One Big Way to Avoid a Headline Fail

FAIL

The other day, we published a headline that failed.

It happens to everyone, even those of us who consider headline writing to be a primary skill.

In this post, I’ll show you one way to avoid a headline fail when using one of the more powerful headline formats.

I’m talking about the “question” headline.

How to Effectively Use a Question Headline

As I said, the question headline is very powerful. When used properly, it creates an almost irresistible draw to prospective readers, no matter how busy they are.

Occasionally I’ll hear someone say that a journalism professor or writing coach told them never to use a question – whether in the headline or otherwise. This is terrible advice, because it’s only half correct.

The true rule is that you should never use a question that the prospective reader can answer with a no. If you ask that type of question, you’ve just failed… because you gave people a reason not to read your content.

The proper way to use a question headline is to ask a question that your readers can’t answer. In that sense, your question (like all good headlines) becomes a compelling promise to the reader that they’re about to discover something they didn’t know before, if only they keep reading.

Let’s look at examples of the right way and the wrong way to use a question, thanks to my own headline fail from earlier in the week.

How We Screwed Up a Question Headline

You know a lot of different people contribute to Copyblogger. And it’s probably no surprise that we assist with editing content from our guests in order to make it as engaging as possible.

One thing we do more often than not is tweak or rewrite the post titles (headlines). This works out to everyone’s benefit, since the stronger the headline, the more traffic to the post and more exposure to that specific writer.

So a couple days ago, we ran a post about backing up your claims with proof by Sherice Jacob. It’s a really solid post, so if you didn’t read it, you really should.

The original title of the post didn’t work as well as we thought it should, so Sonia rewrote it. After that, Sonia queues the post in WordPress for my final approval and publishing.

I look at the headline, read the post, and think, “This looks good.” The headline had a provocative edge to it, which should have helped the post spread rather nicely.

Except it didn’t.

An easy way to gauge the response to a post in real-time is on Twitter. The number of retweets and clicks on the link (via bit.ly) will give you a general picture of how well a piece of content is doing relative to how things usually go day-to-day.

It quickly became clear that Sherice’s post was under-performing, and I couldn’t figure out why. And then it hit me.

A Failed Question Headline (And the Fix)

Here is the headline we published:

Are Your Readers Calling You a Liar?

Do you see the problem?

Taken literally, the answer to this question for most people is simply “no.” As ornery as blog comments can get, it’s likely most people have never been flat-out called a liar by a reader.

But because the content of the post makes it clear that you might not know if people are doubting whether or not you’re telling the truth, the headline wasn’t even a good match for the post. The real killer, however, was the ability to answer the question with a “no.”

Total headline fail.

Later in the day after discussing it with Sonia, we changed the post title to this:

Do Your Readers Secretly Think You’re a Liar?

Do you see why this is much better?

The question can’t be answered, because you have no way of knowing what your readers are thinking unless they tell you. And the use of the word “secretly” adds an additional compelling element that makes it clear we’re talking about something your readers aren’t telling you.

Learn from My Mistake

Even though the title was changed, most of the damage had been done. The email had already gone out, the post had been tweeted, and I have no idea if the title ever updated freshly in feed readers.

So it’s important to look for potential headline fails before you hit publish. Which is what I usually do, but everyone has off days.

And hey… it gave me something to write about for today. Hopefully you find some value in learning from my fail.

Because from now on, I’m covering up all my mistakes. ;)

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger, CEO of Copyblogger Media, and Editor-in-Chief of Entreproducer. Get more from Brian on Google+.

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Comments

  1. Really interesting to see your thinking on this one. I remember seeing that headline and having this little flash of inexplicable (at the time) anger at it… then reading the post and thinking “nice post, shame about the title” :-D

    The “secretly think” version is 1000 times better.

  2. This post rocks. Seeing your mistake and publicly showing what you did wrong and how to correct it is awesome! It is nice to see that even the best make mistakes and how you all make subtle changes to correct them.

    Checking the response a post gets on twitter is definitely a useful tactic, but it has limited scope. Smaller blogs that don’t get a ton of retweets really can’t use that as a gauge.

    For example, if a smaller blog regularly only gets 2-4 retweets, they could reasonably expect to only get 5-10 clicks. The size of the sample is too small to really know (man I hate referring to statistics).

    Are there other ways you can think of for smaller blogs to measure the success of their headlines? Obviously, if they get a huge spike in traffic they nailed the headline, but what about on a day to day basis?

  3. This reminds me of when I ask my kids what they did in school.

    If I ask something like “How was your day?” I get a one word answer and that’s it.

    I guess open-ended questions work everywhere.

  4. Very, very good point, Brian. It’s one of the biggest criticisms I have of most question headlines. The problem, I think, is that people hear this: “Question headlines are good! Use them!” without really comprehending the reasons why question headlines work.

    Thank you for emphasizing this point!

  5. Good point that the question needs to open more doors than it closes.

    I’m so struggling with headlines today, so much so that I can’t get a post out. Happy this article came into my feed.

  6. Brian, this is one of the most useful articles I have ever read about this type of headline. By showing why something doesn’t work, you are showing how a good question headline can work. Thank you for this insight.

  7. Thanks for sharing, and for your humility — as we can really benefit from it!

    It’s tricky how that one word can change the whole effect. I guess headlining is always a work in progress.

  8. Excellent point. I’m constantly struggling with my headlines. After trying to apply the advice I’ve read from others, it’s sometimes difficult to find something that really works. Is the title search engine friendly? Will it grab a readers attention? It’s truly a learning experience. I’m a much better writer now than I was before I started blogging. Thanks for posting Brian.

  9. I noticed the change! I wondered why you did that.

    Thanks for making it a educational experience :)

  10. It’s interesting that this headline came back to “haunt” you, so to speak. I remember reading it and it did spark my interest and I felt it worked well as a provocative headline. To me, the word “secretly” was implied, since the headline was so direct, and most people don’t walk around thinking, “hey, you’re a liar,” so the subtlety was kind of built in.

    I had also been pondering the use of questions in a headline anyway, since I had read that they can trigger spam filters and that one should not have any extra punctuation at all such as question marks and exclamation points.

  11. Wow, I personally am very thankful for your honesty on a mistake you made. It adds a whole new level of credibility to the article. Instead of critiquing other people’s headlines, you go straight to first-hand experience. Just another reason I LOVE this site!

    Keep up the great work!

  12. @Carrie, your take is the one I had in my head, but it didn’t seem to be the majority. :)

  13. It’s definitely better now, but I don’t think it was that bad to begin with. It still zeroed in on a fear people have and triggered an emotional response.

    But it was cool to hear about the behind-the-scenes approval process at Copyblogger. Sounds like a pretty bloated bureaucracy though. :)

  14. Brian, thanks for this. That’s exactly what I thought when I got the email…I said to myself “I don’t think so…” and although I take the time to get to all posts in my queue, that one sat a bit.

    Funny thing is, I still didn’t put 2 and 2 together. I love the fix…easy and actionable.

  15. I do remember getting that one in my box, reading the headline and not clicking or reading the article (and I usually read most Copyblogger articles that come in). Oh, ok, I’ll go back and read it now ; )

  16. @Blake I love the insight you brought to this post. For me personally right now I don’t have tons of eyeballs and tons of RT to know whether the post is a good.

    I’ve got a good question though for you Brian about headlines. Sometimes I have this huge dilemma that pops up because I’ve heard that if you want to be picked up by the search engines you need to have the keywords in your title but a headline with those keywords many times doesn’t sound that interesting or interactive.

    So which would be a better standpoint to write them: SEO or readership?

  17. I really appreciate you sharing your thought process behind that problem. I saw the original title and questioned it myself! Obviously most of us will struggle with writing our titles from time to time and this is an excellent example of thinking through it before posting to make sure we avoid similar mistakes. Thanks!

  18. You are so right about headlines. This post truly highlights the importance of getting a piece of writing, right at the first time. Wrong impressions are never good. Thanks for sharing Brian :)

  19. This was very helpful. Feel free to make plenty more mistakes if it means we get to learn from them like we did today.

    I was just wondering. In your post “9 Proven Headline Formulas That Sell Like Crazy”, formula 5 was to pose a provocative question. There you mentioned that we should prod the reader to answer “Yes” or at least “I’m not sure, but I want to know more”, and one of the example headlines was, “Gotten a Speeding Ticket Lately? Read This”.

    I guess in that case you are using the question to identify your target audience with the promise of useful or helpful information on the subject. Do you still believe that in these cases seeking a “Yes” answer is acceptable or would you recommend using an alternative headline construction?

    Thanks for a very useful site. I only discovered it this week but have been sucking it all in like crazy!
    All the best,
    Tyler

  20. Thanks for the honest sharing on that previous blog post. The original title did not grab me either, as I did subconsciously answer it in my head (and did not click on it in TweetDeck). With only a few words and milliseconds to grab people’s attention these days, titles are crucial to determining how “viral” a blog post may be, and whether or not the casual passer-by will stop and click (and hopefully read).

    Rob – LexiConn

  21. Hi Brian,
    I never gave much credence to headlines in my simplicity as I always felt I my work was descending into tabloid journalism when I did. I learnt the hard way, by little or no traffic to my site. I now actually enjoy comming up with engaging headlines for pedestrian topics, and appreciate that its definitely and art in itself. So much to learn. Thanks again for a great article. Cheers. Jimmy

  22. @aaron – I’m glad my response was meaningful to you. I’ve noticed a lot of blog tips are directed to blogs that already have “decent traffic” (I consider that to be 100-500 unique visitors per day and 10+ retweets which should put you roughly between 100,000 and 40,000 on Alexa ). It is much easier to tweak your page when you have a larger sample to take from.

    I’m no expert, but I’ve read time and time again, write for your readers first, SEO second.

    In my limited experience, I get more traffic from well written titles than keyword heavy titles. The more I read, it seems like inbound “dofollow” links and actual traffic help your SERP more than your headlines.

    I liked the video aspect of your blog. I’ll be coming back.

  23. Blake, that’s a good point about Twitter (and a good reason to concentrate on building a following there).

    I mainly included that so people would understand how I knew the post was performing below average.

    And you nailed it with your answer to Aaron. Alway write for readers first, since that’s what prompts social media sharing and links. In turn, your site’s general domain authority and the authority of linked posts gives you a lot of the SEO equation. You can always “optimize” your title for keywords after you get links and traffic, but it’s a bad idea to do it first.

  24. To your point, I didn’t read Sherice’s post because the headline told me that it wasn’t relevant to me.

    While your revised headline is much better, I think I’d be even more likely to respond to a more positive slant, such as “How to make sure your readers believe you.” Or, if you prefer the question approach, “Are you maximizing your credibility?”

  25. Good article, but I can’t help thinking there’s one more way to avoid a “headline fail”: don’t use über – trendy stuff like “fail” as a noun.

    Every time I see that, I kind of cringe, knowing the 16-year-olds have won.

  26. John, “fail” is a term popular among webheads of all ages, and that’s who a lot of the Copyblogger audience is made up of.

    I don’t hang out with any 16-year-olds, so I wasn’t aware it was popular with teenagers too. ;)

  27. I just learned something valuable today. Thanks for the awesome post.

  28. I suspect 40-somethings use FAIL more often than 16-year-olds.

    That’s my experience, anyway. ;)

  29. @Blake and @Brian: Thanks so much for the info. That’s what I thought you all would say but when you’re learning I want to be sure to ask.

    @Blake: Thanks so much for the compliments on my blog. I really liked the John Chow post. Now all I have to do is research what “inbound ‘dofollow’ links and actual traffic help your SERP” means.

    I love CopyBlogger!

  30. These are great tips. I’ve done this myself, and probably occasionally still do it. After reading this I don’t think I’ll ever forget again though.

    Thanks!

  31. Good to see you post again on your blog Brian. I’ve been waiting for your masterpiece posts like this one. Of course guest bloggers are also great!

  32. I had a journalism professor who said you should use a question mark in a headline only once during your entire career.

    I don’t think he meant it literally, just that you should use it sparingly. When I was a newspaper copy editor writing many headlines every day, I was often tempted to use a question mark because they are so easy to write.

    That said, I agree you should write a question mark headline in a way that leaves it unanswerable by itself, but it’s also good to use it when the topic of the article begs a question, i.e., Are we alone in the universe?

  33. When I first saw the headline in my email, I was not interested in reading it. With the small change in wording, I decided to read it.

    The way that you owned up to your mistake adds even more credibility. Thank you.

    I always look forward to reading the next post from this site; it is in my favorite bookmarks folder.

  34. Great post.
    Amazing how a slight change can make all the difference.
    Thanks for sharing the mistake. We all learn more from making mistakes than getting everything right.

  35. Wow, Brian: brave, candid, fascinating. I’m impressed a chap of your stature can remain all three. Guess that’s how you got there. Great post. Great start to my morning. Many thanks! P. :)

  36. Mistakes always help us to become better at what we do if only we would learn from them. Too many people are conditioned to avoid mistakes and this paralyses them from taking necessary actions. I wish more people would look upon mistakes in a more positive perspective and not be afraid to make any.

    Thanks so much for sharing your mistake and how you learn from it, Brian.

    cheers~

    Mark

  37. While your readers contemplate terrific “question” headlines I would also point out that headlines containing numbers also get high click rates. That’s why you see so many of them on the home pages of sites like MSN, Yahoo and AOL. Let’s take today as an example.

    On the MSN home page with have the headlines:
    >> 5 hot cities attracting young people
    >> 6 tips for making a budget you’ll stick to

    On Yahoo we have:
    >> 4 restaurant slimming tips

    On AOL we have:
    >> Six stocks that may be set for big profits

  38. Haha…yeah I totally remember seeing that headline and then “answering” it an moving right along. Never thought about it in that way, very interesting.

    And I’d much rather hear FAIL over ‘douchebag’ every other sentence… I can’t believe that word is as popular as it is.

  39. It’s always nice when someone owns up to a mistake, even if it only cost you readers! I did read that post and found it compelling, but I remember thinking the headline was a little off-putting.

  40. @Scott, one important point–in traditional journalism, the conventional wisdom is never to use a question as a headline, but in both commercial copywriting and in social media, question headlines are extremely effective.

    As you point out, you just want to make sure the question opens the conversation rather than closing it.

  41. You should raise such question for which your users want to get the answer. They will not respond it if they knows the answer … they will not response if this one is complicated …

    But yes if this is the question which attack common public at large than you will hot jackpot.

  42. Really, really great. I’m happy to say for myself that I spotted the problem immediately. Studying the masters actually pays off!

  43. That’s funny, when I first saw that blog post a few days ago, I immediately felt a dislike for the headline and even thought about NOT reading it. Now I did read the post and think it’s a good one but the dislike for the headline was something that initially stirred unconsciously.

    Good post, thanks for sharing.

  44. Not happy that you had a headline fail, but it is refreshing to see that even the top players have mistakes that they learn from on a daily basis.

  45. I’ve had to educate my co-workers about this very thing. And you nailed it, Brian. When the reader definitively knows the answer, s/he has no reason to pay attention–no matter how interesting the copy.

  46. I wondered about that when I read the first headline – but Sonia always does such a GREAT job – I thought maybe she knew something I didn’t ;) The second headline really nailed it though. Next time we’ll try harder to get it right the first time :)

    Now if you haven’t yet – go read the article – I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

  47. This was a really amazing post, a good headline is one of the main things that will get your blog search engine clicks and therefore targeted visitors to your site

  48. Brian,

    Fourty seven comments and counting! Allowing others to learn from our real mistakes makes for a great blog! I will now question every “question headline” I write and see whether it passes your test. Thank you!

  49. I was not satisfied with the headline of my latest blog post. Was thinking of changing it. Then I happened to read this post. Now I’ll change it for sure. Thanks for the tip

  50. Smart advice that uses a great example to back it up. I think we all procrastinate over a headline far more than we need to. However, as you say, it is vital to getting the attention it deserves and we should take the time to devise titles that produce positive results.
    Thanks Brian.

  51. Both headlines still feel over the top to me, and in a way that is more harmful. Tabloid headlines work, but I wouldn’t recommend them.

  52. Good points here, Brian. And yes, it is updated in my feed reader, just so you know. :)

  53. Brian,

    I loved this post! You are in my head now when I write a headline with a question, or when I send a tweet about my blog post. Great advice!

    Brad

  54. That’s absolutely awesome post. Headlines are very short, but decide whether one reads or just avoid the whole content altogether.
    Good advice, thanks lots

  55. hey brian!!

    the are your readers calling you a liar bit was magic. the stark truth in “NO” as your response was startling.

    one thing i find really helps is to just rewrite the title a bunch of times on twitter but linking to the same article. do this every hour and then settle on the title that works before you send it out to your readers.

    intuition is also super power – but as you pointed out, it def slips up sometimes :) usually just because what sounds cool to us and what works to pull readers iddin’t always the same ;)

    haha

    keep well mate
    alex – unleash reality

  56. This is awesome advise. Thank for sharing. I actually have a Question headline up today so we will see how effective it is.

  57. Definitely some food for thought here. ..
    I didn’t use to labor over headlines because of the notion that in blogging content is king. However, if the headline is a dud the rest of our content can be overlooked. I appreciate your honesty and insights; we all fail sometimes…
    I am working on varying my blog headlines and have found your Headlines section extremely helpful. Thanks again!
    Cheers,
    Elizabeth

  58. Makes perfect sense to me and when I think about it, it definitely applies.

    In fact, just recently there was a post like this on AG and I just marked it read and moved on.

  59. Hey Brian,

    Always love reading your insights; this is a a great one.

    I am amazed that it is so startling to some of your readers though, if there is a first rule in copywriting(or blog writing) it should be in being interesting. Since the headline is the AD for the AD or in blogs the title that provokes an interest to spark enough interest to get a reader to read. Simply following the “AIDA” formula will help any blog writer write better headlines. AIDA stands for attention, interest, desire and action. Your headline should always attract attention and interest. The first paragraph should prove the headline.(Makes me wonder if my comment has already failed… hmmm?)

    I was also amazed that no one mentioned E. Haldeman Julius. I wrote a blog post awhile back on this subject, if you click on my name up above you can read my two cents on it. It talks about how a great copywriter from nearly a hundred years ago sold books through magazines and that the only thing that sold the book was the title of the book. Customers had a choice of 100 titles and they could buy 20 for a buck(my how prices have changed). E. Haldeman Julius wrote a book of his adventures called, “The First Hundred Million”.

  60. Came here from Twitter. Smart, BTW, re-publicising the post by writing about it! One way to fix the fail.

  61. I will use the above tip to avoid headline failure in my articles.

  62. Amazing how that one word “Secretly” changed everything. Blew my mindddd.

    Like Mark Twain said: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

  63. It’s true, the small change made a large difference. The headline just still doesn’t really work, at least not for me.

    You still give the reader an opportunity to say, “I’m pretty sure they don’t”, which was my answer. That won’t make you read more.

    The content of the post is great, but the headline doesn’t match it. Technically it’s fine, but it creates a false expectation that the content is about blogging, instead of copywriting. And in that context most will answer like I did in my head.

    You could’ve used a headline like, “Does Your Copy Feel Like a Lie?”, “Do You Know Why Your Readers don’t Believe Your Copy?”, or even “Do You Know Why Your Copy Feels Like a Lie?” I’d probably use the second one of these. You can’t answer, “I don’t think so”. And you’d have to be a pro copywriter to think that you already know the answers offered in the post…

    Anyway thanks for bringing this up. It’s a great reminder of the importance of headlines ;)