A headline can serve either as an apple pie on the windowsill of your content or as its bouncer. It’s all in the way you phrase things.
Fortunately for us, many people have found headlines that work wonders, consistently, time after time. And they go well beyond the saturated listicle or clickbait.
Why not take some inspiration from the best headlines of the best headline writers?
The blueprints exist to get your tweets, emails, updates, and articles clicked.
I collected a trove of interesting and actionable headline formulas from some of the best sources for headline writing, and I’ve tossed in a few of our favorite Buffer headline formulas, too. Is there a tried-and-true headline routine that you always come back to? See if it’s listed here among these sure bets, or leave it in the comments.
The science and psychology of a must-click headline
On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.
This oft-cited quote from advertising guru David Ogilvy might be putting it mildly. Take a recent, popular tweet from my timeline. Over 3,800 people saw the tweet. Fifty people clicked. That’s 76 times more people seeing the headline as reading the story.
Phew. We headline writers have our work cut out for us.
Outside the realm of social, Copyblogger has found that the ratio for headline-reading to article-reading falls closer in line with Ogilvy’s famous statement. Per Copyblogger, eight out of 10 people will read your headline. Two out of 10 will read the rest of what you wrote.
Further, KISSmetrics has reported that readers tend to absorb the first three words of a headline and the last three words, making a six-word headline ideal. But how often do we write six-word headlines? Whenever we write longer, it’s important to remember exactly which words will carry the most weight—those at the start and those at the end.
Readers absorb the first 3 and last 3 words of a headline. Start strong, finish with a flourish.
One final thought about headlines (and then I’ll get to the formulas, I promise!) is a bit of a Buffer M.O.: action steps based on psychology. We enjoy pairing the work of headline writing with the science of human psychology. With that in mind, here are eight headline strategies that are backed by psychology.
- Surprise – “This Is Not a Perfect Blog Post (But It Could’ve Been)”
- Questions – “Do You Know How to Create the Perfect Blog Post?”
- Curiosity gap – “10 Ingredients in a Perfect Blog Post. Number 9 Is Impossible!”
- Negatives – “Never Write a Boring Blog Post Again”
- How to – “How to Create a Perfect Blog Post”
- Numbers – “10 Tips to Creating a Perfect Blog Post”
- Audience referencing – “For People on the Verge of Writing the Perfect Blog Post”
- Specificity – “The 6-Part Process to Getting Twice the Traffic to Your Blog Post”
I’ve said before that 90 percent of good headline-writing is obsessing over the perfect headline.
The other 10 percent might be picking the appropriate headline formula.
Here’re thirty of the best formulas I’ve found.
The Ultimate Headline Formula
Lenka Istvanova of Koozai Marketing developed a headline formula based on her analysis of best practices for headlines that get clicks. The formula goes like this:
Numbers + Adjective + Target Keyword + Rationale + Promise
Ex. 10 Simple Steps You Can Take Today That Will Make You Happier
Betteridge’s Law of Headlines
The headline formula in this case is rather straightforward: Be careful asking questions.
Betteridge’s law of headlines was dreamed up by British technology journalist Ian Betteridge after noticing a growing trend in question headlines around the web. The law states:
Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.
Ex. This headline from Fast Company—“Can A Photographer Truly Capture Love?”—could be answered by the word no, so instead, we could rewrite the headline to “The Impossible Task of Capturing Love in Photos: How These Photographers Pulled It Off.”
[Do something] like [world-class example]
Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike” campaign is one of the best examples of tying a desired result with a desirable entity. If you don’t have a Michael Jordan to attach to your headline, you can go generic, too.
Ex. Blog Like an All-Star
Bonus headline opportunity! Via Joanna Wiebe at Copy Hackers, here’s an updated version of the “Be Like Mike.”
[Do Something Desirable] Like [an Expert] Without [Something Expected & Undesirable]
Ex. Blog Like an All-Star – Without Bankrupting Your Free Time
Interesting adjectives + unique nouns
Jeff Goins believes in the multifaceted power of choosing the right word. His headline-writing formula calls for interesting adjectives and unique nouns, whenever possible. Basically, Goins advises to never write a headline that begins with “11 Things…”
Ex. Awe-Inspiring Examples, Painstaking Lessons, Can’t-Miss Takeaways, Brilliant Strategies, Underrated Ideas
[Amazing Headline]: Subhead
This one flies in the face of the 6-word headline strategy mentioned above, yet long ones like these can really pack a punch with specificity and the right words. Start with a great opener, place a colon, add a complementary headline.
Ex. The Fine Art of the Apostrophe: How to Master the Most Difficult Punctuation Problems
Writing at KISSmetrics, Bnonn outlines a five-part formula that should apply to every headline. The acronym SHINE works itself out like this:
S – Specificity
H – Helpfulness
I – Immediacy
N – Newsworthiness
E – Entertainment value
Ex. The Best Five Minutes (immediacy) You’ll Spend Today (entertainment): The Latest Tips (newsworthy) From Buffer (specificity) on Getting More Followers (helpfulness)
The SEO-heavy headline
Most of the headlines mentioned here can incorporate SEO keywords into the formulas in a pinch. This one, via Unbounce, just happens to call out the SEO element explicitly.
[Adjective] & [Adjective] [What You Are / SEO Keyword Phrase] That Will [Highly Desirable Promise of Results]
Ex. New and Useful Content Marketing Trends That Will Drive You More Traffic
Who Else Wants ____
Here’s a classic social proof formula, implying that many folks have already expressed a desire for [blank]. It’s one of many formulas used by John Caples, author of Tested Advertising Methods.
Ex. Who Else Wants an Easier Way to Share to Social Media?
The Secret of ______
This one can work in a couple fun ways: Sharing insider knowledge on a topic or sharing transparently from your own warchest of secrets.
Ex. The Secret of Writing Killer Blog Content on a Near-Daily Basis
Little Known Ways to _______
The cousin of “The Secret of” headline, this one takes a bit of a different, intriguing angle and, if viewed in the right light, could even offer a challenge to readers. “Little known ways? Ha! I bet I know them!”
Ex. Little Known Ways to Get More Traffic From Social
Here’s a Quick Way to [solve a problem]
Copyblogger’s Brian Clark shared 10 popular headline formulas, some of which you’ve seen in this list and all of which have a good background in experience and history. The benefits of this headline are clear: timely and helpful, e.g. a fast method to fix a problem.
Ex. Here’s a Quick Way to Clean Up Your Profile Page
Have a / Build a ______ You Can Be Proud Of
If you cringe a bit to see a headline end in a preposition, I’m sorry. This one might not be for you. However, it does do a good job of appealing to our sense of pride, improvement, and self-satisfaction.
Ex. Build an Online Community You Can Be Proud Of
What Everybody Ought to Know About _______
This one is another good mix of social proof and challenge. It gets others involved and piques curiosity about whether or not you already know the info in the article.
Ex. What Everybody Ought to Know About Marketing on Pinterest
[Number] Lessons I Learned From ______
Sherice Jacobs, writing at the Daily Egg blog, shared 15 headline formulas (which you’ll see below), and her first was my favorite. This one grabs attention because it’s reassuring; it gives people an example to follow and comfort knowing someone has tried, experimented, and learned from an experience already.
Ex. 17 Lessons I Learned From Writing a New Blog Post Every Day for a Month
How to Survive Your First _______
Similar to the headline formula above, this one treads the inspiring waters of reassurance. People love having a roadmap to follow.
Ex. How to Survive Your First 40 Days of Work on a Distributed Team
Peter Sandeen’s How To Headlines
Blogger Peter Sandeen put together an incredible resource of over 100 headline formulas, categorized into helpful classifications. For instance, we’re all familiar with the traditional How To headlines. Here’s Sandeen’s take on some alternatives to the tried-and-true how-to.
How to ____
How to ____ – The Essential Guide
How to ____ like ____
How to ____ even if / without ____
How to ____ while ____
How to use ____ to ____
How to ____ in five easy steps
Ex. How to Get More Reach on Facebook Without Paying a Dime
Headline. A little something extra.
Pat Flynn of Smart Passive Income and Jerod Morris of Copyblogger have used this headline formula to great effect. Basically, highlight a little something extra from the proposition of your main headline. This is most often seen with listicles where you’ll start with the listicle headline and then mention a particular element of one of the items.
Ex. 13 Awesome Ways to Build a Following on Facebook. We’re Trying #5 Today.
Copyblogger shared a non-hype version of this headline formula: How to Build an Audience with Story (From America’s Greatest Living Playwright)
The mini-headline: 4 words or fewer
I have a very hard time keeping headlines brief. At Buffer, we tend to prefer the longer, more descriptive headlines. At the same time, you can find a lot of success with mini-headlines, too. Take Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog, for instance.
Here’s a sampling of recent Zen Habits headlines:
- Don’t Waste a Moment
- How to Be Great
- Making Yourself Work
- Inhabit the Moment
Our go-to Buffer headline formulas
We’ve got a few tropes that we often come back to at the Buffer blog, cultivated over time (and much experimentation) by our co-founder Leo. Here are a few of our most-used headline formulas.
The Double Whammy
If there’re two headlines we like a lot (and they’re different enough from each other), we’ll use both. In the same headline. This idea works similar to the subhead example listed above.
Headline + Headline
Ex. 14 Advanced Twitter Tips: 14 Strategies to Get the Most Out of Twitter
We’ll pull out one or two items from a listicle and lead with those elements, followed by the actual listicle headline.
Item and Item: Listicle
Ex. The Burrito Principle and Beyond: 12 New Marketing Ideas That Are Memorable, Actionable, and Useful
_____, backed by science
Since many of our articles aim for a research-backed angle, we often attempt to call this out in the headline. When “backed by science” doesn’t fit, we may try “research-backed” in place of an adjective.
Ex. Happiness Hacks: The 10 Most Unexpected Ways to Be Happy, Backed By Science
The Ultimate Guide to ____, The Beginner’s Guide to ____
We love guides here at Buffer. They’re super useful pieces of evergreen content that readers expect to contain everything they’d need to know about a topic.
Ex. The Ultimate Guide to Repurposing Content: 12 Ways to Extend the Life of Every Article You Write
The Big List of ____
When our listicles get really epic, we like to tag them with “The Big List” to denote that it’s a really comprehensive look at whatever it is we’re blogging about. And this tends to work well: Our “big list” posts often score quite high in social shares and traffic.
Ex. The Big List of 189 Words That Convert: Write Copy That Gets Your Customer’s Attention Every Time
Short, sweet, numbered, and interesting
Neil Patel and the Quick Sprout team put together a comprehensive infographic about what makes a good headline, covering pretty much every element you could imagine. The end result:
Number or Trigger Word + Interesting Adjective + Keyword + Promise (as near to six words as possible)
Ex. 13 Far-fetched Headlines You Must Investigate
When in doubt, write 25 headlines
Upworthy’s famous editorial process was one of the keys to the explosion in popularity of their content. Upworthy wrote 25 headlines for every story, tested the best ones, and went with the winner.
Here are their rules for writing amazing headlines:
Writing 25 headlines sounds like a good idea in practice, but really, have you ever heard of anyone actually doing this?
The Blinkist team tried this for a week with four different articles, using a two-person team to write and rank 25 headlines per story. Caitlin at Blinkist describes it in this way:
Realtalk: half of the headlines you create will be ridiculous, some of them won’t make any sense at all, and plenty of others will fall flat and boring. But man, is it satisfying when you strike upon one that’s music to your ears.
She and her teammate collaborated on writing all 25 headlines, they each chose their three favorites, and whichever headlines were favorites on both lists moved on to testing. Blinkist used the Buffer Twitter test for headlines to choose the ultimate winner.
I tried the 25-headline challenge myself for this article. Here’re all the ones I came up with. Is there a favorite of yours on the list that is different than the final choice?
- Headline Formulas of the Stars: 37 Magic Ways to Get Your Content Clicked and Read
- How to Write Headlines Like Don Draper
- Who Else Wants the Secrets of the World’s Best Headline Writers?
- 30+ Headline Formulas Your Content Needs to Be Seen and Clicked
- How to Write 25 Headlines For Every Piece of Content
- What I Learned From Writing 25 Headlines for Every Piece of Content
- What Everybody Ought to Know About Quality Headline Writing Formulas
- Write a Clickable Headline – Without Losing Your Soul
- How to Use Formulas to Write Perfect Headlines Every Time
- Here’re 30 Quick Ways to Write 30 Can’t-Miss Headlines
- What Gatorade Knows About Writing a Great Headline
- The Ultimate Headline Formulas for Tweets, Posts, Articles, and Emails
- Try These 30+ Headline Formulas. You’re Reading No. 17 Right Now.
- 30 Ways to Make Your Headline Sing
- 30 Tried-and-True Headline Formulas You Can Test Today
- Get More Clicks on Your Content: Trust a Headline Formula to Get the Job Done
- Everything I Learned From Studying the Best Headline Formulas
- Build a Headline You Can Be Proud Of (And Others Will Click)
- Why Headline Formulas Are the Way to Go – And Which Ones Work Best
- The Double Whammy, the Big List, and More: 30 of the Best Headline Formulas
- Write Headlines Like a Magician
- The Most Important Tool in Your Content Toolbox: Headline Formulas
- 30+ Headline Formulas That Work, or Your Money Back
- Think Writing 25 Headlines Is Impossible? Not With These Formulas
- The Secret Headline Formulas That the Internet’s Best Articles Use
(Total time spent brainstorming: 11 minutes.)
Which headline formulas do you rely on for your tweets, posts, blogs, and emails?
I loved sharing a bit behind-the-scenes about how we write headlines at Buffer, as well as how some of the best headline writers in the business get their work done. And armed with so many formulas, writing an Upworthy-amount of headlines per story doesn’t seem so daunting. Think it might be a challenge you try? I’d be keen to hear how it goes.
Chat with you in the comments!
Image credits: Marcus Spiske, Quick Sprout