Turn heads: How to write hot headlines

What does a hot headline look like

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, right? That’s why your headline is one of the most important elements of your story, blog or web page. It’s one of the chief elements on the page, and it must make people want to read on.

In print, the whole point of the headline is to sell the story and make people pick up a newspaper or magazine. It tells the story in a few short words, but doesn’t give everything away. It’s the same with online – you want them to click. It’s a teaser, a taste of what’s to come, which invites your readers to make the journey down the page. Perez Hilton, Mamamia and Anthill Online do this extremely well. Sometimes it’s like they’re talking straight to you and only you, like a personal message. It’s freaky, but it works.

Think of your headline as your introduction to the viewer who’s landed on your page. It’s like saying: “Hi, how are you? Do come in.” You want them to stay a while and become a regular reader as a result. That’s your headline’s job. A headline should interest, inform, educate and engage all at the same time. It should communicate the main message of your content. It has a big role.

Piece of cake, right? Don’t worry – while it might sound like a lot to remember, it’s actually quite easy to do. I could write a book on the subject, but instead here are my top five tips for writing awesome headlines that capture attention and leave a lasting impression:

  1. Be clear and factual – Make sure your headline is clear and sticks to the facts. You don’t have a lot of words to play with (use no more than 10 words in a headline, about eight is ideal) so just write what you know – and then rewrite it and chop it down!
  2. Keep it short and sweet – Your headline is not your first sentence. It is a short and often frank compilation of words that don’t contain a thesaurus of adjectives or adverbs. It simply states what the story, page, blog or update is about.
  3. Communicate your message – When it comes to content, it’s all about educating, not selling. So give your reader enough information in your headline to provide a quick snapshot of the whole story.
  4. Be active and present – Keep your headline active and in present tense. This is very much an old journalism rule, but it works for online too – you don’t want your readers to feel like they are reading yesterday’s news, do you?
  5. Plug in your keywords – Make sure your headline contains your keywords. (More on this in Section 5 about SEO in my book, Wow Words on the Web).

In headlines, the colon is your friend. Use it to keep your keywords in the first few words of the headline and set it apart from the rest. For example, ‘Boutique website development: It’s not as boring as you think’ or ‘Writing a weekly blog: Hot tips no one knows… yet.’

Eight hot headline formulas you can try today

  1. How to – This is proving to be one of the most popular headline formulas because it works. Online or off, these headlines easily capture attention because you are teaching your readers something important. For example, “How to write online content that rocks and gets results.”
  2. Numbers – Lists are one of the best ways to inform and inspire your readers. How many of these headlines have you seen: Top 10 ways… , 5 must-have… , 7 types of… ,
  3. 3 reasons to… There is only one reason why people use numbered lists and that’s because they are engaging and they work.
  4. Hot tip – What will reading your story give them? What benefit are you trying to deliver? Be specific. What is it that your content will teach your reader? For example, “Top tip: Write for your readers first… always.”
  5. Question – Spark curiosity by asking a question. It could be controversial (to a degree) or just something that gets people thinking. “Are you making these 7 content writing mistakes?”
  6. Do it now – Ask (or tell) your readers to do something to create urgency. Use words like now, need, today, never again and last chance. Promise me you won’t make it salesy though.
  7. Why – Closely related to the “Ask a question” headline, a “Why” headline has only one job to do: to get people to click through. Try adding the word why to your headline. For example, “Why 50% of businesses fail and the reason yours won’t.”
  8. In under – I like this headline because it promotes time-saving tactics and isn’t that what everyone wants? If you can help your clients save time, well, you’ll be a genius in their eyes. Try: “Quick and easy recipes: Dinner in under 5 minutes.” You can also use the words less than… for example, “in less than 3 hours.”

Take a look at the experts. Magazine and newspaper editors get paid a lot of money to make sure the headlines on their covers and front pages stand out so people buy their publications over the others in the news stand. Borrow their formulas and just change up the words for your industry.

Word Style Step
Try this. Just say you have one of the latest fashion magazines and one headline on the cover says: Dress dreams: 45+ frocks your wardrobe can’t live without. You can turn that into a headline for your blog post so easily. One formula is simply: Keyword/phrase: 45+ tips to <insert your topic>.

For example
For makeup artists, it could be: Winter makeup trends: 45+ products you need now!
An interior designer: Interior decorating ideas: 45+ tips to make over your home
A hair stylist: Hair-cutting techniques: 45+ styles guaranteed to turn heads

PS: It doesn’t have to be 45+ tips, you can use whatever number your little heart desires.

So what does a good headline look like?
Well, it grabs attention, sparks interest and creates curiosity. It tells the story in only a few words. Let me show you.

For example: “They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I started to play… ”

This headline is actually from an advertisement from 1926. It’s one of the most successful headlines in history. Why? Because everyone needs/wants to read on to see “why”.

What does a bad headline look like? This…

“What we know and don’t know.”

I found this headline on the net and it was written by a well-known news source. The problem with it is that it doesn’t actually say anything… at all. There’s no reason why someone would want to read more.

My first questions is… about what? “What we know and don’t know” about what?

There are some really simple ways to fix this headline. First of all, I’d add the topic your content is about. I’d also break this up into two different headlines.

The “what we know” headline and the “what we don’t know” headline. I’d also swap the word we with you to make it relative to your readers and get them interested. You are writing for your readers, after all. So make it about them.

And it needs something punchy like a statistic or a number, and some urgency. Try: “7 things you don’t know about lip gloss, but need to.”
Or “SHOCKING: Before you pucker up, you need to know this… ” Or “Why you really don’t need to know about <insert topic>.” See, better already <insert happy face>.

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