04.18.201612 min read

How to Write Headlines that Get Shared and Drive Traffic

Headlines make the blog post. Flub your headline, and even if the rest of the post is great, you’ll see far fewer results from your efforts.

Posts with weak headlines get drastically fewer shares, fewer clickthroughs, fewer readers. And while all that might sound like a dread warning, there’s a sunny upside here: Get your headline right, and you’re halfway to success.

It’s just a few little words—how hard could that be? Well, good headlines don’t have to be hard to write, but every extra minute you can put into making them great will pay off. That’s why old-school copywriters—of the postal mail era—spent half their writing time on their headlines.

As David Ogilvy said, “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.”

david ogilvy quote

Ogilvy might even have underestimated how valuable headlines are. In the world of social sharing, your headline may be the only part of your post that people read. That’s because most of us aren’t reading the articles we’re sharing. We just see the headline, the source, and maybe a catchy image—and we share.

This idea of sharing without reading generated a bit of a storm a few years ago. It started when Chartbeat’s CEO Tony Haile posted this tweet in response to a scuffle over Upworthy’s “curiosity gap” style headlines.

tony halle twitter post

Several other sources immediately chimed in that they had seen a similar trend.

This sharing-without-reading habit makes headlines even more critical. That old adage about people judging a book by its cover has only become truer. Except now, more and more people aren’t even opening the book. Ever. They’re recommending it based on the jacket.

I doubt you need any more convincing about how important headlines are. You get it. They can make or break a blog post, an e-book, a webinar—you name the content format.

So, how do you get them right?

Well, there is no perfect system for crafting a killer headline. If there was, we’d all be using it—and we might all be using the same headlines. But there are some tricks of the trade. I can’t guarantee miracles, but these techniques will put you ahead of the pack.

1. Write 25 headlines for every one you need

This is advice from the king of viral content, Upworthy. They have a fantastic SlideShare titled “How to Make That One Thing Go Viral.” It’s the single best headline resource I’ve ever come across, so I’m including it here. 

This SlideShare hammers home a number of content creation and promotion principles, but the two major ones are:

  • Good luck with trying to get something to go viral. Even the likes of Upworthy has only a .3 percent success rate for truly viral content.
  • Write 25 headlines. No, really—25 headlines. No excuses.

Very few content creators ever write 25 headlines for their content. We should, but it just seems so darn hard. Even I have to admit that I’m lazy; I only write six to 10 versions of each headline I use.

But for your edification (and mine) let’s run an experiment. Here’s how long it took to write 25 headlines:

  1. How to Write Better Headlines
  2. Want More Shares? Write Better Headlines
  3. 10 Headline Hacks for Dramatically More Shares
  4. Time-Tested Headline Secrets from Master Copywriters (one minute)
  5. 10 Tricks for Better Headlines
  6. 7 Easy Ways to Write Headlines that Get More Clicks and Shares
  7. What Every Content Marketer Needs to Know About Writing Headlines
  8. Data-Based Tips for More Effective Headlines (two minutes)
  9. What Your Readers Wish You Knew About Writing Headlines
  10. How to Write Headlines that Get More Clicks and Shares
  11. 7 Easy Ways to Write Better Headlines, Faster
  12. Want an Edge for Your Content? Write Better Headlines (three minutes)
  13. Why Your Headline is 5 Times More Important than the Rest of Your Content
  14. Simple Tricks to Write Headlines that Triple Your Results
  15. Headline Hacks for More Effective Content (four minutes)
  16. 10 Tricks to Write Better Headlines Based on Recent Research
  17. New Research on How to Write Better Headlines
  18. 7 Ways to Improve the Single Most Important Aspect of Any Content (five minutes)
  19. Headlines Make the Content: How to Write More Effective Headlines
  20. How to Write Killer Headlines
  21. 10 Easy Ways to Write Irresistible Headlines (six minutes)
  22. The Scientifically Savvy Way to Write Irresistible Headlines
  23. If You Only Get One Part of Your Content Right, Make it the Headline
  24. Headlines are 5 Times More Important than Any Other Part of Your Content (seven minutes)
  25. 80% of Content Marketing Success Rests in the Headline (seven minutes 20 seconds)

There you have it: You can write 25 headlines in eight minutes or less.

Your headline list may have some obvious winners and some obvious dogs. But I’d still run every one of these through two of my favorite headline analyzers. They’re CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer and the Advanced Marketing Institute’s Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer.

Here are the scores each one of those headlines got from each tool:

headline analysis

Now, let’s do some explaining about what all the numbers mean. First, CoSchedule: The number there is scored from one to 100. That score reflects how long the headline is, if it’s associated with more or fewer shares, and several other attributes. Anything over a 70 is considered very good. If you can clear 80, I’d say you’ve found a seriously strong headline. The grade score after the number refers to “Word Balance,” “An analysis of the overall structure, grammar, and readability of your headline.”

The Advanced Marketing Institute’s tool works differently. It rates headlines based on which industry the headline belongs to. Then it sorts headline types by whether they’re intellectual, empathetic, or spiritual.

headline analysis results

Of the two tools, I prefer CoSchedule’s. Just don’t take what it tells you as gospel. These are just tools. They are helpful for picking headlines, but they are really just educated guesses. The only way to tell what’s actually going to work is to either go ahead and publish your content, or try to test the headline before you publish.

2. Test

Another thing the old-time copywriters knew: If you can test only one thing, test the headline. This example from Upworthy demonstrates the potentially epic power of a headline test:

Upworthy headline test

Who else wants 59 times more shares from their content?

If you’re willing to test your headlines after a post has been published, here are several WordPress plugins that make it pretty easy to do:

Of course, none of those will help you test before you publish. Which means all the promotion you do in the first days after publication will be using an untested headline. This is no good, because—as you know—the bulk of the attention your post will get is in those first few days.

Drat. Now what?

I might have a solution. I’ve been playing around with pre-testing headlines in Facebook. It’s a flawed system, but here’s how it works: Find an existing blog post that’s closely related to the topic of your new post.

This will be the link you’ll use in your Facebook ad. Ideally, you’d be pointing traffic to a page on your site. But if there isn’t a similar blog post, point it to another site in your niche. You want something close enough that the Facebook ad reviewers won’t disapprove your ad because you’re sending traffic to an unrelated page.

  • Make a “Clicks to Website” type of ad. Have one version of the ad use “Headline A” that you want to test. Create another duplicate ad for “Headline B.”
  • Select an audience for these ads that closely resembles the audience you want to attract.
  • Start the ads. Watch how they perform over the next few days. Make sure you pick a winner that’s statistically valid. A simple test calculator like Perry Marshall’s split-tester will do.

Here’s what my ads dashboard looked like for a short test I ran last month. These aren’t statistically valid results, but this shows what your tests would look like.

facebook ads pam neely

It will probably cost you about $20 to test three headlines against each other. It will also add quite a bit of time to your headline writing, and to your content creation. However, what’s it worth to you to find out which headline gets double or triple the clicks?

3. Use Numbers

Most of the time, when you’ve got a number in a headline, it means you’ve got a “list post,” aka a “listicle.” A typical listicle headline would be “10 Ways to Get More Shares.” This article format is used far and wide online. It’s also been dissed as a shallow way to express ideas.

Shallow or not, listicles work. Look at any list of “top articles on this site” and you’ll see at least a few listicles. Often, the entire roster of top articles will be listicles.

Why do they work? Several reasons:

  • Listicles are scannable. Most people online are scanning, not reading.
  • Numbers are specific. People want to know what they’re going to get before they click through to a page.
  • Listicles frame the information well. They make the information seem more manageable or “digestible.”

There are many studies showing that listicles outperform other content formats—and other headline types. Here’s one from Noah Kagan’s site:

average shares by content type

And another from Conductor’s study of which headlines resonate with readers:

overall headline preferences

4. Use magic words

What’s the magic word? It’s “you.” Or “free.” Or the keyword you want to rank for.

Use your words carefully in headlines. Always be focused on where your readers’ heads are at; they’re always scanning for what’s relevant to them. If your headline can make that case, you’ll get more clicks. You can see this principle in the graph from Conductor’s study. “Reader addressing” headlines got the second most engagement.

While readers are the most important audience, we can’t very well neglect search engines, either. And because your headline is such a powerful component of a page’s search engine optimization I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention including them in your headline. Don’t go into keyword stuffing, please, but one or two keywords is good.

Buffer did an interesting study a few years ago about which words got the most shares. Here’s the highlights of what they found:

most popular viral headlines

Notice the “you” in the left column? It even beat out “is.” Of course, these words would change a bit if they were pulled from articles for a business audience. They’d change again if they were pulled from articles for your audience.


Headlines should not be added on as a last-minute finishing touch. They have so much effect on the success or failure of our content that we really need to be giving them more focus. Maybe we can’t go so far as spending half our content creation time on the headline. But what about even 20 minutes? If those 20 minutes could get you 20 percent more shares and results from your content, wouldn’t they be worth it?

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This article was written by Pam Neely from Business2Community and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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