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How to Write Headlines That Keep People Reading

August 24, 20216 min read

If you write anything, you need a solid headline. Maybe not a paper for school because, let’s face it, your prof had to read the paper anyway. But if you don’t have the money to pay everyone else to read whatever it is you’re writing, here’s how to write headlines that get noticed.

“Okay, Jacinda,” you’re probably thinking, “An entire article on how to write headlines? They’re so short!”

Yep. When you consider that only 20% of people will continue reading past the headline, your headline can mean the difference between someone reading your sales page or clicking away, between opening and reading your email or just deleting it.

Headlines are your first, most important sentence. If they don’t draw readers in, it doesn’t matter how good your offer or your content is.

woman reading a newspaper

Headlines, subheadings, and bullet lists are for the skimmers

I’m an avid reader. Of books, that is. There’s something about reading words from a monitor that just… doesn’t work for me.

My eyes glaze over…

My brain starts doing other things…

I get frustrated at myself for reading the same line multiple times…

When it comes to reading on the internet, I’m a hardcore skimmer.

And sometimes it doesn’t even get to THAT point. Sometimes, I just “command-F” and look for the exact thing I want to read about. And then I leave.

But you know what I never do?

I never even click on a search result that has a bad headline. Bad headline? I don’t care how high you’re ranked, I’m already not interested.

And I’m judging Google a bit for ranking you so high in the first place.

I guarantee you I’m not the only one.

How to Write a Compelling Headline

So, headlines are important. But how do you write a good one?

Start simple, asking yourself two easy questions: why is a person reading this and what are they looking for?

Those two questions will tell you what you need to include in your headline.

Of course, it goes deeper than that. You knew that already. So, let’s get into it, shall we? Here’s the process I use to write effective headlines…

Step 1. The Target Audience and What They Want

Before you write anything, you always need to consider your target audience. What do they care about? What do they want? What problem do they need solved?

Why are they here, now? And what promise are you making to them?

No matter what it is you’re writing — emails, sales pages, social media posts — you have to figure out who they are, what they want, and what you’re promising.

Make note of it all. This will help you when it comes to Step 3.

Step 2. Fascinations

I love fascinations. I first learned about them when I started Copy School years ago. Fascinations are essentially triggers. And triggers, according to Sally Hogshead, are “a deeply-rooted means of arousing intense interest.”

My headline will have some of that, please and thank you.

In a TEDx talk, Hogshead offers up 7 triggers we can use in our headlines (along with how to trigger a response):

  • Power — take command

  • Passion — attract with emotion

  • Mystique — arouse curiosity

  • Prestige — increase respect

  • Alarm — create urgency

  • Vice — change the game

  • Trust — build loyalty

Identify the triggers that are relevant to your audience.

Step 3. Write A Lot of Headlines

Now it’s time to write. Not just one headline, mind you, but dozens. At least 20, hopefully, closer to 50.

Yes, I know it’s a lot.

The good news is that there are tons of headline formulas out there you can use to get you started. Here are some of my faves:

  • [Product Name] is a [product category] that [different thing it does best]

  • Who Else Wants [Most Desirable Outcome or Benefit]?

  • The Only [SEO Keyword Phrase] Made Exclusively to [Most Desirable Outcome or Benefit]

  • The only [product category] that doesn’t [objection or anxiety].

  • Here’s the [Best Adjective] Way to [Solve a Problem]

  • [Service name] is a [service category] that [amazing outcome for end users or decision-makers] without [objection or anxiety]

  • You’re tired of [objection or anxiety]. But you [desired outcome]. So it’s time you met [Product name].

  • [Objection.] But/And it works.

And, if you’re looking for headline formulas for blog posts, eBooks, or lead gen pages, here are some good ones:

  • The Ultimate Guide to [Good, Bad or Desirable Thing]

  • What Everybody Ought to Know About [Good, Bad or Desirable Thing]

  • To the [role] who will settle for nothing less than [world-class outcome]

  • The complete library of [large #] free and low-cost [desirable resources]

  • Little Known Ways to [Blank]

  • The Secret of [Desirable Thing]

  • I spent [time] [working toward goal]. I just [quitting statement]. Here’s why.

  • I don’t regret [X]. But here’s what I’d do differently.

Step 4. Cull the List

Once you have a good, long list of headlines, it’s time to get rid of as many as you can.

I know, I know. You just spent all this time writing them and now I’m telling you to scratch them.

The point of writing a lot of headlines is to get your brain working in different ways and push yourself. You may go back to the first one you wrote. You may find that number 23 is the best. And you might find that a few of the headlines you’ve written don’t work for what you were brainstorming for but WILL work for something else.

The goal is to get to the headline that meets your target audience where they are and gets them excited about where you can take them.

Step 5. Power Words

Now that you have a shorter list of headlines that just might work, it’s time to spruce them up a bit. How?

Power words!

Power words and power phrases are words that draw attention and evoke emotion. Words like “challenge,” “spellbinding,” “esteemed,” “lazy,” and many others help paint a picture in the mind of your reader or sway them one way or another. CoSchedule has quite an extensive list of power words you should check out.

Step 6. Test Your Headlines

Take your edited list of headlines, complete with power words, and run them through a headline analyzer to find out how they stack up. There are a few headline analyzer tools that can help you test your headlines and make them stronger. Here are a few I’ve used and liked:

Choose the best one and make it even better!

What kind of headline keeps you reading?

Ultimately, your target audience is just a bunch of people with the same problem. A problem that you can solve.

But they’ll never know that if they don’t get past your headline.

With the 6-step process laid out here, you have everything you need to start crafting amazing headlines that will grab your audience’s attention and keep them reading.

how to write headlines
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Jacinda Santora

Jacinda Santora is a marketing consultant who uses marketing psychology to help businesses grow. She knows that research informs strategy informs execution — and nails it all.

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