How to Write Headlines People are Desperate to Click

David Ogilvy, who is a pretty big name in the advertising business, says five times more people read the headline than the body copy of an ad. That tells us two things.

First, most of us must be rotten headline writers. Second, the vast majority of people who come across our ad leave before ever getting to the message itself.

That should be a scary thought to internet marketers. The good news is you don’t have to remain a crappy headline writer forever. Simple psychology and a few proven tricks can improve your chops in this area considerably. Here’s how to write headlines people are desperate to click.

Questions: We’re curious creatures. Pose a question, and most humans can’t stand not to know the answer. The very sight of a question stimulates our brain before we even realise it. Consider this example from copywriter Bill Jayme: “Do You Close the Bathroom Door Even When You’re the Only One Home?” This is an excellent example of how to pique a reader’s curiosity and make them wonder if they are abnormal depending on how they answer. And answer they will, silently, and to themselves.

When it comes to crafting question headlines, the subject matter should be relatable, as in the bathroom example. Since most of us go to the bathroom at least a few times during our lives, it’s a topic near and dear to our hearts, even if we don’t talk about it much. The fact it isn’t mentioned makes it even more compelling because, as mentioned, we wonder if we’re normal or not.

Choose the Negative: It should be no surprise that positive superlatives (best, greatest, biggest) are effective headline bait, but what many marketers don’t realise is that negatives (stop, avoid, worst, don’t) work better. Quite a bit better, actually, according to a study by Outbrain. The research compared 65,000 headlines divided into categories depending upon whether they contained negative, positive, or no superlatives. The results were definitive. Negative superlatives in headlines generated a 63 percent higher click-through rate than those with positives.

The obvious question is why? Are we all a bunch of negative nellies grumping around the planet? Maybe, but that’s not the real takeaway. There are a few theories about why negatives are more effective. Here are three:

1. Positives have been overused to the point they don’t register anymore.

2. Since negatives are used less often, they provide an air of mystery or intrigue that must be satisfied.

3. What is it about negatives that reel us in? Some hypothesise it’s simple insecurity. Are we doing something wrong or that we should stop?

A final thought about negatives. Startup Moon studied 100 tech blogs and found that aggressive words like kill, fear, or dead actually resulted in more social shares. This is not to suggest you go all Freddy Krueger with your articles, but it’s something to think about.

The Numbers Game: You arrive for a doctor’s appointment and have the choice of hearing one of two responses from the receptionist. The first is, “The doctor will be with you in ten minutes.” The second is, “The doctor will see you soon.” Most people prefer to hear the former because the latter fills them with an undefinable stress due to its uncertainty. Maybe soon means five minutes but maybe it means an hour. Who knows? This is why people like numbers in headlines and reward the practice with more click-throughs.

Numbers are all about managing expectations. We’re getting into heavy-duty psychology here, but, if you haven’t noticed yet, advertising is all about psychology. Check out the two examples below:

7 Ways to Sleep Better Tonight / Sleep Better Tonight

Unless you’re just being a doofus on purpose, you probably like the first one better. It comes right out and lets you know you’re going to learn seven specific ways to get a better night’s sleep. With the second, who knows what you’ll get? Maybe it will have 100 ways but, then again, maybe just one. Remember, our brains don’t like uncertainty and will subconsciously discriminate against the second headline.

The Magic Words: Is it true that if you stick the words “how to” in front of any headline, you have a surefire winner? That might be a bit of an extravagant claim, but there is validity in the idea. Perhaps no one speaks to this better than Copyblogger:

Most people don’t want information. I know you’ve always been taught otherwise, but it’s true. People are drowning in facts. What people really want is a sense of order and predictability in their lives. We want to feel a sense of power over our world. Therefore, we seek out the secrets, tips, hints, laws, rules, and systems that promise to help us gain control and make sense of things.

Perhaps we need to look no further than the title of one of the most famous self-help books of all-time to make this point even more cogent: How to Win Friends and Influence People; by Dale Carnegie. This little book published in 1936 continues to remain on the bestseller lists closing in on a century later.

And we should note that there are variations on the literal words “how to” that are equally effective. We’re talking about things like “introduction,” “5-minute guide,” or “DIY.” This allows you to get the same effect but not have every post you write start with the same two words.

Name Names: An audience likes to feel like you’re speaking to them specifically. An easy way to do that is to incorporate the word “you” into your headline or use some other way to single them out and draw them in. A famous example comes from copywriter Mel Martin, who used the following to appeal to golfers: “For golfers who are almost (but not quite) satisfied with their game – but can’t figure out what they’re doing wrong.” This one is sheer genius but is easy to replicate. Note the direct appeal to a specific demographic (golfers), followed by an acknowledgement of their frustration.

One interesting thing to note is that people will pay for things they want more than things they need. Think back to your own consumer behaviour, and you’ll see it’s true. Your car’s tire tread is smoother than your grandpa’s bald head but you fork over $50 (which could buy two good used tires) for a lobster thermidor dinner you’ve been craving – while crossing your fingers and fearing a blowout every time you head out on the highway. Good advice when it comes to crafting headlines is to narrow your target audience down and make a direct appeal to a shortcoming they have.

Better Than Rest (for now) – Specificity: It used to be that the so-called “curiosity gap” was the most effective tactic when it came to crafting headlines.Research showed this to be true. But interestingly, recent data from Upworthy shows that tightly-targeted headlines that use numbers or specific descriptions seem to be drawing more click-throughs.

The problem with trying to raise curiosity is that it’s overused. Marketers have beat the idea to death, and the simple truth is that the public’s curiosity is no longer aroused to the extent it once was. What you probably will notice is that certain headline strategies diminish in effectiveness over time. This is why you have to monitor your campaigns closely and try different approaches when one begins to show signs of exhaustion.

When we talk about including specifics, we mean names, descriptions, examples, titles, figures and more. The key is to create a visual in the reader’s mind that makes him/her think, “Hey, this is a legitimate article that might have great information I want.”

The Bottom Line

Here we are at the end of the article. What have you learned? Hopefully, that creating a headline is more complex than it appears at first glance. You also should have absorbed the idea that crafting great headlines is a critical skill for an internet marketer. Remember that number from the first paragraph? Readers are five times more likely to read the headline than the body of an ad. Unless you can hook them with the headline, you don’t have a chance of making the sale. While these suggestions are by no means comprehensive, tell us what we left out.

What is your favourite trick for coming up with a great headline?