Five Common Headline Mistakes and
How to Avoid Them

Magnetic HeadlinesWriting a great headline means crafting an enticing invitation to a prospective reader. It’s not the whole story, nor is it an attempt to convince anyone to do anything other than to keep reading.

That being said, it seems you can’t move two pages on the web without tripping across a poorly-crafted headline. While many contain one or more necessary elements, other factors are often left out of the headline, diminishing the overall power and draw of this critical aspect of your copy.

Here are five common mistakes that people make when writing headlines, which also serve as checklist items for you to take into account when crafting your own.

1. No Reader Benefit

No communicated benefit for the reader, no readers. The expressed benefit does not have to be some over-the-top, unbelievably fantastic promise. It only needs to be relevant and worth the time investment required to keep reading.

How to avoid: Ask yourself “what’s in it for them?” If the headline doesn’t tell you, it’s missing a benefit.

2. Lack of Curiosity

Even if the headline contains a benefit, often it’s not presented in a compelling fashion. Piquing the curiosity of the prospective reader adds that little extra something that engages the reader’s imagination. Curiosity must be coupled with benefit, or you may simply manage to cause people to wonder what that was all about as they move on to something else.

How to avoid: Does your headline make you have to know what the promised answer is? Use questions, numbers, challenges and statements that compel the prospective reader to explore the beneficial content you’re offering.

3. Lack of Specificity

Headlines that lack specificity are short on clarity, and general statements and unsupported claims are often deemed untrustworthy. The power of specificity is one of the reasons that the “list” headline is a mainstay among copywriters and bloggers. The format itself forces you to provide specificity, which the reader in turn responds favorably to.

How to avoid: Use variations of the “list” headline, use words like “this,” “these,” “here is” and “here are” to refer specifically to your content, and also use hard numbers and exact percentages when appropriate.

4. Lack of Simplicity

Have you ever seen a headline that tries to say too much? It becomes a story instead of a teaser that leads you into the content, often while trying to communicate multiple concepts. In short, it loses the reader and fails miserably. Simplicity if one of the most important aspects of effective communication that resonates with readers, and this is especially true with headlines.

How to avoid: Stick to one concept, eliminate unnecessary words, and use familiar language.

5. No Sense of Urgency

Some headlines make you want to read the content, but you decide to put it off until later. And then you often never get around to reading it, right? Headlines that contain the above four elements should also create a sense of urgency and prompt the reader to act immediately, but there may be a way to restate the headline that works even better.

How to avoid: Check to see that items 1-4 above are truly present. If so, try reworking the headline to make it more compelling without stepping too far into hyperbole. If all else fails, examine the premise of the content itself. Is it really “need to know” information?

There are certainly other ways to sabotage a headline, and I’ve likely tried them all. But when you lack one of the above five cornerstone elements, your odds of a successful headline are immediately diminished.

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Comments

  1. These are the kinds of posts that I love your blog for Brian. They are simple, focused on a specific topic, have a clear benefit for me, and full of compelling sentences that make me read the whole thing.

    Sounds like you write your posts exactly like you write your headlines.

    Great job!

  2. There’s only one more!
    which makes things really complicated!!!

    writing for seo! :)
    keeping this equilibrium i think is the real key to succes!

    webee
    is a design blog

  3. AGain, I noted all the points as a checklist. Great article. I have a suggestion though; you could have followed each point with an example and things would have been crystal clear after the first read itself.

  4. Yep, I considered providing examples as I was writing, but was hampered by time constraints. Perhaps a follow-up post will help. Thanks for the feedback!

  5. Thanks for the tips! I’m just starting out so this is at least pointing me in the right direction.

  6. Ohh comeon, that is the least I can contribute to the great resources you are building up [:)]

    Keep going man.

  7. Even without an example, you provided great solutions.
    A bit OT, any reason the number five shows up in the title of your popular posts so much? 4 out of 10 right now.

  8. Because “5” works. ;)

  9. I need to print this and put it on my wall where I write.

  10. Hi Brian,

    I truly love this post. It’s simple, effective and a potential linkbait!

    Frankly, I say that point #1 is extremely important. Unless the reader ‘percieves’ any value in the headline and is not convinced of the value in the coming post, he might just move on. So, the magic is not only to create the perception (by a wonderful headline), but also the credibility (to convince the reader of the value in the post).

    Cheers!

  11. Very good post Brian. PS- IS this a good headline? I’m a graphic designer, btw, this is my sales letter intro:

    Business Owners:

    “Would You Love the Chance To Turn Your Money-Wasting, Plain Ordinary Advertising Into The Extraordinary Kind That Puts More Money Back In Your Pocket?”

  12. THIS post is why you’re da man !

    Actionable and simple.

    You know I like simple.

  13. I might add a bonus tip to this great list of headline writing mistakes, Brian. “Lack of credibility” – though you touched upon it in #1. I find myself increasingly annoyed and frustrated with the shrill, hyperbolic spew.

  14. That is a really good point Roberta

    I believe catchy headlines without the content is one of the worst things anyone can do to his/her site. The visitor will almost never come back and will avoid your site actively.

    I recently did a post on “How to boost your blog’s credibilty”. You might find it useful

  15. I take issue with the following in headlines:

    How to avoid: Use variations of the “list” headline, use words like “this,” “these,” “here is” and “here are”

    Those aren’t headline words; they’re filler. Of course you’re talking about your content- it wouldn’t be a headline if you weren’t! Use the limited words in your headline to describe the content, not to point out where your content is- that’s silly.

    The title of this post itself is a fine example, actually- it describes what’s present in reasonably succinct fasion; it doesn’t say “Here are five…” or “These are five…” or the like.

  16. always use what’s known as “traction” devices, words that prolong excitement.

    So rather then “Death comes from Blogging” use “Blogging can Kill You”. Why? Well by saying the result first (Death), you already disclose what’s going to happen, whereas the second headline makes the reader have to view the entire headline to get the result. So if they read the second headline, they owuld instantly see blogging..but they would have to read to the end to see what comes about through blogging.

  17. Alina Clotzea :

    Very useful! Great job!

  18. It’s reasons like this that this blog was added to the “must read” list for new bloggers.

    Also I msut say I like this comment box – it’s very nice to use.

  19. “Five common headline mistakes and how to avoid them” seems pretty bland considering, no?

  20. It’s not about fireworks Tvh2k, it’s about the right message for your target audience. People who think they have to be exciting and outlandish all the time often end up writing bad headlines.

  21. I take issue with the following in headlines:

    How to avoid: Use variations of the “list” headline, use words like “this,” “these,” “here is” and “here are”

    David, it depends on the headline and the context. For example, here’s one of the most famously effective headlines from the golden age of mail order:

    “Do you make these mistakes in English?”

    The use of “these” creates an almost irresistable urge to see what the mistakes are. It’s not “do you make mistakes,” it’s do you make “these” mistakes.

    That level of specificity works, and it’s not filler. It’s absolutely critical to the effectiveness of that headline.

  22. Good post, but it would be even better if you gave a “good” and “bad” example of each.

  23. Brian,

    Great post – I’ll be zapping this one over to the publishing company where I used to work.

    I’d be interested to get your opinion on a similar article I wrote for SEOmoz’s UGC section

  24. Great stuff as always, Brian. I have to say one of the things I grapple with is that I have this inclination to write headlines the way some of the more entertaining of the sub-editors have done for years. Puns, etc. Recently I read somewhere that on newspapers which want their stories to rank well on search engines there is pressure on sub-editors to incorporate relevant keywords in their headlines. That in turn, it was suggested, is leading to a blander, less interesting style of headline. Would be interested in your comment on that.

  25. Nice article. It’s funny how much a heading can increase readership. Some say you should spend as much time on your heading as outlining your article.

    Personally, I write the headline first, draft up my article picking subheadings at the time, and then revisit the headings before I publish.

    It is a fine art and I still look back at postings and regret my wording or choice of keywords.

  26. Lawton, try this. Instead of

    “Would You Love the Chance To Turn Your Money-Wasting, Plain Ordinary Advertising Into The Extraordinary Kind That Puts More Money Back In Your Pocket?”

    use

    “How to stop wasting your advertising dollars.”

    They don’t want a “chance” to do it, they want to know *how* to do it. (Reader benefit)

    They’ll want to know whether my article will talk about reducing their ad budget or improving its effectiveness. (Curiosity)

    It’s about a line-item on their budget. (Specificity)

    It’s much shorter than yours. (Simplicity)

    If they’re going to “stop” wasting money, it’s about correcting a an ongoing problem. (Urgency)

  27. I like it Drew!
    Lawton, yours was a bit long for a headline, which kind of made me lose focus on the message. But I’m no expert in these things, which is why I read all of Brian’s posts.

  28. Drew and Aaron thanks. I need all the advice and help I can get. An other resources u enjoy besides the all-knowing Brian? I read dan kennedy and john carlton. Though, their courses hurt my wallet. :)

  29. I’d like to add to that list and say that “marketers often donot preview their subject headlines in major email clients and see if the headline would be displayed in full or trimmed off”

  30. Your articles are excellent ! At times I have had some success by using wordtracker to develop key phrases! Your head lines also lead into well written decks !

  31. I think you should also write information people are looking for.

  32. I posted a headline on Sunday that read: “I Tried to Kill Myself Today”.

    It was referencing a game that I found on Cartoon Networks website called “Five Minutes To Kill Yourself”. It is a fun game and if you read the copy to my post ( http://www.artrogue.com/blog/i-tried-to-kill-myself-today ) you would immediately know that it was a joke.

    Unfortunately I had some friends that saw the headline and almost had a heart attack.

    It did generate traffic, but I probably shouldn’t have done it.

  33. nice post. i really can benefit from the tips above.

  34. I almost always re-write my headlines. I think I have found the good set of guidelines when creating deadlines.

  35. So much helpful information, thanks!

  36. Good article ,but what about search engine listing because that depends on keyword selection

  37. it’s really great!!!

    i love it!!

  38. WOW… Did I need this information very badly, and I thank everyone for their input. More than useful – Educational!
    No criticism or complaints here. I can always use others opinions. Happy Holiday Greetings to all!

  39. Thanks for the simple guide to what should be in a headline. It’s handy to have as a reminder!