Writing what many copywriters and content marketers refer to as the “killer” headline takes practice, patience and a bit of luck. Whether it’s a how-to article on pottery or the latest update on a hot news story, headlines—not body text—are usually what grab readers’ attention first. In fact, Copyblogger cites that eight out of ten people will read headlines, but only two out of ten readers will actually read the rest of the article. 

With so much online content competing for eyeballs, you need to create headlines that will compel readers to click and continue reading beyond the first paragraph. Consequently, crafting an effective and compelling headline takes careful thought and considerable time, as well as some experimentation on what works and what doesn’t. 

Luckily, there are some tried-and-true rules that work time and time again when it comes to writing amazing headlines that translate into high website traffic and user engagement. Here are some tips to keep in mind when striving to write that perfect headline.

Make It Relevant and Useful 

At the end of the day, online publications are competing for readers’ attention. Web users tend to scan content, which means they typically glance at headlines, section titles and other page markers that highlight the main topic. And once readers click on a headline, they expect the content to offer some type of reward (i.e. useful or entertaining content) for reading. It’s crucial that you explicitly explain the benefit the reader will gain directly in the headline. If a reader’s mind needs to think more than a split second about what the content will be about, most people will simply click somewhere else. 

Although crafting a captivating headline won’t guarantee a high click-through rate, you still must ensure that the benefit promised in the headline is present throughout the rest of the body copy. Whether that’s teaching the reader a new skill or persuading a visitor to try skydiving, your article, brochure or blog post should deliver on what you promised in the headline. 

Leading your headline with trigger words such as “what,” “why” and “when,” like the examples below, can entice a user to continue reading: 

  • Why Early Risers Are the Most Productive
  • Where to Find the Best Pizza in Seattle
  • What Successful Entrepreneurs Know (But You Don’t)

Present a Unique Angle or Topic 

Oftentimes, readers will view your headline in a list sent through an RSS feed, or they’ll find a link in a blog that will include only your headline. Thus, it’s important to create headlines that include the unique angle or feature of your story so that readers are tempted to click and discover more. 

When contemplating your headline, consider whether the information is presented in a unique way that utilizes interesting adjectives (e.g. “incredible,” “bizarre,” “painstaking,” etc.) and unique rationale. For example, strong headlines usually include words like “facts,” “lessons,” “ideas,” or “tricks” to tell readers that the forthcoming article promises original and worthwhile information. Promising either a benefit or placing news in your headline can create a powerful incentive for readers to click on your content. 

But be sure to not abuse those adjectives, especially when writing for a business audience. Readers that follow your content can notice patterns, including when writers use words to generate unjustified buzz. If you abuse your adjectives, your readers and market may take note and take their attention elsewhere.

Create Urgency 

If there’s one way to get people to respond to your message, it’s to create the need to act immediately. When writing your headline, include keywords that compel your target audience to read the rest of the content now rather than later. 

  • There are a variety of ways to create urgency in a headline, including: 
  • Leading the headline with short action words.
  • Posing the headline as a question that tempts the reader to discover the answer.
  • Using keywords that inform the reader of an interesting discussion.
  • Including time-sensitive information or a deadline (e.g. “valid for 3 days,” “offer good until March 29,” etc.). 

To create a sense of urgency, use words that will trigger strong, actionable emotions that will drive customers and prospects to not only open your copy, but to take immediate action.

Add Specificity With Numbered Lists 

One winning strategy to writing effective headlines is the use of numbers. Headlines such as “9 Awesome Vacation Getaways” or “6 Quick Tips on Shedding Pounds” may be overdone, but they also continue to work. Using specifics such as numbered lists has been a proven strategy, one frequently used in print media long before the advent of the website. The reason they work is because they explicitly tell the reader how much benefit he or she will gain from reading the article. It quantifies the knowledge, making it easier for the brain to make the choice to read or not. 

Another tried-and-true format that continues to work is the “how-to” list. If used with powerful action verbs, personalized pronouns (e.g. “my,” “yours,” etc.) or effective words that promise to teach or reveal helpful knowledge, the list format can be a great way to make your headline shine. Think of the famous Dale Carnegie book How to Win Friends and Influence People. It not only explicitly conveys the benefit to the reader, but it doubles the benefit with the word “and,” promising the reader not only a way to win friends, but also a way to influence people. 

Leaving out the “to” works in the same manner: it makes the reader curious. “How l Lost 30 Pounds in 15 Weeks” is just one example, and most people interested in weight loss would at least have some desire to find out how the author accomplished such a feat. Once again, the headline captures the benefit, and it tells the reader what they will learn by continuing to read the piece.

Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite 

Gary Halbert, renowned copywriter and author of the website www.TheGaryHalbertLetter.com, once claimed that by re-working headlines for ads, he was able to increase leads for his clients by as much as 475%. Legendary ad executive and Co-Founder of Ogilvy & Mather, David Ogilvy was said to have written a headline for a famous automobile ad 104 times before settling on the final version. 

Rarely do writers get a headline right on the first, second or even third try. In other words, be open to drafting several versions before settling on the final result. This concept also lends itself to research, meaning keeping your eyes out for great headlines and understanding why they work. As you begin to master the subtleties of headline writing, you will begin to understand how the human eye works with the brain and how this translates into capturing attention. 

Test your headline by reading it out loud to yourself, a colleague or a spouse. Do their eyes light up after you read it? Does it immediately spark interest, generate questions or cause confusion? Never hesitate to get a second, third or fourth opinion so that your headline strikes the perfect balance between boring and extreme. Revisions also help catch the not-so-obvious spelling mistakes and grammatical errors that derail even the most well-crafted work of marketing art.