Awhile ago, I shared some tips for writing online and mentioned the importance of a strong headline.

The long and short of it is that headlines are extremely hard to craft, even for those who have to do it regularly.

And there’s a lot riding on them: they’re what pull in browsers and hopefully (if all goes well) turn them into readers.

I’m always looking for a way to improve my own headlines since it’s an area of my writing that I feel needs work. 

So, I devoted some time to researching how to write a perfect headline (or get as close as possible) and decided to share what I found out with you. 


Headlines are more important than you think

In the words of David Ogilvy:

On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar. 

In an online world, full of great content and design, it’s hard to stand out from the crowd. The better the headline, the better chance you have of getting people to read what you wrote. This can be tough to get your head around as a writer.

Here’s the hard truth:  Eight out of 10 people read a headline, but only two out of 10 will read the rest of a post. Stats like the 80/20 rule from Copyblogger help emphasize how headlines can be the determining factor of whether readers click or move on.

The importance of headlines is almost equal to the quality of the content, and you need to be prepared to spend a lot of time writing them. Copyblogger also refers to the 50/50 rule – you should spend about half the time it takes to write a piece creating the headline.

Basically, it’s okay to obsess over your headlines.

The perfect length for a headline is six words

So, how do you make a headline attention-grabbing?

Length for one thing.

A post by Bnonn on KISSmetrics cites usability research that suggests not only do we scan the body of posts, we also scan headlines. As online readers, we tend to absorb only the first and last 3 words of a headline – suggesting the perfect length of a title is 6 words.

But six words is an ideal and often not a reality. Even if 6 words isn’t going to cut it for your title, you can still be aware of how it’s going to be read and adjust accordingly.

Buffer created a great sample of headlines from 99u with their absorbable words highlighted, so I decided to take an inspirational page from their book and make my own example for you:

highlighted headlines

The first and last 3 words should stand out as much as possible.

Another good rule of thumb to keep in mind is if it doesn’t fit in a tweet – it’s probably too long. However, Bnonn suggests focusing on making every word count and ditching the stress over length if it’s getting in the way of inspiration.

Better headlines are active and clear

Constant Contact took a look at writing better headlines to help with email marketing tactics, and here was my biggest takeaway from their advice.

Effective headlines have a clear message and are written in an active voice. 

I won’t go into a full grammatical explanation, but here’s an example:

Active: The Best Writers Create Magnetic Headlines

Passive: Magnetic Headlines Are Created by The Best Writers

See the difference?

If you’re not sure, think about writing as if you’re speaking directly to your readers rather than to a vague third party. Keeping your headlines clear and using “You” when in doubt will give your headlines a more personalized feel and help make them catchier.

Choose the right words for viral headlines

The words you choose obviously play a huge role in the science of the perfect headline.

Buffer analyzed headline data collected by the awesome team over at Ripenn and added top headlines from 20 different tech, social media, and productivity sites to find the most popular words found in headlines. In total, they examined over 3,000 titles from 24 top content sites.

Here are the two tables they created showing the most common words and most popular uncommon words in viral headlines:

common words viral headlines

They do a great job breaking down not just the words, but also the most common headline phrases. You can click here to view a complete list of the top words they found.

The words and phrases that stood out the most for me from their analysis were “the (superlative) people” and “what happens when”. Both drum up a certain level of intrigue, but also promise a discovery of some kind.

A few other interesting stats they found:

  • On average, a viral headline is around 62 characters long.
  • 19% of viral headlines include a number.

Tricks to help your headlines pop

In reality, I don’t think there a secret to crafting the perfect headline – it just takes a lot of hard work, focus, and patience.

But there are a few tricks you can follow to make sure your headlines do what they’re supposed to do. Well, there’s more than just a few. A Google search for “how to write a great headline” will pull up about 33 million results for your browsing pleasure.

Here are the most common best practices I came across during my research:

  • Everyone loves numbers. I’m sure you’ve come across your share of numbers in headlines. And there’s a reason – they work. 
  • Make your adjectives interesting. With so many adjective out there – choose ones that grab attention such as effortless, free, essential, etc. 
  • Offer a unique rationale. Give your readers a unique reason to read using rationales like reasons, facts, or lessons
  • Show readers “How to” or explain “Why”. Trigger words like these tend to work well for catching the eye of readers – they’re effective because they are offering to help in some way. 
  • Make a promise you can keep. Promise your readers something valuable, but make sure you deliver what you’re offering. 

This formula from Jeff Goins is also a solid headline template to keep in mind:

headline formulaI hope you found these tips useful – they were really helpful for me! My last piece of advice and my biggest takeaway from everything I’ve read (however you choose to go about it) is give your headlines the time and attention they deserve.

You won’t regret it and neither will your readers.

What tricks do you use to help you with your headlines? I’d love to hear what you’ve found works best for you and what other tactics you’re trying out. 

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