributes. A score higher than 70 is good. Headlines that score higher than 80 are strong.

The letter after the number refers to word balance, which, in CoSchedule’s words, is “an analysis of the overall structure, grammar and readability of your headline.”

The Advanced Marketing Institute’s tool works differently. It rates headlines based on industry, and then sorts headlines by whether they’re “intellectual,” “empathetic” or “spiritual.”

Of the two, I prefer CoSchedule. Don’t take either’s scores as gospel, though. They’re helpful for picking headlines, but they provide only educated guesses. The only way to tell what works is to test the headline before you publish or to publish your content and then see what happens.

2. Test.

This example from Upworthy demonstrates the power of a headline test:

If you’re willing to test your headline after publishing a post, try these WordPress plug-ins:

To test your headlines before you publish, try doing so on Facebook. It’s a flawed system, but here’s how it works:

1. Find an existing blog post that’s closely related to your new post’s topic. This will be the link you’ll use in your Facebook ad. Ideally, you should point traffic to a page on your site. If you don’t have a similar post, point to another site in your niche. Choose something close enough that the Facebook ad reviewers won’t disapprove your ad because you’re sending traffic to an unrelated page.

2. Make a “Clicks to Website” ad. Have one version of the ad use the headline you want to test (headline A). Create a duplicate ad for headline B.

3. Select an audience for both ads that closely resembles the audience you want to attract.

4. Start the ads, and watch how they perform over a few days. Pick a winner that’s statistically valid. A simple test calculator like Perry Marshall’s split-tester will do.

Here’s what my ads dashboard looked like for a test I recently ran. These aren’t statistically valid results, but they show what your tests will look like.

It will probably cost you about $20 to test three headlines, one against the other. It will also add time to your headline writing, but it’s worth it to find out which headline gets the most clicks.

3. Use numbers.

Most of the time, numbers in a headline indicate a listicle (e.g., “10 ways to get more shares”). Listicles are popular among content creators, but they have a reputation for being a shallow way to express ideas.

Shallow or not, listicles work. Here’s why:

  • Listicles are easy to scan.
  • Numbers are specific. People want to know what they’re going to get before they click through to a page.
  • Listicles frame information well and make it more digestible.

Many studies show that listicles outperform other content formats and headline types.

From Noah Kagan’s site:

From a Conductor study:

4. Use magic words.

Magic words are “you,” “free” or any keyword for which you want to rank.

Always focus on your readers. If your headline can convince them that the content will be relevant to their lives, you’ll get more clicks. You can see this principle in the graph above from the Conductor’s study. “Reader addressing” headlines got the second-highest engagement.

Readers are your most important audience, but we can’t neglect search engines. Headlines are powerful for search engine optimization. Don’t stuff keywords into your headline, but do include one or two.

Buffer conducted an interesting study a few years ago about which words get the most shares. Here’s what it found:

Of course, these words will change a bit depending on your audience.

Headlines are not a last-minute finishing touch. They have an enormous effect on content’s success, and they deserve more attention than most people give them.

A version of this article originally appeared on

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