How to Write a Killer “How To” Article That Gets Attention

image of magnetic headlines

Picture your blog post being retweeted thousands of times on Twitter, and shared all over Facebook. By the time you finish reading this article, you’ll be in a better position to make that scenario a reality.

It’s no secret that “how to” articles and blog posts are some of the most sought after, linked to, and bookmarked content online. People want useful information, and they’ll reward you by promoting it to others when you provide it.

The biggest battle is getting enough people to read in the first place. And that battle is won or lost at the headline. What’s more, writing a killer “how to” headline will help you write even better “how to” content when you fulfill the headline promise you made to get people to read in the first place.

It’s All About Benefits

The crazy thing about the popularity of “how to” content is the fact that people don’t really want to learn how to do anything else.

They’ve got plenty to do already, thank you.

But it’s exactly due to the crazy busy lives we lead that prompts us to seek out tips, tricks, and methods to make things better, easier, and ultimately happier for ourselves. Focusing on the “better, easier, and happier” is the key to great “how to” headlines and content.

It’s not that people aren’t smart enough to understand the implied benefits of learning how to do something. It’s quite the opposite, actually. It’s just that implied benefits don’t prompt action like express benefits do.

People smartly employ aggressive attention filters when scanning headlines, and you’ll get through the filters of a lot more people if you spell out the benefits rather than relying on implication. Plus, body content that focuses on benefits as well as procedures is more emotionally engaging, which leaves the reader feeling better satisfied at the conclusion of the piece.

It’s been said that it’s almost impossible to write a bad “how to” headline. That may be true, but what comes after those two magical words can make all the difference in the amount of attention and readership your writing gets.

Let’s take a look at the structure of a few famous “how to” headlines, and see if we can’t figure out why they work and adapt them to new situations and content.

Double the Benefits, Double the Power

This may be the most famous “how to” headline ever:

How to Win Friends and Influence People

Before Dale Carnegie’s classic book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was conventionally published, he sold it by mail order with that same title as the headline of the sales letter. Certainly Carnegie’s content was compelling, but that headline is brilliant all by itself.

The headline structure is powerful. You’ve got benefit number one right after “How to,” with another benefit following the word “and.” Simple, right?

Deceptively so, as copywriter David Garfinkel has pointed out. There is a subtle relationship between the first benefit and the second that suggests if you can achieve the first, you can automatically achieve the second.

In this case, that implication doesn’t make sense — lots of people have friends and yet are completely lacking in influence. But that cause-and-effect relationship still likely helped Carnegie achieve greatness with his home-study course, and later with the ubiquitous book.

It’s much smarter from a credibility standpoint to use this structure when benefit one and benefit two are actually related. Here’s a few examples that Garfinkel gives in his book:

  • How to Save Time and Get Things Done (Time Management Coach)
  • How to Get a Better Job and Make More Money (Recruiter)
  • How to Save Money and Retire Rich (Financial Planner)

The dual benefit “how to” structure will always work if you logically link the two together and deliver relevant and substantive tips with your content. Give it a try.

How to [Mundane Task] That [Rewarding Benefit]

It’s often harder than you might think to extract the true benefits of learning how to do something. Often, you can simply take a normal “how to” title and make it better simply by using the transition word “that” immediately following the subject matter of the tutorial.

Once you add “that,” just ask yourself what the top benefit of your tutorial is. Then figure out the best way to say it (which usually means being as specific as possible).

  • How to Get a Mortgage That Saves You Money
  • How to Get a Mortgage That Cuts your Monthly Payment in Half
  • How to Get a Mortgage That Gets You in Your Dream Home While Saving You $937 a Month

Leaving Out the “To” Works, Too

Want to increase the curiosity factor of your headline, while just about guaranteeing that you’ll nail the primary benefit of your tutorial? Start with “How” but leave out the “to.” You’ll still be making a beneficial promise to your reader that will be fulfilled in the content, but the intrigue factor will be higher and your results perhaps even better.

Let’s look at these famous headlines:

  • How I Improved My Memory in One Evening
  • How I Made a Fortune With a “Fool Idea”
  • How a New Kind of Clay Improved My Complexion in 30 Minutes

Those are pretty intriguing headlines, right? Likewise, let’s say you’re a brilliant techie who has just solved a problem that affects millions of computer users, and you’re aiming to light up Hacker News for a week.

How about this?

  • How One Easy Tweak Makes Windows Crash Proof

Then again, that article faces the rather steep challenge of being impossible to write.

In Summary

The more you focus on the benefits to the reader in your headline, the more readers you’ll have. And by touching on the beneficial aspects while laying out the procedural content, you’ll have more happy readers at the conclusion of the piece.

And then they just might retweet your article. ;)

This is the fourth installment in a series of posts called Magnetic Headlines.

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Comments

  1. As a longtime newspaper and magazine editor I am enjoying your “How to Write Better Headlines” posts.

  2. You’re a copy genius, thanks. I applaud, plug, and link your blog whenever possible!

    Beth Cole, webservant
    proimpact.com

  3. Great article.

    Quick note: The Amazon link does not work (you’re missing a revenue opportunity).

    Will check back and purchase from here as a micro-token of appreciation for the excellent content on this site.

  4. Thanks Rhea and Beth. :)

    Dharmesh — whoops! Fixed, and thanks for the heads up.

  5. Awesome tips, thanks mate.

  6. Thanks for putting this one up. One of the bests posts I’ve read in a while!

    - Bryan
    http://www.BryanCFleming.com

  7. Thanks for the examples! I have to say that this is the best and most useful post I’ve read in a while – I usually fade out if I have to scroll. Brilliant – this I can use!

  8. Ann, I promise to try and keep them shorter… the length of this one surprised even me. :)

  9. Great advice about promoting benefits. It reminds me of “benefit marketing.” You are not selling toothpaste, you are selling white teeth.. or as the founder of Revlon supposedly said:

    “”In the factory Revlon manufactures cosmetics, but in the store we sell hope”

  10. Excellent, as always!

    I can’t believe how much value you give with simple yet incredibly informational posts!

    Every idea makes so much sense it’s hard to imagine how you ever lived without applying it.

    Thanks!

  11. Interesting, i will use some tips on my future posts. But article is greate! Thanks a lot.

  12. Very inspirative post, thanks!

  13. Wow, the best article I have read in a long time. I will immediately apply this to my blog.
    thx
    del.icio.us tagged ;)

  14. Excellent post! Thank you!

  15. This is a brilliant post! Im in the process of writing some content myself and this couldnt be more timely.

    I recently read a post discussing promotion of posts with “X ways to do Y” or “M reasons why N is the best” or something along those lines. However i found this post more useful.

    Nice one!

  16. Unfortunately, it is more and more common these days that those “how-to”s on digg, del.icio.us’ popular and aggregating sites are just utterly crap. Saying nothing new, making wrong statements, having no logic, lots of user comments in which stupid people try to make their points (just like me here), costing valuable time to read and bringing no benefit or even cause damage. And all their worth is in their headline. At least, this article explains how to paint your words to give them an interesting look from the outside (but neither more logic nor more valuable content).

    Given that all existing reputation mechanisms don’t work anymore in current web publishing, we’re all deemed to read one crappy article after the other. There’s definately need to install new, working reputation mechanisms.

  17. Very useful read, thank you!

  18. Great post, thanks for this mate. I will, like everyone else, try to apply as many advices as I can on to my website.

    Hehe, someone has already read this and posted “How One Easy Tweak Makes Windows XP Crash Proof” on Digg :-)

    Let me see what do I come up with – How to make your Mac look like Windows .. oh, hang on !

  19. Truly inspirational, Brian. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve bought simply because of the kinds of titles you mention here. They’re very effective. (Gives me some ideas for posts, too.)

    Unfortunately, as one reader said above, a lot of online lists leave a lot to be desired. A truly good how-to list is as much of a challenge to write as a regular article. If you write one, try to run them by friends and colleagues before publishing it.

  20. Wow. Thanks. After reading this I changed both my Google Ad and headline on my sales page to read:

    How to Skip the Rejection Letters and Reach Real Readers!

    For less than the cost of another year’s purchase of Writer’s Market, you can learn the secret at:
    http://www.aboonbooks.com/ebook.php

    I’ll let you know how much better it does.

  21. Fadhlul Rahman :

    What can I say — you have ‘exposed’ the secret charged hundreds of dollars by the gurus, and you present it succintly sharp too! Great work and thanks a lot.

    Now there is another strong reason to use the Internet and avoid most of the garbage out there.

  22. Thanks for this article. Its as easy as it is brilliant.

  23. As a new blogger trying to get traction with writing good content, this article has not only provided great guidance, it’s given me some inspiration on topics to cover.