Headline Writing Masterclass – The Secrets of Getting More Clicks


Recently, we looked at writing for the web and how it differs to writing for print in many ways. To follow that up, let’s take a look at headlines today – what makes a good headline that makes a reader want to pick up that newspaper, magazine or make that all-important click?

According to Copyblogger, “On average, 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest. This is the secret to the power of your title, and why it so highly determines the effectiveness of the entire piece.”

A headline is your chance to grab attention and stand out, and the more content that appears on the net, the harder it is to be original – or is it? There are very few original headlines out there and as it is with all content writing, it will depend on your audience as to what will appeal.

For example, I recently wrote a piece entitled ‘Intranets, Introverts & Extroverts: Getting Along in the Workplace’ which dealt with how differently introverts and extroverts work and are treated in the workplace. Clearly, this will only appeal to a select audience. Now, take another, more mainstream headline that I’ve used recently, ‘Are Angry Birds users planning a terrorist attack?’ and the difference is immediately apparently.

(Image: Alan Cleaver)


The latter headline is clearly meant to induce clicks on a news story that sets out how the NSA spied on the hugely popular Angry Birds users. Mainstream news is competitive, so you have to stand out to gain attention and the headline is your chance to do so.

So again, it comes down partly to the audience that you’re addressing. The first headline in this example appeals to business users at enterprise level and suggests that it should be further examined. The second one, is more exciting, more sensationalist, so evokes curiosity to provoke a click.

Appealing to Emotions

A good headline, just like color in web design and social media posts, will appeal to the audience on an emotional level. Positive emotions gain the most reaction; people much prefer to feel happy than sad, but negative emotions work well too.

These are:

  1. Happiness/love
  2. Fear
  3. Amusement
  4. Greed
  5. Duty
  6. Disgust

By far the most appealing thing to anyone is amusement, and this is evident when you look at things that go viral across the net, such as memes. Most of them are funny and clever advertisers know this. Which is of course why big brands often appeal to our sense of humour in an attempt to take their online campaigns viral – that Holy Grail of marketing and the internet.

The Register is a huge technology site and its headline often make me splutter over my coffee as I read up on the latest tech happenings each morning. They are very close to the bone at times and occasionally quite shocking (but very effective for the target audience), so certainly not for the faint hearted. Let’s have a look at some recent headlines on the site.

So how does the above appeal to the reader?

  • “$10,000 bounty” – this appeals to greed – the reader is thinking “really? Is this something that I could qualify for?” That’s perfectly natural, most of us could do with a quick cash injection.
  • “laser-wielding idiots” – suggests that you would be doing the world a favour anyway; these are people that are ‘beneath’ the rest of us, so this is also appealing to vanity
  • “Agency reports 11 aircraft a day are hit by foolish flashers” – this appeals to a sense of both duty and fear, the former to help stop this stupidity and the latter due to the idea that you could be in that aircraft and so your life could be threatened

Brilliant stuff. Of course, not everyone can get away with headlines like that, depending on the audience we’re addressing and how authoritative we’re thought to be. So what else can we do to appeal to our audience and their emotions?

Appeal to People’s Desires

Once you’ve established who your audience are and how you should address them, you can decide how to make headlines they will want to grab. Most people want to make cash, but I wouldn’t endorse headlines that draw in a reader with promises of riches, as it comes across as pretty spammy to me.

However, people love value, they want to learn how to make cash perhaps, so rather than make rash promises, offer something actionable. By now, many internet marketers know that there are a few types of headlines that are almost guaranteed to grab reader attention.

These are How To articles and ones which use numbers, so for example 5 Ways to Lose Weight. These headlines immediately tell the user that the content has something in it that they can take away and make work for them.

These work in every industry niche as there are a million and one (and more) ways that they can be used, such as:

  • 10 Mistakes First Time Parents Make
  • 6 Easy Ways to Market your Business
  • How to Dress Like a Celeb (on a budget)

These are teaser headlines, but they work. Headlines that contain numbers also suggest bite-sized chunks of information that the reader can easily skim for tips.

Curiosity Might Kill Cats, but Not Readers

Another tactic, according to John Caples, author of Tested Advertising Methods, is to appeal to the reader’s curiosity. In his book, he dedicates four whole chapters just to headlines – why? Because they’re very important, they’re the hook that will draw the reader in and (hopefully, if the content’s good) keep them there.

If the headline of an advertisement is poor, the best copywriters in the world can’t write copy that will sell the goods, Caples explained.

So whilst the examples above appeal to self-interest and improvement, every headline in the world can’t be made up of them, so what else is there?

Curiosity, for a start. Let’s have a look how we can make the reader curious about the content.

  • The Secret to …
  • Why My Horrific Accident Changed My Life for the Better

This is a great grabber – there’s a secret out there, we all want to know it right? Of course we do, especially if it relates to something that we can apply to ourselves. However, even when it isn’t in the reader’s own self-interest, that feeling that they want to know should be prompted by the headline.

Looking at the second one, someone would be asking themselves “what kind of accident?”, or “how can something really bad happening to you change your life for the good”. Curiosity is a powerful human emotion and you should think up headlines that prompt it. However, be wary of making headlines too long, or they lose effectiveness, especially with SEO firmly in mind if you’re writing for the web.

Headlines for Search Engines

Longer headlines over 65 characters are a no-no. But according to a Schwartz report, only 18% of Press Releases written in 2011-12 got this right. Search engines truncate headlines that are over 65 characters and so in search, a long headline gets cut short – it’s the same for email so ensure you keep those e-shots snappy too.

In fact, of the rest of the headlines studied:

  • 23% –  65-70 characters
  • 24.3%  – 70-100 characters
  • 24.8% – 101-150 characters
  • 15.1% – 151-200 characters
  • 10.8% – 201-300 characters
  • 2% – 300+ characters 65

So just 23% got it right! Imagine reading a headline that was 300 characters long – you wouldn’t, you’d become bored, you’re skimming when casting an eye over headlines in search results, so one that can’t get the message across in a short, succinct manner is one that fails.

Grammar … and suchlike

It goes without saying that spelling should be spot on, nobody is going to click on a headline that is spelled wrong. However, spelling isn’t the only grammatical aspect that can be applied to writing a good headline.

Headlines should have:

  • An active voice
  • Logical structure
  • Present-tense verbs
  • Numbers presented as ‘9’ not ‘nine’
  • Capitals following a colon, but not a semi-colon
  • Use single quotation marks
  • Use punctuation normally, but as sparingly as possible and with no full-stops (unless using abbreviations)
  • Avoid unknown names (none celebrity)

It’s important to keep the words in a headline as short and snappy as possible. Don’t try to be clever and use overblown words that may confuse the reader, you’re the one who’s silly by attempting to overuse vocabulary in an unnecessary scenario. Keep it simple and don’t patronize people – it will backfire and what’s more, you’ll deserve it.

Finally, if you’re going to attempt humour, do make sure that it’s appropriate to the content and that it’s actually funny.

Make Sure They’re Working for You

It’s not simple to get headlines right, especially if like me you have to think up a lot of them. Sure, there are tactics that you can use to come up with formulaic headlines like the How to ones we discussed above, but if they’re all you use, your readers will catch on.

Whilst you’re reading and researching, jot down ideas for future headlines and remember that some will be time sensitive and others won’t.

Use analytics to see which of your headlines are performing the best and this will guide you into coming up with more imaginative ones. Practice on Twitter – only being able to use 140 characters is quite crippling for some people but it can hone your skills on keeping non-essential words out of the mix and restructuring to make space.

For some further tips or headline hacks as they’re sometimes known, check out the video below: