Write better headlines with these 2 essential rules and 5 top tips

by Danielle Styles

My last post explained how effective headlines hook in the reader with the promise of a juicy benefit. Once you’ve grasped this key principle, noticed how it works in practice and begun to apply it to your own writing, there are a few straightforward techniques you can weave in to really ramp up the pulling power of your headlines.

We’ll begin with the 2 essential rules that will help ensure the success of every headline you write. I’ll then go on to outline 5 tips you can use quickly and easily (where space, style and relevancy allow) to make your headlines even better at drawing prospective readers into your content.

2 rules for the success of every headline

1. Write your headline first 

As a writer, you’ve probably taken the decision at least once in your career to write your title or headline last. It seems logical – the act of writing can help you generate ideas and even hit upon a focus for your piece.

This makes a lot of sense for more literary works, but if you’re in the business of plucking people’s attention out of nowhere, writing your headline first gives you a big advantage.

When you write your headline before the rest of your text, you’ve got carte blanche to pinpoint the most attractive benefit for your audience you can possibly think of. Having chosen a benefit that really appeals, you can then structure your entire article around it. Keeping the promise of your headline as a sharp focus when you’re writing is the best way to make sure your article delivers.

By writing the headline first, you should end up with a better headline and a text that’s more effective in giving people what they want.

2. Make sure your promise is credible

For a headline to work, your potential reader must believe in the promise it makes. Time is a truly precious commodity (no one ever has enough), which makes the time it takes to read an article a real investment. What you don’t want to do is allow any doubts to crop up about whether the investment people make in your text will be worthwhile.

  • Don’t be tempted to exaggerate or make outrageous claims. Truth isn’t only a virtue, it’s what people want and need. They’ll shy away from anything that doesn’t sound genuine, and therefore genuinely useful.
  • Be specific. The more specific you are, the more credible the headline becomes. Precise details indicate that you’ve got real substance behind the title. Looking back to the four model headlines from my last post, that’s one reason why ‘3 easy ways to organise your workspace and get more done’ is more compelling than, say, ‘3 easy ways to be organised at work’. (The first version is also more explicit about the benefit.)

Sometimes you’ll want to reign your headlines in a bit by adding words that make them a little more tentative.  This is why, in model headline no. 1 (‘Why some people almost always achieve their New Year’s resolutions’), the word ‘almost’ is a vital one.

Ever met a human being who always achieves what they set out to do? Nope – and your audience won’t have either.

5 top tips for tweaking your headline to perfection

Here are 5 tips which are simple to apply and can instantly give your headlines extra oomph. For reasons of style, subtlety and brevity, you probably won’t always want to employ all of them. But you’ll often find that adding one or two of them gives your headline just the kick it needs.

1. Highlight easy solutions

We’re all time-pressured, so quick-fixes are invaluable. ‘3 easy ways to organise your workspace…’ makes for a more tempting offer than simply saying ‘3 ways’. Low-cost or free answers are also a big draw, so if you’ve got a solution that’s easy on the brain, body or wallet then go ahead and state that fact in the title.

2. Focus on newsworthiness/scarcity

Little-known information is more valuable to us because it’s likely to be telling us something we don’t already know. If you’ve got something new to say, then try to use your title to emphasise this. Phrases like ‘the secret of…’, and words such as ‘introducing’, ‘discover’, ‘new’ and ‘news’ work a treat.

3. Promise to reveal something the reader didn’t already know about themselves

You can do this with a leading question, e.g. ‘Are you selling your services short?’; ’Are you making make this mistake with [an important activity]?’ People love to focus on themselves – it’s human nature. Useful (or entertaining) revelations on the subject of ‘you’ and ‘your’ are bound to attract attention.

(Take care with question headlines – remember that a question with a clear and obvious ‘no’ answer could make your article sound irrelevant and actually turn people off.)

4. Use a list format

Lists work because, in the words of Copyblogger founder Brian Clark, they give a ‘nice, quantifiable return on attention invested’ (see 7 Reasons Why List Posts Will Always Work). Because they’re specific about how many ‘hints’, ‘tips’ or ‘ways’ they’ll provide with, you start to get a sense either of how quickly you might be able to digest the information (small-number lists), or how much valuable material you could get out of them (large-number lists). Plus stating a quantity indicates that you’ve got some real substance behind your headline.

Use digits rather than words in your list, and try to put them at the beginning of the sentence, where they’ll have more impact.

5. Include attention-grabbing words

Some words simply have more attention-grabbing power than others. We’ve already touched on ‘you’, ‘secret’ and ‘new’, but here are some others that can help your headlines stand out:

Now
Win
Promise
Instant
Proven
Enjoy
Thank you

As long as they’re relevant, and including them doesn’t cause you to say something that’s untrue, using these words is an easy way to give your headlines more punch.

Now to announce your headline-writing skills to the world…

That’s just about a wrap for my two-part headline masterclass. But your headline apprenticeship has only just begun.

Now that you understand how to construct, frame and tweak a headline for maximum impact, it’s time to go forth and write some.

Seek out tried-and-tested headline formulas to give you ideas for structure (just type ‘headline formulas’ into Google and see what comes up). And remember to keep your eyes peeled for headlines that are pulling in crowds in practice.

Write them down. Analyse their structure. Identify the reader benefits. Ask yourself what makes them compelling – and how they could be improved. Then apply this insight to your own headline-writing.

I bet you’ll improve out of sight.

What have you learned from observing and analysing real-life headlines? Please share your top tips with us in the comments.


5 golden rules for effective content marketing

by Danielle Styles

In my last post, we saw how content marketing turns traditional advertising on its head, by prompting pro-active and interested customers to find you. But the question still remains – what exactly do you need to do to make this happen?

Putting out any old content sporadically and hoping for the best is unlikely to have much of an effect. To reap the results you’re looking for, you need to prepare and execute a smart plan. And your plan needs to incorporate these five golden rules.

1. Document your strategy

Writing down your content marketing plan is essential to carrying it out effectively. Why? Because writing focuses your mind. It makes it easier to check that the steps you’re taking lead logically to the result you want. It allows you to nail down the whatwhen and how of creating and distributing your content, in a document that your colleagues can refer to. In short, it keeps everyone on track.

Your strategy doesn’t necessarily need to be flashy or in-depth, especially if you’re a small organisation with limited resources. What’s important is that you answer these critical questions:

  • Who are your customers? What are their needs? How will your content meet them?
  • How much time/resources are available for producing content?
  • What do you want your content strategy to achieve?
  • What’s the most appropriate channel, tone and structure for your content, taking into account your audience and aims?
  • How will you convert your readers into subscribers and/or buyers/donors/supporters?

2. Give your customers something that genuinely enhances their situation

It’s simple: your content needs to improve the lives of your target audience. It needs to have real value for them by meeting a genuine need.

Your first task is to work out who you’re marketing to. A vividly imagined persona is far easier to work with than a vague demographic profile, so flesh out a description of the single character who best represents your audience.

Now put yourself in that person’s shoes. What are they striving for? What gets in the way of what they want to achieve? How can your content be written, styled and delivered so that it really floats their boat? (Include these notes in you documented strategy.)

Remember: to truly educate, entertain or otherwise help your target customers, your content needs to be high-quality. Hastily churned-out rubbish won’t cut the mustard. If your free content is so fantastic that a little voice in your head is questioning the wisdom of gifting it to people, then you’re probably on to a good thing. Generosity is the whole point.

It’s when you’re authentically yet strategically generous that wondrous things (like increased site traffic, customer conversions, loyalty and brand awareness) start to occur. Which leads me to my next point.

3. Deliver content regularly and consistently

It’s simple. Give your audience a reason to keep returning to your site, and don’t disappoint them when they do.

Decide how often you can reasonably produce new content without compromising on quality. Schedule in regular release dates – whether daily, weekly, fortnightly or monthly. Then make sure you stick to that schedule.

If you regularly deliver content with the wow-factor, people will keep coming back to you, strengthening rapport each time. Having set their expectations high, what you don’t want to do is let them down and risk losing them. So make sure you keep the timing and quality of your content consistent.

4. Integrate social media

The more your content is read, liked and shared, the more influential it’s going to be. The right kind of social media exposure triggers behaviours that (1) get your content read and (2) drive relevant traffic to your website. So you need to make sure you’re stoking the flames.

Know what social-networking sites your target audience use, and get active on them. You’ll need to invest time to create and engage a following, and this calls for a strategy of its own. Broadly speaking though, your social media activity needs to be two-way, cooperative and (as with your content) focused on the interests of your audience.

Particularly when you’re starting out, and you don’t have much content of your own, it pays to promote other people’s. This may seem counter-intuitive, but if the content’s excellent and relevant, the benefits can be huge. Selectively promoting other people’s content not only builds your reputation as a savvy ‘curator’ worthy of a follow, it also makes the owners of that content more likely to share your content in return. (Plus it feels like a rewarding, human thing to do.) So suss out who’s generous and influential, and – as long as their content is right – focus on sharing their materials.

Writing irresistible headlines and posts is another social media technique you must master, to get your links clicked on and your content read. Which brings me to…

5. Apply time-tested copywriting techniques

With all this emphasis on content, you could be forgiven for thinking that copywriting is defunct.

Nope! Guess again.

It’s true that writing a classic one-page newspaper ad is not the same as writing a delectable piece of content. If the tone of your blog post or e-magazine is overtly salesy, you’re just going to turn people off.

What’s also true – from a marketing perspective at least – is that without copywriting, your free content is pretty much useless.

You may not be using old-school marketing methods, but the techniques of copywriting still stand. Integrating them into your content is an vital part of encouraging your prospects along the path to conversion.

Your content needs:

  • To offer a real benefit, and communicate it in an irresistible headline
  • To pull the reader from one sentence to the next, all the way through
  • To speak to the audience with a targeted, compelling tone of voice
  • To have a clear ‘call to action’ to direct them to the next step

It’s copywriting that captures your reader – first the intriguing headline hooks them in; then the fantastic tone and style pulls them through; and finally the call to action pushes them onwards – to subscribe to your mailing list, register for a demo, or share your content with their social media connections.

In my next blog post, I’ll be passing on some tips and tricks to help you hone a skill that’s absolutely critical to the success of your copy, content and social media marketing: writing headlines.

If you’ve found this post useful, please pass it on by using the share buttons below. Thank you!


4 tricks from Brazilian football that will make you a better copywriter

by Danielle Styles

Your copywriter’s desk and the Maracanã stadium probably seem poles apart, so Brazilian football isn’t going to be an obvious place for you to find copy inspiration. But I’ve unearthed some parallels that might surprise you. As Brazil’s 2014 World Cup campaign reaches a critical stage, here are four ways that you should be taking your lead from the boys in blue, gold and green.

1. Play with words

A quick read through the starting line-up for any Brazil match soon reveals a characteristic quirk – there’s something rather odd about the players’ names. From Pele to Zico and Socretes to Hulk, the names emblazoned on the back of Brazilian footballers’ shirts rarely match those on their birth certificates. Wordplay is rife in Brazilian football, with the nicknaming of players being the most obvious example. It also comes out in the legendary poeticism of Brazil’s commentators, whose tendency to wax lyrical has resulted in terms such as pernas de pau (wooden legs) for bad players, and frango (chicken) for a fumbling mistake committed by a goalie. Verbal creativity makes for vivid commentary that sticks in your head, and the same principle can be applied to your copy. As long as the tone’s appropriate for your brand, and it’s not overdone, metaphor can make your writing more memorable, and therefore more powerfully persuasive.

2. Stir the emotions

Brazilian footballers don’t score goals. They score gooooooals! And the difference between a goal and a gooooooal is passion. The passion Brazilians have for football is a major reason why they’ve become the most successful national team in World Cup history. Emotion is an incredibly powerful motivator, and this is as true for writing as it is for football. Our brains process information emotionally before they process it rationally, which means we’re usually much more persuaded by our feelings than logical thoughts. So when you’re writing copy, remember to paint a picture of emotional benefits as well as rational ones.

3. Challenge convention

As much as they love the beautiful game, Brazilians aren’t content to just play it straight. With characteristic creativity, Brazilian people have chopped and changed football to come up with some unique sporting alternatives. At the wackier end you have ‘autoball’, a 70s craze in which players drove cars into a huge ball in the hope of rebounding it off their bonnets and scoring a goal. Then you have footbull (not a typo) where a grumpy bull is deposited in the midst of a five-a-side match to spice it up. Slightly less bonkers are footvolley (a football/beach volleyball hybrid), button football (a kind of football tiddlywinks) and futsal (indoor football). What unites these football alternatives is the addition of a totally unrelated element – be it a car, a bull or a mere tiddlywink. And this age-old creative technique of putting two unlike things together is something you as a copywriter can use – to spark off original and attention-grabbing concepts. The marriage of two unconnected elements can give your copy the intrigue needed to make people stop and pay attention, just as the comparison between football and copywriting might have drawn you to this post.

4. Love what you do

You might think that a nation who’ve been crowned World Cup champions five times are all about winning, but that would be to miss the point. As Alex Bellos puts it in his brilliant book Futebol, ‘Brazil is not a country of winners – it’s a country of people who like to have fun’. Take a leaf out of the Brazilians’ book, and fall in love with whatever it is you’re working on. If you enjoy your work, you’ll always perform better. There’s a sound body of scientific evidence to say that people have more insights when they’re relaxed, and are more creative when they’re happy. Copywriting may be tough, but it’s also creative, mentally stimulating and rewarding. So the next time you get a mental block, try to take the pressure off and have fun with it. You might just see a ripple of ideas come to the surface. And if all else fails, get up from your desk and samba. For more copywriting tips and signposts to useful content, follow me on Twitter!