The 5 worst headline habits that kill marketing ROI

If you are going positive rather than negative, or if you fail to convey to your audience how an article or email will benefit them, you’re missing the boat.

No matter whether it’s a sign in Times Square or a fast-paced social media network, headlines compete for attention in a crowded landscape. Make sure your headlines grab more attention by breaking the worst headline habits.

Here are five terrible headline habits that may be hurting your bottom line, with expert advice on avoiding these mistakes:

1. Your headlines are too pushy.

The content aggregation service Outbrain conducted a study on headlines. The survey says headlines perceived by readers as pushy get up to 20 percent fewer clicks than those perceived as less pushy.

What makes a headline pushy? According to Outbrain, using words such as “you” or “your” or any verb that tells the reader they “must” or “should” do something is too pushy.

A study from MyPRGenie says journalists and bloggers are especially resistant to pitches and headlines that seem pushy. Although 66 percent of journalists and bloggers say they use press releases in their work at least once a week, more than 70 percent say pushy headlines and subject lines will earn a fast trip to the recycle bin.

2. Your headlines are too focused on the positive.

Another Outbrain study, headlines with negative superlatives—such as the headline on this blog post, which contains the word worst—outperform those with positive superlatives such as always or best.

Compared with headlines that contained neither positive nor negative superlatives, headlines with positive superlatives performed 29 percent worse and headlines with negative superlatives performed 30 percent better.

The big news in the study however, is that the average click-through rate on headlines with negative superlatives was a staggering 63 percent higher than that of their positive counterparts.

Econsultancy‘s Chris Lake looked at the handful of articles that were responsible for more than 10 percent of 22 million page visits over four years on his company’s site. He found that violent words like kill, dead, fear, war, and battle are common in Web content with high volumes of social shares. So are headlines that use vibrant words such as brilliant, fails, horrifying, ultimate, and kickass.

Wondering how to work words like that into your marketing content? Take a look at these headlines for some examples.

  • On a headhunter’s blog offering career tips: “Don’t Kill A Promotion With Social Media Disasters”
  • On a tweet from a bakery: “Horrifying Holiday Menu Mistakes That Can Ruin a Party”
  • On a landing page for a sales training company’s webinar: “10 Ways to Avoid Winding Up Dead in the Sales & Profit Wars”
  • On a PR consultant’s email pitch to prospective clients: “7 Brilliant Holiday PR Strategies that Failed Miserably”

3. You don’t consider long headlines.

Every writer knows search engine optimization (SEO) is a job requirement. One of the first rules drilled into a writer about SEO is that headlines should be shorter than 70 characters (60 is better, as headlines longer than that can be truncated in search results), with at least one keyword.

There is good reason for that rule. But sometimes a longer headline can pack a more powerful punch than a 60-character headline. So, look at your analytics before you decide to throw out the rules. If your highest-traffic content has longer, higher impact headlines, then use them.

Headline length matters, according to that Outbrain study cited earlier. It says that a review of 150,000 English-language headlines promoted by Outbrain, 16- to 18-word headlines performed better than shorter or longer headlines. The study says the highest click-through rates for content come with headlines that are about 100 characters in length, and that headlines shorter than 60 characters don’t perform as well.

4. You don’t give your headlines enough attention.

The prestigious Columbia University School of Journalism has an online tutorial on headline writing that includes this quote from Abilene Christian University Associate Professor of Journalism Dr. Merlin R. Mann: “The importance of headlines cannot be understated. … Headlines are far too often written last (often quickly and under deadline pressure).”

Starting with a working title is one way to give a headline the attention required to deliver the needed impact. Famed copywriter and ad man David Ogilvy wrote that a working title written that summarizes the main point of your story should be written first. “Then go back afterwards, to make sure it reflects the entire message, and conveys that point in a fresh way that will grab the audience’s attention.”

It’s not enough to write headlines that are just OK. They must be strong enough to continue to generate traffic week after week, and even year after year. For instance, Dallas PR consultant Deb McAlister says that three articles on her personal blog continue to draw hundreds of site visitors every day, up to three years after they were originally published. The three top traffic-hogging headlines on her blog are:

What those headlines have in common, she says, are among the simplest headline writing techniques to use. “Two of the three include numbers. I don’t know why, but ever since Twitter started, tweets that include numbers and links in them get more shares and more click-throughs than tweets without numbers. And all three focus on things people are afraid of: being sued, getting into trouble with the government, becoming the victim of a scam.”

5. Your headlines don’t give people a reason to pay attention.

Forbes contributor Jayson DeMers wrote that the biggest headline mistake copywriters make is forgetting the benefit to the reader. “The reader is going to use the few short words in your headline to decide whether the next 40, 400, or 40,000 words are worth his or her time. So if you forget what the benefit to your target audience is when you’re writing your headline, you won’t get the results you want.”

In his article, DeMers uses his own business as an example. He describes a 30-minute process to write a headline that might go something like this:

  1. Start with a working title that tells a specific target audience what the benefit for them is of using your product or service. For his business, that working title might be something like “3 Techniques for Instant Search Engine Rankings Boosts in the Law Industry.”
  2. Focus on the benefit more closely by asking a question. In this case, the question might be, “Why are search engine ranking increases important for lawyers?” Then refine your headline to something like “3 SEO Techniques for Lawyers to Attract Customers and Leads.”
  3. Finally, once the first draft of your copy is finished, look for the most powerful summary you can write that tells a prospect exactly how he will benefit from what you have to say. That got DeMers to his final title, “3 SEO Tools That Lawyers Can Use to Attract New Clients in 30 Days.”

The more specific the benefit is to the prospect, he says, the more likely they are to click through and read the content.

A version of this article originally appeared on MyPRGenie.

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