The Single Most Important Thing Your Headline Must Do

Important

Imagine you’re going through your RSS reader and skimming the headlines as you sip your coffee, thinking about the busy day ahead.

You have an early presentation, lunch with Sue, a meeting at 2:30 and a call at 3:10. You promised the wife you’d pick up chicken for supper and then there’s that new DVD you wanted to grab on the way home.

You’re skimming the list and just one headline reaches out and grabs you.

  • “Plane passengers survive shaky landing.”
  • “Teen sex dropping. Parents relieved.”
  • “How a cashier stopped a train with her bare hands.”
  • “Vacation spotlight: Tahiti.”
  • “NHL receives award of excellence.”

Which of these headlines would tempt you to click through?

If you’re like most people, number three — the train headline – is the one that earns the second glance. You might pause. You might wonder what the situation was, or how the woman stopped the train. You’re probably pretty curious about the story.

You might even read.

And if you did, whoever wrote that headline was the winner of the moment. Because that’s the purpose of a good headline — to snag someone’s interest and keep them reading. They have to want to know what’s to come. They have to be curious enough or compelled enough or be interested enough to continue.

Less teen sex doesn’t really get it.

But stopping a train with bare hands? That’s pretty amazing. How did that happen? What happened? Who did it? And Why? Was she scared? Did she save someone’s life?

There’s a promise in that headline. The promise of something good to come.

We know there’s going to be a great story. We suspect we might even learn how to stop a train with our bare hands ourselves. We feel that we’ll be more entertained, more informed, smarter or better off in some way than we were before we began to read.

The NHL receiving an award is a story too. So are those relieved parents — they have a story. And the people on the plane? They have a story they’ll probably never forget.

But those headlines didn’t make a promise. They delivered facts. And worse, each gave the full story in just a glance. We didn’t have to read more to know what had happened. Nothing tantalized us. Nothing teased our interest or attention. We already had what we needed.

Boring headlines are a mistake. They don’t convey any benefits of reading more — not even entertainment value.

That train one, though . . . we’d discover a secret! Knowing how to stop a train might come in handy one day. It sure would be a great bit of trivia for the next party. “Hey, I know how to stop a train with my bare hands!” We’d learn something, get the scoop, maybe even impress people at the office. “Did you hear about that cashier? The one who stopped the train?”

If you want people to keep reading, then you need to promise them something in return. Don’t give it all away at the start. Do intrigue people with your headlines. They should tempt the reader, like irresistible bait.

Hook readers with a promise, and then close the deal with your content.

About the Author: James Chartrand is the author of The Unlimited Freelancer. He can’t stop trains with his bare hands, but he can pen up great words faster than the speed of light. Check out his blog at Men with Pens.

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  1. Great article James. Thanks for the advice.

    BTW, how did she stop that train? :P

    Igor

  2. I too am interested in knowing how she stopped the train :-). Anyway, great thoughts, as usual, on headlines,

  3. Great article! I’ve honestly never thought about headlines this way.

  4. Great tip, it pretty much boils down to headings that slap you in the face as opposed to a Google optimized title, i find myself targeting what people would search for to get to my article in order to get the search advantage.

  5. It can’t be that hard to write something attention grabbing about a woman stopping a train with her bare hands, but what are you supposed to do when your story isn’t a downright miracle?

    I can’t simply sensationalise the mundane, look where that’s got us.

  6. Great stuff, James… as long as the article DELIVERS on its promise. I’ve seen some sites that use somewhat misleading attention-grabbing headlines, and they lose my attention over time.

    The other question is CONTEXT. In the particular context of the other headlines, I picked #3 as well. But you want to see my email box. Imagine Headline #3, multiplied 100 times a day, and you get the idea :)

  7. Zhenya, ask yourself… what prompted you to read this article?

    Although it pains me to say it, articles about writing headlines are not the sexiest thing in the world.

    And yet, people are reading, retweeting, commenting…

    Why is that? ;)

  8. @ Igor/Amrit – I love how your questions prove the article a little bit. I’m grinning… and I’ll tell you later ;)

    @ Kelly – Thanks!

    @ Luqmaan – When I sit down to Google, I always type in exactly what I need for the moment. “How to unblock a toilet.” “Ebook on productivity.” “Kid-friendly recipe.”

    And the links I’ll click are the ones that promise me what I’m looking for. “How to unblock a toilet painlessly.” “The single ebook that boosts productivity.” “Kid-friendly recipes your kids happily eat.”

    @ Zhenya – Who says you need to sensationalize anything? Headlines aren’t sensational – they’re promises of something that benefits you. Period. And they’re there to get people to read the story.

    @ Paul – Yup. You need to deliver on the promise, that’s a given. (See what I wrote above about toilets.)

    But, as Jon Morrow reminded us in his post Don’t Do These Mistakes When Writing Headlines this week, you should never blend in.

    @ Brian – Oh come now. You make headlines a sexy, sexy thing, you beast.

    ;)

  9. You said “But those headlines didn’t make a promise. They delivered facts. And worse, each gave the full story in just a glance.” – That seems to be the key here, with the “winner” headline (and yours for this post, too). Both good headlines ask a question – to answer it, you have to read the story.

    The other headlines answer the question, so there’s really no compelling reason to click/read.

    Nice thought – thanks for sharing!

  10. You’re right, and though I knew the answer would be the train headline, I’d personally go for the “shaky landing” one. Why? Well, you don’t get news stories about routine shaky landings (which happen all the time) so it must have been something newsworthy and I’m a real sucker for anything air-disaster related..

  11. Awesome post James, plus your headline sucked me right in! :)

    Now, the woman and the train, is their an end to that story?

  12. I learned how to write headlines as a newspaper editor. The stories that get read the most are the ones with the best headlines. One of my favorite headlines ever written was “Train derails, spills the soybeans”. Any idea what happened in this community of 5,000 residents that blocked traffic for a full day?

    You are absolutely right that a headline must promise a benefit. It need not sensationalize. It must get the reader’s attention. People read because they want to get something out of it. So give it to them. Entertain. Inform. Shock. Whatever. But make the promise in the headline.

    Very well written, James. Kudos.

  13. An excellent point, James, thank you. Where could I read that ‘train’ article? I’m dying to discover what happened!:))))

  14. “How a Canadian Stopped a Zhenya With a Headline”

  15. Loved this post – it got me thinking about another key to writing a great headline:
    Understanding the motivation/pain point of the reader. Nothing captures attention quicker than promising a benefit specific to the reader or market. This may apply a bit more to direct response sales copywriting but I believe it still applies.

  16. Great topic and great commentary about powerful headlines. In a future post, could you give us some examples of how to turn the other four headlines into attention grabbers?

  17. Oh dear! Please tell me I’m not the only person who didn’t want to click that headline. Does that make me dumb or a great radical thinker?!

  18. I rated this 5 stars James.
    And I passed your test :-)

  19. I follow you on twitter, so it follows that I’d be interested in what you have to say, which is why I clicked the link, but the person who wrote the Tahiti headline may work for the tourist board and be trying to communicate with people that haven’t signed up to hear about it.

    I completely agree with Paul about delivering on the promise, and it’s very important to make that distinction which is all too often misused for commercial or political gain.

  20. @ Zhenya – I’m planning a vacation right now. I have clicked around aimlessly on tons of those types of headlines as above and been so disappointed every time. The ones that get me the most?

    “Relax and let these 10 city hotspots take care of you.”

    Yeah? Which cities? Are they close? How will they take care of me? Are they around the world? In one province?

    Just an example, but you see the point. Boring, feature oriented and factual doesn’t get my interest.

    @ Poch – Wait until the next test. Twice as tough ;)

    @ Mike – That sounds like a trick question. Kind of like math. They said there wouldn’t be math involved…

    @ Stan – If you know my pain and can solve it for me, I’m so there. Yes.

    @ Shane – Not just *any* Canadian, mind you… ;)

    @ Allen – Mm, “train derails” gives too much of the delivery up front. How about “How Soybeans Shut Down a Whole Town.”

    Wow, lots of comments… okay, I give up, save for two:

    @ Cath –

    * “Plane passengers survive shaky landing.”

    “What It Feels Like When You Think You’ll Die.” (Ew, morbid, but effective.)

    * “Teen sex dropping. Parents relieved.”

    “Three Reasons Parents are Cheering While Teens Go Without.”

    * “Vacation spotlight: Tahiti.”

    “The Vacation Location that You’ll Talk About Forever.”

    * “NHL receives award of excellence.”

    “Why Excellence Can Be Found at The Arena”

    All whipped up on a dime, but so much more effective already, no?

  21. On the other hand, if every news article in my RSS reader had headings that made me click through I wouldn’t have time to do anything. Really quick, scannable headlines are great for someone like me to absorb what’s going on in the world without having to spend my whole life reading! If people are interested in your subject, they’ll click through. If you’re (effectively) tricking people to read your article… maybe your article isn’t worth reading (to that reader anyway)…? Controversial! ;o)

  22. Great use of “Single”, “Most” “Important” and “Must” in that headline :-) It clearly worked because I clicked through from Twitter … and I generally read posts when I’m going through Google reader.

  23. I don’t know. The first headline was got my attention. Stopping a train with hands sounds bogus or like some softy article not worth reading.

  24. “Vacation spotlight: Tahiti.” grabbed my attention more. I guess it had to do with the fact that I haven’t had one for a long time. But stopping a train with your bare hands did pique my interest.

  25. I believe some articles are easier to write headlines for than others. I’m well convinced of this.

    For example… if you have a list post, these are the easiest posts to write a high quality headline for. The reason is simple: List headlines are inherently attention grabbing.

    “10 Ways to Drastically Improve the Clarity of Your Writing”

    So I think Zhenya has a legitimate point. Some articles by virtue of what they cover, are easier to write great headlines for than others.

    I’ve found this true in my experience.

  26. #3 was the headline that most stood out for me, but I have to say that I would not have clicked on it, because it sounds like a wily deception, and there’s too much of that going on – I’m tired of dishonesty, cons, misspeaking, and sensationalism.
    Give me the truth in plainspeak – that would be refreshing, not boring. I like a good hook, too, but hooks that promise and don’t deliver with the real goods are like a person who has to smother his food in spicy sauces, because his taste buds no longer deliver authentic flavor.

  27. James, you’re thinking too much like an online copywriter. There is not a 1-to-1 correlation between headline writing for print newspapers and online business blogs. For one thing, my audience at the newspaper would have already known that the town had been shut down, but they may not have known why – it was a weekly community newspaper, after all.

    With online copywriting for business, your headline has to serve as a call to action – “Click here, read me” it should say. With news writing, the promised benefit is different. The writer isn’t trying to make you money or increase your productivity; he is trying to inform you on events happening that might affect your life (or already have). In that regard then, the promised benefit is “know what is happening in the world that is affecting your quality of life.”

    The two are similar, but different. In your example, you gave a good case for No. 3, but if I was planning a vacation to Tahiti then I might click that link based on interest.

  28. @ Allen – Considering Copyblogger has “Copywriting Tips for Online Marketing Success” as a focus, I’m curious why you say I’m thinking too much like an online copywriter…

    Isn’t that the point?

  29. Your last line is the critical piece: you’ve GOT to close the deal with your content. How many times have you read a great headline only to find you were entirely misled? For example: Headline: “How a cashier stopped a train with her bare hands.” Content: “Cashier by night, conductor by day, Sheila stopped the train from running off the track by pulling the hand-brake. Now, check out our new train set for kids, only $19.99!” Great headlines are great headlines when the content supports it.

  30. Thanks again for more great information to think about as I write my blogs, my email campaigns and everything in between. Today my team and I are trying an email campaign to a list we have already emailed to…with a NEW HEADLINE! I am very interested to see what comes of this new email to the same people and thankful for the tips!

  31. No doubt, a great tip.

    But I have developed a habit or you can say it is the need of articles that one or two words come repeatedly in the articles of my blog. As my blog is more concerned with tech, softwares, websites etc, I often use “download”, “Free” etc in the headings. I am very worried about it.

    Would anybody tell me the advantages and disadvantages of this thing?

  32. I actually didn’t find the “How a cashier stopped a train with her bare hands” headline compelling. The reason being, it’s too sensationalized for me. It kinda reminds me of the headlines in those “3 headed 14 year old gives birth to a Llama” type publications – unbelievable.

    I do think you need to be careful to avoid your headline being too unbelievable. Even if your content backs it up, if a person skips over the headline because it’s too over the top it won’t matter how good your content is.

    Having said all that, I do agree with what you’re saying. It’s an area I’m working on myself (I’m learning to be more killer and less poet). Thanks James.

  33. I agree James might have hurt his case just a tad with the train headline, but otherwise it wouldn’t have been easy to pick and the point might not have been made as effectively.

    And it is about the point, right people? ;-)

    If you want a less sensational example, look at the headline that got you to read this post.

  34. This is the best headline article I’ve read so far on Copyblogger (and I’ve read them all). Sure, the train headline is certainly sensational (too outrageous and something I’d never click), but I get the point.

    So neatly summed up when James says: “There’s a promise in that headline. The promise of something good to come.”

  35. I appreciate the idea of not giving everything away. I tend to try to come up with catchy headlines, the problem there being I often disregard any mention of the real topic in the title. That is something I am trying to get away from. If I’m guilty of anything else, it is definitely giving it all away before the show starts. Very enlightening.

  36. Nathan Hangen :

    James,

    Spot on and this is something that many people tend to forget. We rush the headlines trying to get to the content.

    I think your last line said it best though, we absolutely MUST deliver on that headline.

  37. I just re-read Brian’s top 10 headline template article (through a link on a CB post earlier this week), and was reminded of some great ‘draw-the-crowds’ headlines.

    It’s amazing what a few wording changes can do; I watched my subscriber numbers just rapidly yesterday simply by including the word ‘secret’ in my headline. And following up with the goods of course!

  38. I agree with Paul that misleading headlines are a pain. Great article, headlines are the entry point to any content!

  39. I find it funny that so many people disagree with the use of the train headline as an example.

    I don’t think James is advocating writing false or half-truth headlines just to attract readers. He’s simply making a slightly exaggerated point about what grabs readers’ attention. And it’s okay to exaggerate, because most people will get it.

    Well, I got it, anyway.

  40. Nope, the sex one got me.
    “Teen sex dropping. Parents relieved.”

    Maybe it’s the sex word.

  41. @ James I was referencing your suggestion to rewrite my news headline …

    Kblockquote>@ Allen – Mm, “train derails” gives too much of the delivery up front. How about “How Soybeans Shut Down a Whole Town.”

    Yes, the point of your article was right on for online business writing. I agree with it completely.

    @ Suzannah It even so much an exaggeration as it is just appealing to readers’ curiosity. The idea is to pique an interest without giving away the full story. That’s what gets people to read.

    @ Brian And, yes, the headline of this article is perfect. I read this article even though I knew what the answer was going to be. But when you Twittered that people were missing the point, I decided to come back and comment. Good follow up.

  42. Is it just me or has Copyblogger kicked it up a notch? This week is the first time I’ve been compelled to bookmark these posts (totally out of my niche).

    Well done team!

  43. I always finding blog posts on titles really helpful because it is the one thing I procrastinate over the most. Thank you for the examples you use. It’s easy being told what to do but showing a difference between those titles that work and those that don’t is always much more helpful.

  44. You took the words right out of my mouth! Concise and very helpful!

  45. Great article followed by excellent comments. I appreciate the discussion b/w @ Allen and @ James about the difference b/w newpaper and online headlines.

    As a newspaper guy, I often find myself reverting to more descriptive headlines. The point about online headlines needing to make a promise (and the need to deliver with excellent content) was well taken.

    Thanks for the great insights.

    Steve DeVane

  46. It’s one thing to have a good story and a brilliant headline. @Allen: I love that headline:)

    But here’s another to play with words and disappoint your reader. When I read a headline like that I suspect there’s a trick and most of the times, that’s true. And I don’t like to feeling of being tricked into reading a story. And I certainly don’t want my readers to feel so.

  47. Great article, as usual.

    I agree that number 3 is an eye-catcher, and at the same time my guard went up.

    At some time, any one of those headlines would have had me open up to see what was inside. It all depends on what’s going on inside my head at the time.

    It really goes back to knowing your reader and then giving them a compelling headline.

  48. Nice article – but I think there are two ways to write titles. One if you are a general freelancer, then maybe you can get away with the train example headline. These are the types of titles I wrote when I was journalist.

    But if you are a “marketer” then I think your headlines need to entice with a benefit or raise a question. People interested in information in that niche will click on titles that offer that.

  49. @Allen has the same problem that I have… he gives people too much credit.

    You may think everyone in the community “knows” about what happened, but in reality, it’s probably not the case.

    And even if they do know what’s going on, mentioning the event should be enough to get them to read the article because it’s big news.

  50. this is a great way to demystify headlines. I’m going to remember this post when I work on my next headline. Nice.

  51. Fantastic article – I have seen improved headlines make a huge difference to both click-thru rates and conversions.

    Maybe you could also mention the CONTEXT of the headline – is it in a list of competing headlines clamouring for attention – like your example ? Or is it on a page with a product shot, some product information and a clear next move ?

    Then there is the definition of SUCCESS – is it to get attention and get traffic ? Or does success mean getting the *right* people to the next stage – people who actually want some product or service and are going to pay ?

    And don’t forget the INTENT of the visitor. I flip between different modes when looking at news headlines: a blonde persona when I want to be entertained – I would definitely go for the ‘cashier’ story. A serious style when I want news about the economy, foreign affairs, government plans. A tech worldview when I read anything and everything about new gadgets and software.

    Its got us all thinking and talking which ain’t bad. :-)

  52. Compelling headlines vs. SEO Keywords?
    Which makes the cut on a consumer blog that’s designed for marketing?

    My vote is for compelling/sometimes humorous/clever headlines and work the keywords into the body copy.

    What is your experience and data to support one view or the other?

  53. That’s a great way to put it–headlines should be like bait. I also like to look at the as a promise. I think people can sometimes get out of control and try to write something sensational just to get a click through. If they don’t deliver the “solution” or the “entertainment” in the content, they lose all credibility. I used to have yahoo as my start page and every article they post is something like: “Celeb loses 40 pounds…see who it is…CLICK HERE.”

    Obnoxiously begging for a click through is bad form. There has to be a pay off.

  54. Personally I prefer to lean towards compelling over seo, after all there are other ways to build your seo, but only one headline to get your readers hooked!

  55. Lol. So how did he stopped the train??? :)

    I see your point, and I’m relieved to know I’ve been doing this trick even before I’ve read this post. Nice.

  56. @London Joe, I’m of the same mind. People first, search engines second. If the content’s not enticing and the headline is boring, it doesn’t matter what your pagerank is.

  57. I read here about how to create title and I selected one which create curiosity and such kind of title works everywhere. At least such titles will force people to click and want to see what’s there …

    Once they are in … your writing is the second important thing which will keep them busy and keep coming as well.

  58. I’m with The Story Woman and Sami. #3 is too much like a sensational tabloid headline. Granted it is compelling, but when you read the actual story, it has nothing to do with the headline. That to me is deceiving. The principle of appealing to people’s curiosity factor is what I have to keep in mind when writing without being deceptive. Perhaps that’s why I have such a difficult time writing compelling headlines! LOL!

  59. WOW, this really made a difference. Reading Copyblogger, I try to implement one piece of advice per new post I write and this one turned out great results. You’re so right when you say that your headline has to promise more to come. I’d been giving away the whole story in my headlines before, so no one was curious enough to click to read more. Thanks James!

  60. Agreed that clever headlines attract readers, but what about the real balance of a witty headline with SEO. Yes, you can find interesting ways to address SEO, but consistency with article (and, subsequently, page) titles might prove better with reader searches.

    I view online reading in general (and remember that “in general” part before getting out the flamethrowers) geared more to specific needs/interests and less with reader serendipity, where interesting wordplay would triumph over bare-bones, all-facts headlines.

  61. This is a fantastic article, James. And I’m with Cathy on the suggestion that a follow-up article could highlight ways to transform the boring headlines into compelling ones — your off-the-cuff examples in your comment reply were simply terrific.

    Obviously, the point is not to create artificial and hyperbolic headlines, and equally obviously, it doesn’t matter which headline people most responded to. The point is to make a PROMISE with the headline (something the reader will benefit from knowing), and then deliver on the promise in the article.

    It’s a simple point we’ve heard many times, but your article is a brilliant example of exactly what you’re preaching. Thank-you!

  62. It is a good idea to use language in your headlines that capture the general mood of the media that day. If it’s a sad day (death of a political figure, for example) try to tie into that sentiment.

  63. What an amazing article! Thank you for sharing this with us Brian, you’re a genius in this niche!

  64. I used to write catchy headlines for my articles, but then started ready all the SEO stuff and got away from it. Now google is putting the slap down on a lot of SEO tactics and I find it is much better to just go ahead and write the catchy title and just include the keyword.

  65. Gerlaine, you’ve got the two most important things for a headline: Get their attention and use the keyword. That’s how online headline writing should be done.

  66. If I only knew how to stop a train with my bare hands? I got it the headline needs to grab the readers attention to want to find out more details.