How to Write Powerful Headlines

How to Write Powerful Headlines Without Becoming a Master Copywriter

Avoiding headlines is difficult. 

Whatever media you are viewing - TV, Newspaper, Magazine, Social Media, Email, Web Page - you will encounter a headline. 

But how you react to a headline is a different matter. 

If the headline grabs your attention you'll stay engaged; i.e. you’ll watch the TV commercial, read the newspaper article, or click the link, etc.

In this post, I’m going to show you exactly what methods, tools, and resources you can employ to create, analyze, and test your headlines, so that you grab your readers’ attention every single time. 


Why Headlines Are so Crucial

There’s a much-quoted statistic from Copyblogger that I included in the infographic on my previous post:

On average, 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest.

Scary isn't it? Only 20% of the people read your posts after seeing the headline.

Which begs the question:

- How much time and effort are you putting into writing your headlines compared to the rest of your content?

Long before the Internet, the great copywriters and journalists of the print industry knew the importance of a compelling headline, and that’s why they spent hours crafting them.

Advertising legend David Ogilvy had some pertinent advice about the importance of headlines:

On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.

And when commissioned by Rolls-Royce to write the magazine advert for their latest car he rewrote this famous headline 104 times until it was perfect:

At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.
Rolls-Royce advert headline by David Ogilvy

Bearing in mind that the entire article is only about 600 words, you can see just how much effort he put into the headline.

If it was that important to David Ogilvy, it sure is important for web content writers to keep on practicing and honing their headline writing skills.

I recall receiving an email from Shane Melaugh, which stated:

The better your headline writing skills, the more your entire website and your online business benefit.

And it’s true.

You need your readers to see your headlines and entice them to read more.

The more compelling your headlines are, the more people are going to click on links to your posts, whether that's from your blog page, your related posts widget, recent posts in the sidebar, social media or anywhere else.

It’s why Jon Morrow still offers his subscribers a cheat sheet called Headline Hacks:

Headline Hacks by Jon Morrow at Smartblogger

Think about it: 

If you get the headline wrong, your visitors won't continue reading and they'll leave your site. And all the time you've invested into creating your content is just a total waste.

> That’s why headlines are so crucial when writing your web content.

Don’t Overpromise with Your Headline

However you choose to create your headline always remember that your main content has to live up to the expectation you have set at the top of the page.

It’s no good grabbing your readers’ attention with a stunning headline only to lose them inside the first paragraph. 

Click to Tweet

There are sites, like Upworthy, which are infamous for their sensational clickbait headlines, so much so, that Downworthy created a neutralizing tool to dumb down the headlines. For instance:

  • "Literally" becomes "Figuratively"
  • "Will Blow Your Mind" becomes "Might Perhaps Mildly Entertain You For a Moment"
  • "One Weird Trick" becomes "One Piece of Completely Anecdotal Horseshit"

Instead, Promise Value in Your Headline

Take this top advice from content crafter Ash Read at Buffer:

Headlines are amazingly important to the success of a piece of content. Before we publish a post, we spend a bit of time focusing on how we can craft a headline that gives the content the best chance of being seen. Amazing content behind a weak headline probably won’t get seen.
Sometimes we’ll create between 20-30 headlines for each post and choose the one that feels best, and other times we’ll have a quick chat and riff on how we can make the headline stand out.
The original headline we had was: "53 Graphic Design Terms and Definitions for Non-Designers"
And the title we decided on when we hit publish is: "Why Every Marketer in 2016 Needs to Be a (Part-Time) Designer: 53 Design Terms and Tips to Level-Up”

13 Proven Resources To Write Better Headlines

OK, so we’ve established that headlines are essential.

But how do you go about creating them? And what makes a great headline?

For the most part, you will have to do the thinking and creating. However, there are some excellent tools and resources can help you along the way.

Headline Analyzer Tools

I’m going to start with my favorite headline tool and then share a few other resources that are also extremely helpful, especially when you’re totally stumped!

The CoSchedule Headline Analyzer

The CoSchedule Headline Analyzer is my ‘go-to’ tool whenever it comes to writing headlines. As the name suggests, this tool analyzes your headline ideas and then gives you a score and some pointers on what you could improve.

The headline analyzer will score your overall headline quality and rate its ability to result in social shares, increased traffic, and SEO value.

Just by tweaking a word here or there can change the dynamic of your headline and consequently the result from the tool.

When Neil Patel tweaked the headline on a Kissmetrics post he was able to boost the conversion rate by 40%.

Pro Tip:

Using a Thesaurus to check for synonyms is a quick and easy way to get better word variations.

 - Here’s an example of synonyms for the word increase:

thesauras synonyms for the word increase

Here are some variations that I tried in a recent blog post:

CoSchedule headline variations

(BTW, my friend Ashley wrote the blog post, but we did collaborate on the headline writing!)

Let’s take one of the headlines and see how the Headline Analyzer calculates its score.

First, enter your proposed headline - 5 Insanely Easy Ways To Boost Your Website SEO Today - and then click the Analyze Now button.

At the top of the results page you get your overall score (on a scale from 0-100):

CoSchedule Score

CoSchedule: Aim for a score of 70+

(a) Word Balance

The first calculation uses Word Balance to analyze the mix of Common, Uncommon, Emotional and Power words contained in the headline:

CoSchedule Word Balance

(Note: there is a tool tip on what makes emotional headlines so powerful.)

The Headline Analyzer places each word in its respective category so you can see the makeup of your headline:

CoSchedule Headline Analyzer puts each word in a category

Pro Tip:

Want some help with Power Words? Try these:

 > 317 Power Words from Jon Morrow

 > 189 Powerful Words from Buffer

 > 1000+ Power Words That Maximize Your Conversions from Writtent

(b) Headline Types

Next, the Headline Analyzer determines your Headline Type. In my example, I’m using a list type headline: 

CoSchedule Headline Type

CoSchedule: Headline Type

The Headline Analyzer is checking for these types of headline:

  • List
  • How To
  • Question
  • Generic

Research by Buzzsumo and OkDork has shown that list type headlines are the second most popular type of headline only to infographics when it comes to social shares:

Buzzsumo OkDork research of average shares by content type

Pro Tip: 

Avoid generic headlines whenever possible.

 - List, How To, and Question headlines have a better opportunity to get more social shares and traffic.

(c) Headline Length

Next, we get an analysis of the Headline Length that displays the character and word counts:

CoSchedule Length Analysis

CoSchedule: Headline Length

These are good indicators of how your headline will appear in Google, Social Media, and Emails.

Note: Google recently updated the length of title tags and now displays up to 70 characters in search results.

However, Kissmetrics has a different angle and suggests you should focus on the first three and last three words of your headline.

Rather than worrying about the length, you should worry about making every word count. Especially the first and last 3—and if that means using the passive voice, so be it.

That’s OK because CoSchedule highlight that in their headline analysis too:

The first three and last three words are important

CoSchedule: The first three and last three words

It’s unlikely that you’ll write a six-word headline, so remember that people will focus on the beginning and end of your headline.

(d) Headline Sentiment

The final calculation for the overall headline score uses Headline Sentiment.

CoSchedule Headline Sentiment

CoSchedule: Headline Sentiment

CoSchedule researched their database of over one million headlines to see which headlines performed best. They discovered that:

Strongly positive emotions tend to get shared more than anything else. You can go negative, but it can be difficult to nail perfectly.

When you put all those elements together then hopefully you'll achieve a winning headline. Don't be frightened to keep tweaking your headline. 

Although the CoSchedule Headline Analyzer remains my favorite tool when it comes to headlines, there are plenty of others that can help you.

The EMV Headline Analyzer

One tool very similar to and influential in the design of the CoSchedule Headline Analyzer is the Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer provided by the Advanced Marketing Institute.

This free tool will analyze your headline to determine the Emotional Marketing Value (EMV) score. As you know, reaching your customers in a deep and emotional way is a key to successful copywriting, and your headline is unquestionably the most important piece of copy you use to reach prospects.

Taking the headline example from earlier, this is the resulting EMV score:

EMV result for the term Website SEO

EMV Headline Analyzer

The Headline Analyzer Template

If you like the look of the two Headline Analyzer Tools above, but you're not sure which one to use, then there's a third option.

Gill Andrews has created a headline template that combines scores from both the CoSchedule Headline Analyzer and the AMI EMV Headline Analyzer. Follow the instructions on Gill's site to download the free template:

Headline Template

Gill Andrews: Headline Template

Headline Suggestion Tools

Struggling to think of a headline? Then here are some headline suggestion tools that will help you.

Most of these tools ask you to input a word or phrase for your topic and then they generate a few examples.

The Portent Content Idea Generator

The headlines generated by the Portent Content Idea Generator are a little offbeat.

Here’s an example of what the Portent Tool generated for the term ‘website SEO’:

Portent Content Idea Generator

12 Facts About Website SEO That'll Keep You Up at Night

The Hubspot Blog Topic Generator

And here’s what Hubspot’s Blog Topic Generator suggested for the same term:

Hubspot Blog Topic Generator

The Kickass Headline Generator

The Kickass Headline Generator from SumoMe lets you Write Engaging Headlines Like a Boss!

You can choose different types of headline including:

  • Numbered List
  • How To
  • Explanatory / Why
  • Strong / Controversial
  • Fun / Playful
  • DIY Headline Formulas

The Blog Post Ideas Generator

The Blog Post Ideas Generator from Build Your Own Blog is Ready to Serve When Your Brain is Out of Service.

All you have to do is hit the button and a random blog post headline is generated. For instance: 

  • 10 Things Your Competitors Can Teach You About...
  • The best way to respond to....

Answer The Public

Answer The Public is more of a content generator. You ask the Seeker for ideas by entering your keyword, and he'll suggest a load of ideas in seconds. For example, using our term 'website SEO' you'll get:  

  • Questions - What makes a website SEO friendly? How to fix website SEO.
  • Prepositions - Website SEO for beginners.

> I think you get the idea? Give them a try and let me know if they help you!

Headline Formulas

You don’t have to use online tools to come up with winning headlines.

Alternatively, you can use headline formulas where you just fill in the blanks. For instance:

101 [Blank] Hacks: A Cheat Sheet for [Blank]

101 Headline Hacks: A Cheat Sheet for Writing Headlines That Explode Traffic

How [Blank] Gamble with Your [Blank]: 7 Ways to Protect Yourself

How Your Host Gambles with Your Blog: 11 Ways to Protect Yourself

10 Shortcuts for [Completing tedious Process] in Record Time

10 Shortcuts for Becoming an Authority in Your Field in Record Time

Thrive Headline Swipe File

The best guide that I’ve found and use is the Headline Swipe File from Thrive Themes. It identifies the six most common mistakes made when writing headlines and shows you exactly how to avoid them (and what to do instead).

For example, if your headline addresses an obstacle common to your readers, they’ll be eager to find out more. So by pairing a desirable outcome: “Grow Your Mailing List” with a common obstacle: “You Have No Website” you can create a headline that has greater impact: “How to Grow Your Mailing List (Even If You Have No Website).”

Here are five more Headline Formula resources you can check:

30+ Ultimate Headline Formulas for Tweets, Posts, Articles, and Emails

30+ Ultimate Headline Formulas for Tweets, Posts, Articles, and Emails

Headline Formulas to Skyrocket Conversions (And Where to Use Them)

49 Headline Formulas to Skyrocket Conversions (And Where to Use Them)

Magnetic Blog Post Headline Ideas For Small Business Bloggers

100+ Magnetic Blog Post Headline Ideas For Small Business Bloggers

The Ultimate Guide To Writing More Effective Headlines

The Ultimate Guide To Writing More Effective Headlines

Headline Hacks

52 Headline Hacks

How Do You Know Which Is Your Best Headline?

At Upworthy their writers have to come up with at least 25 headlines for every post before choosing the best one. (Even if Downworthy don’t like them!)

The Buffer team create between 20-30 headlines for each post.

But why 25?

CoSchedule Founder, Garrett Moon, researched this further and found there were psychological reasons behind writing 25 headlines. Apparently, it's all to do with the brain’s reticular activating system (RAS) inspiring creativity. 

Sometimes we need the opportunity to get rid of the bad ideas before we find the good. ~ Garrett Moon

Click to Tweet

Here's what it looked like in practice for Garrett's post:

Garrett Moon 25 Headlines

Garrett Moon 25 Headlines

And here’s his tried and trusted method for writing 25 headlines and then deciding on the best one:

  1. Write 10 Headlines
  2. Write 15 More
  3. Cross Out The Worst 15
  4. Bold Your Top 5
  5. Do An A/B Test

Headline Testing

Steps 1-4 seem quite logical, even if it’s a slog grinding out 25 variations.

But how do you go about testing your Top 5 headlines?

How do you choose the correct one?

The real trick is this: You don't choose. You let your audience choose.

You need to show your audience your best headlines and see which one they like the most. This is also known as split testing your headlines, and it's of utmost importance for getting trustworthy data.

Does that sound a bit complicated? It can be.

But don't worry.

Because Thrive Themes have made it simple.

You can now test your headlines reliably using the Thrive Headline Optimizer.

Thrive Headline Optimizer: Make Your Posts a Massive Success, Instead of a Massive Waste

Thrive Headline Optimizer

I’ve been using the Thrive Headline Optimizer for a few months now, and I have to say I’m fascinated with the results.

What’s surprised me most is the results from some of the headline tests.

Often you have a gut feeling about which headline is going to be the most popular. But then the test data throws out an entirely unexpected winner.

The Thrive Headline Optimizer uses the same techniques that big websites like Huffington Post, Forbes, CNN, and Buzzfeed use to create the most compelling headlines possible.

=> Here’s how:

The Headline Optimizer tests three critical engagement factors:

  1. Click Through Rate: tracks click-throughs on your blog page, your recent posts widgets and anywhere else where you have posts listed.
  2. Time On Content: tracks which headline gets your visitor’s attention and keeps them reading your content.
  3. Scrolling: tracks how far down a page visitors scroll.

Using these metrics, the Headline Optimizer can find the headlines that do the best job of lowering your bounce rate and keeping visitors on your site.

Using Thrive Headline Optimizer

Thrive Headline Optimizer is a WordPress plugin. Once installed you can use it on your new blog posts, plus you can also go back through your old blog posts and set up tests on those too.

My process is as follows:

  1. Publish a new blog post with one of my selected headlines
  2. Add a few more headlines into the test
  3. Leave it for a few weeks to see which headline is performing better
  4. Make a decision on which headline to select as winner

Pro Tip: 

These (H1) headlines are independent of any meta title or description you may have set elsewhere. So, if you’re using the Yoast SEO plugin, for example, here’s what you can see in the snippet editor and how the post will appear in search engine results:

Yoast SEO Title and Description

Let’s take a look at the blog post example we featured earlier with the CoSchedule Headline Analyzer.

Step 1 - Publish a new blog post with one of my selected headlines

In this case, I chose to publish the blog post with the primary (control) headline:

  • 5 Simple Ways To Get More Google Goodness (Some You Probably Don’t Know About)
Thrive Headline Optimizer- Main Headline
Step 2 - Add a few more headlines into the test

Next, I added two more headlines into the test:

  • 5 Simple Ways To Improve Your Website SEO
  • 5 Ways To Boost Your SEO With These Super Simple Tricks
Thrive Headline Optimizer - test headlines

You’ll notice now that there is an Engagement Rate report on the right-hand side of the screen. As soon as the test headlines are added and data is collected by the Headline Optimizer, it starts to display results.

> This is just a quick overview section. I’ll show you the Headline Optimizer Dashboard in a moment.

Step 3 - Leave it for a few weeks to see which headline is performing better

In this example, my post was published on 27 May. Data has accumulated and is displayed in a couple of places:

  1. Inside the WP Post Editor
  2. Inside the Thrive Dashboard
(1) WP Post Editor:

The WP Post Editor gives a brief overview of headline optimizer test results. There are a couple of sections where the data is displayed.

The first section (as illustrated above) is next to each headline. In this example, Engagement Rate per Headline has been measured as follows:

  • 5 Simple Ways To Get More Google Goodness (Some You Probably Don’t Know About) = 25%
  • 5 Simple Ways To Improve Your Website SEO = 67.06%
  • 5 Ways To Boost Your SEO With These Super Simple Tricks = 67.89%

The second section in the WP Post Editor is as follows:

Thrive Headline Optimizer - WP Post Report

These metrics are for the overall post, i.e. the combined data for three headlines.

The report says that there have been 957 Views of the blog post.

450 people who read the blog post were classed as Engaged.

The Engagements are comprised of:

  • Clicks (21)
  • Scrolls (226)
  • Time on Site (203)

And then an overall Engagement Rate of 47.02% is calculated.

At the bottom are some links that will take you to more detailed test results in the Headline Optimizer Dashboard.

(2) Thrive Dashboard:

Let’s take a look at the Headline Optimizer Dashboard to see the headline test results in more detail.

The first set of results are displayed in a graph showing the Engagement Rate Over Time for each headline during the trial:

Thrive Headline Optimizer - Engagement Rate Over Time

This the Daily View. You can switch to Weekly or Monthly if you prefer.

The final engagement rate for today matches with the results we viewed in the WP Post Editor.

What’s apparent from this graph is that our first headline has always performed worse than our other two headlines which have ended up being ‘neck and neck’ in the race to be the winner.

The second set of results are displayed in a table:

Thrive Headline Optimizer - Table Data

Here we get to review the Headline, Content Views, Engagements, Engagement Rate, Percentage Improvement, and the Chance To Beat Original.

Like I said, the second and third headline have both performed far better than the original, and there is nothing to choose between them based on these results.

Step 4 - Make a decision on which headline to select as winner

The Thrive Headline Optimizer allows you to either select a winner or let the system pick it automatically. I’ve currently got the automatic winner settings disabled, but I can easily switch them on if I wish. You can see below what the default automatic settings are, but these are changeable too.

rive Headline Optimizer - Automatic Winner Settings

I have a few options:

  • let the test carry on running - but I don’t think it will achieve anything
  • switch on automatic winner settings and let the tool decide
  • choose a winner myself
  • choose a winner and start another test if I was not satisfied with results

For the purpose of this example, I’m going to choose the winner myself and then show you what happens behind the scenes.

And the winner is…

  • 5 Simple Ways To Improve Your Website SEO
Thrive Headline Optimizer - Winning Headline

Once completed, the Headline Optimizer marks the test as completed:

Thrive Headline Optimizer - Test Completed

The test results (exactly as displayed earlier) are still available in the dashboard, underneath completed tests:

Thrive Headline Optimizer - Completed Tests

And now in the WP Post Editor, you can only see the winning headline:

Thrive Headline Optimizer - One Headline in WP Editor

Thrive Headline Optimizer

Make Your Posts a Massive Success, Instead of a Massive Waste

Another Test...

Before we leave the Thrive Headline Optimizer, I wanted to share one other headline test that I’ve been running for another blog post.

This test started a couple of weeks earlier, but you can see the results below where the three alternative headlines have all performed better than the original one:

Thrive Headline Optimizer - Another Test

This time, there is a clear winner with the orange coded headline:

  • How To Generate An Endless Supply Of Content That Your Audience Will Love

And, as above, I’m going to select it as the winner and end this current test.

Pro Tip: 

The Headline Tests featured here have all focused on measuring website engagement. You could try running similar tests in Social Media too, by incorporating UTM tracking or using a tool like Buffer. However, the parameters for testing are not as consistent so be careful.

Headline Analyzer vs Headline Optimizer

Earlier I showed you the CoSchedule Headline Analyzer tool. As a final comparison, I thought it would be interesting to show the results of the Headline Analyzer versus the Headline Optimizer.

In the first example, you can see that there is a clear correlation between the results of the two tools. Both have marked Headline 3 as the best of the three headlines:

Test Comparison-1

In the second example, you can see that the results vary. The CoSchedule Headline Analyzer marked each headline quite closely, but the Thrive Headline Test showed more variance.

Test Comparison-2

No one can pick the best headline the first time, every time. This is why, for every post you publish, create not one, but several headlines, and then test them to find the real winners.

Wrapping It All Up

We've covered a lot of ground - time for a quick recap on what you’ve learned today.

  • Headlines are crucial for getting the first click - but make sure you keep your readers engaged after that.
  • Always write at LEAST 25 headlines for each piece of content and then come up with a handful of potential winners using the CoSchedule Headline Analyzer.
  • Insert your best headlines into the Thrive Headline Optimizer and find out which headline performs best with your audience - sometimes what you think will be the winner isn’t!

Now you have all the tools and resources to write and test your own winning headlines for all your web content.

  • Tell me which tools and resources you’ve found to be the most beneficial when creating your best headlines.
David Hartshorne

I'm a freelance writer working with business owners, marketing teams, and digital agencies to create in-depth, actionable content that resonates with their audience. When I'm not writing about digital marketing, you’ll find me roaring for the Villa or chilling with a thriller.

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