Headlines are the workhorses of content.

When they work well, they pull readers into your articles, e-books, podcasts, etc.

When they don’t work, they keep audiences away from even the most well-written content.

The headline does more work than any other component of the content. It must attract interest from the target audience, give potential readers a sense of the article, and demonstrate the brand voice. It may hint at the purpose or context of the article. It needs to intrigue, grab attention, and be accurate. Finally, it needs to be concise.

That’s a lot of work for so few words.

What can you do to make compelling headlines?

Given how much rides on the headline, follow this seven-point checklist to create winning ones every time:

1. Identify your brand’s purpose(s)

In marketing, every piece of content serves a purpose for your company. The content may exist to:

  • Increase brand visibility (and clicks) on search engine results pages.
  • Improve SEO for targeted keywords.
  • Entice someone to open an email.
  • Get someone to click on it in a newsletter.
  • Encourage a website visitor to read further.

If you have more than one business goal, that’s OK. Pick the most important one, then craft the headline (and URL) around it. And, if your process allows you to use different headlines for secondary and tertiary purposes, write those, too.

2. Detail the audience for the piece

Your content can be seen by anyone and everyone. But who do you really want to see it?

Please, don’t say your personas. They work well for creating content but not for writing headlines. Instead, recall your brand’s purpose for the content (step one) because that often helps you to identify a more niche audience than the more general persona or target audience.

For example, say your target audience is human resource managers in manufacturing. Your brand’s article about how to reduce the turnover of plant workers speaks to that general group. That’s a good (and necessary) start.

However, the article’s marketing purpose is to get clicks from newsletter recipients. So, the headline should speak to the segment of the audience who may find the topic currently relevant. So, write a headline focused on what the reader will gain from the article and add a curiosity factor: Find Out 3 Surprising Ways To Help Employees Be More Effective in Their Job.

Now, if the article’s purpose is SEO, you would use a different approach when writing the headline. People using search to seek information on the topic may not be familiar with your brand. They also probably aren’t curious about the topic; they’re looking for answers. They don’t know your content targets HR managers in manufacturing. So, the SEO-focused headline should speak to the audience and industry: How HR Managers Can Reduce Turnover Rates in Manufacturing Plants.

By connecting your audience and your brand’s purpose for the content, you are well-positioned to craft a headline that achieves your goals.

3. Know why someone would consume the content

What headline will make this content attract readers?

At this step, your goal isn’t necessarily to explain the purpose of the content. Your goal is to explain the unique attributes of the content. Look to the lede/introduction to help identify these attributes. What’s the hook? Why would someone stop to view this content? What’s the value for the content consumers? Is it informational, entertaining, actionable, etc.?

Audiences need to have a reason to read your content.

Think about a search results page. What prompts someone to click one link over another? If your headline is almost the same as every other result, the searcher will click on the first one. But, if your headline stands out in that crowd, the searcher is more likely to pick yours because it’s unique or sufficiently detailed.

Referencing the earlier example, if an HR manager searched for ways to reduce turnover in their manufacturing plants, they might see these headlines:

  1. How to Reduce Turnover and Improve Productivity
  2. Reducing Turnover in 2024 — 3 Strategies That Work
  3. Tips for Reducing Manufacturing Employee Turnover
  4. How To Reduce Employee Turnover in Manufacturing
  5. Reducing Employee Turnover in a Multi-Site Manufacturing Company

The first two don’t speak to manufacturing. Headlines three and four are almost identical so the only difference would be the source of the content. But the fifth headline is unique because it speaks to the type of manufacturing company.

Now that you’ve grounded your headline in its marketing purpose and targeted reader, you are ready to get into writing a headline that’s well-polished.

4. Keep it accurate

Unfortunately, this step is necessary to put on this checklist. For the sake of getting clicks, headline writers sometimes forsake, hedge, or sensationalize the truth. Always ensure that your headline is accurate both in fact and sentiment.

5. Pack a punch

A powerful headline includes:

  • Active verbs
  • Concise language
  • Blend of familiar and unexpected words
  • Clear benefit for intended audience

Going back to the example for HR managers about reducing turnover, look at these two headlines:

  • How To Decrease Employee Turnover at Your Manufacturing Plant
  • Reducing Turnover: A Unique Approach to Hiring for Manufacturing

The first makes a good headline. It uses an active verb (decrease) and concisely explains what the content is about. HR managers instantly know what they can expect from the content (how to reduce turnover) and that it speaks to them (at your manufacturing plant).

The second headline is weaker. It doesn’t use an active verb or clearly state what the article is about. On the positive side, it offers an unexpected twist (hiring as the solution), but the muddled language makes that hard to assess at first glance. (Using three words ending in “ing” creates a visual mess.)

Revise your headlines until they’re clear, concise, and powerful for your intended content consumers.

6. Use your voice

When a headline promotes content from your brand, the headline should reflect your brand’s voice. Is it straightforward, or does it incorporate a touch of humor (or maybe snark)? Are your audience members kept at arm’s reach (i.e., third person) or treated like friends or at least acquaintances (i.e., second person)?

Let’s look at a real-life example with Capterra, which acts as a resource for businesses to discover and analyze software and services. As it succinctly explains on the website, “We help your organization find the right resources to save time, increase productivity, and accelerate growth.”

The headlines on its blog reflect that mission to save time, increase productivity, and accelerate growth:

  • Dynamic Pricing Leads to Serious Losses: Busting the Top 3 Myths Surrounding This Emerging Tech
  • How an HR Futurist Would Get Your Team To Embrace the Office
  • 11 Steps To Improve Virtual Attendee Engagement at Hybrid Events

7. Go before a sounding board

Sure, you can A/B test your headlines (it’s a good idea). But that’s a live test. Test headlines before you publish. Ask for feedback from your team (or, even better, a few of the intended readers). Share a few headline options (don’t share the content itself). Then ask:

  • Would you click on this headline to read more?
  • Why?
  • What do you think the content is about?

Look through the answers to find the ones that best match your original intent and use those headlines.

More headline-writing tips

Now that you’ve followed the seven-step formula to make a good headline, here are a couple more tips to write an even better one.

Double check that emotion in headline analyzers

Headline tools are a popular way to assess quality. Using artificial intelligence, these tools compare the headline you enter with rules and guidelines baked into the program. But they’re far from infallible.

Consider these examples I put into a headline testing tool (scores from zero to 100). The italicized text indicates the only word I changed:

  • How To Create Your Best Content Without Best Practices (score 78)
    • Among the reasons: “Emotional words are proven to drive engagement by stirring an emotional response in readers. Great headlines usually consist of 10-15% emotional words.” This headline’s emotional words hit 11%.
    • How To Create Your Best Videos Without Best Practices (score 74)
    • The analyzer tells me the emotional words clocked in at 0%.

Huh? The only word that was changed was “content” for “videos.” What’s so emotional about the word content? Hmm …

Oh, the headline analyzer read “CONtent” as “conTENT” – a “state of satisfaction.” The higher score is falsely attributed to a homonym.

In addition to emotion, headlines are rated based on their sentiment (positive, neutral, negative). As the tool explains, a positive sentiment usually performs better than a negative sentiment, while neutral sentiment is the worst.

Interestingly, at CMI, we’ve found the opposite of the headline analyzer’s sentiment recommendations to be true. A negative headline (using words like “don’t” or “mistake”) usually draws more clicks than positive-toned headlines.

If the headline analyzer results don’t make sense, do a double-take. Scrutinize the potential reasons why the results might be skewed (i.e., CONtent vs. conTENT) or how your own experience may differ from the standard advice.

Use your data

Writing a headline that works best for your brand and your target audience is the goal. Fortunately, you already have a wealth of data from your existing content to know what makes a good headline. Study the data you already have. Create a spreadsheet with these columns:

  • Primary goal of content
  • Headline
  • Word count
  • Character count
  • Keywords (if SEO is the goal)
  • Number of page visits from search
  • Number of page visits from other sources (email, social, etc.)
  • Conversions to indicate how the headline and subsequent content are delivered (i.e., responses to CTA on the page)

Then, review the results. Is there an average number of words or characters that work best? Which headlines lead to the most conversions?

Your data will tell you a lot about your headlines. Then, you’ll have a better idea if the “best” practice is really best for your content marketing.

Make good headlines

Headline writing is never easy. In content marketing, it’s even more challenging. Not only does the headline have to explain what the content is about (or entice the reader), but it also has to contribute to the business goal of the content.

To get it right, define the content’s marketing reason, intended audience, and the unique reason its members want to read it. By getting that right, you’re well on your way to writing an accurate headline that reflects your brand’s voice and packs a punch.

And that’s the formula for any great headline.

Updated from a June 2022 article.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute