19 tips to write effective, engaging headlines

Headlines don’t just happen. 

Well, they do, but the good ones don’t just happen. That’s for sure.

Headlines are the gateway to your content, whether it’s a blog or something else. Potential readers will decide in a split second whether to read more based on your headline.

Beyond that, about 6 out of 10 readers will share content on social media just because of the headline without actually reading anything more, according to the Washington Post.

So, your headline matters. Here are 19 tips to write the most effective and engaging headlines to represent your content.

Know your audience

A general rule of thumb when it comes to writing great headlines or great content is to understand who you’re writing for.

Specifically, the approach or keywords use can differ entirely depending on your audience.

With your audience in mind, you can better capitalize on their wishes and/or fears.

Don’t forget the basics

Do you remember the five Ws from school? Just in case you don’t, they are as follows: who, what, when, where and why.

It’s definitely not always possible to fit them all into every single headline you write, but the key is that you’re as clear as you can be with as much information as makes sense.

Consider SEO

Search engine optimization (SEO) is key for your content to be discovered online. You’ll want to build your headline around the most important keyword in your main copy.

This most important keyword is called a “focus keyword,” which plays into Google indexing.

You’ll also want to keep your headline within 70 characters so that it doesn’t get cut off in Google search results. When it’s impossible to get your headline short enough, the best secondary consideration is to have the most important information at the beginning of the headline.

Also consider social media

Another place your headline can appear is on various social media platforms. And while optimizing for SEO and optimizing for social media engagement are not necessary the same, the trick is to make sure that your most important keyword is in the beginning of the headline.

Regarding social media specifically, a headline of 120 to 130 characters on Twitter has been found to be a sweet spot for click-throughs.

Remember that each platform is different with different user habits and even audiences, so don’t be afraid to experiment over time with your more evergreen (standing) content to see what performs better.

As short and simple as possible

We’ve already advised keeping headlines within 70 characters to optimize your appearance in Google search results, but being succinct with your headline, in general, is crucial to successful engagement beyond Google search results as well.

As your writing, consider every part of the headline. Is each part super valuable? Can something be said in a direct, more concise way?

Remember that simplicity also matters. Tongue twisters (even in the mind) or any words that can cause a reader to stumble will drive people away from your content.

Show your value

There’s a reason you wrote what you wrote. Why should anyone read it? Include that aspect in your headline.

You want to show readers why they should continue reading. It’s about relevancy, the cross-section of what you want to say and what your audience is interested in.

Spur curiosity

It’s about making the reader want more. But while you want to create mystery and intrigue, make sure that you’re still being clear about what your headline is saying.

In other words, don’t be too mysterious.

Be unique

We all want to be unique and should strive to be with our headlines, which naturally makes them stand out. But how do we know if we are actually unique? 

Easy. Google it.

Insert your headline with double-quote marks around it in Google Search. If you find others just like it, continue brainstorming.

Solve a problem

We all have at least one problem we’d like to solve. 

If there is a problem that you’re solving, convey that in your headline. It’s about giving the reader a reason to engage further.

Convey urgency

Urgency is all about zeroing in on everyone’s FOMO (fear of missing out). If the reader reads now, what happens? If they don’t, what happens? What could happen? How much time is left?

This is entirely dependent on your content but important to keep in mind.

The ‘how-to’ approach

Similar to solving problems, the notion behind any how-to article is that it’s trying to capture people’s natural inclination to research and learn how to do something online.

For example, how to bake an apple pie or how to change the oil of your car.

However, the internet is full of how-to articles on possibly everything, so get specific and creative with your “how-to” headline. What makes your step-by-step content different from everyone else’s?

To build on our examples, is the apple pie vegan or without a seemingly key ingredient? Are your directions to change a car’s oil something so simple you’ll never go back to a mechanic?

Top keywords how how-to headlines are “101” and “Complete (or Beginners) Guide,” so you can consider working any of those in as well.

Speak directly to them

Headlines are a great place to address the reader in the second person form: you. For example, “4 ways you can peel an onion.” 

It’s both eye-catching and direct. 

Numbers and lists work

Whether it’s a statistic or the number of tips, facts, so on in your content, numbers catch our attention. It’s the juxtaposition of numbers and text that catch the human eye.

Lists themselves also are an engaging style of content because of their skimmability. 

And the two are rather interdependent on each other within your headline.

If you are describing a list in your headline, you can use such words as “reasons,” “ideas,” “facts,” “tricks,” “tips,” “techniques,” etc.

Keep in mind, it’s the non-traditional numbers that feel more authentic. For example: “7 tips” instead of “10 tips.” Our brains actually believe odd numbers more than even numbers, according to the Content Marketing Institute, and odd numbers also appear to help people digest and remember information better.

However, headlines with any numbers tend to generate 73 percent more social shares and engagement, according to Orbit Media.

Use strong adjectives, verbs

It probably sounds obvious, but passive headlines are not as engaging as active headlines with strong adjectives and verbs.

Some examples of strong adjectives:

  • Surprising
  • Strange
  • Free
  • Essential
  • Smart
  • Shocking

Some examples of strong verbs:

  • Help
  • Benefit
  • Cheer
  • Learn
  • Measure
  • Conquer

Ask a question

This tends to be the go-to advice for writing social media posts as well, but questions can be engaging.

An example would be: “Think you’re the ultimate Denver Broncos fan? Take this quiz.”

Punctuation can definitely draw the eye. Just be aware of potential overuse.

Don’t settle with your first headline

Headline writing is best done as a brainstorming process. Your first attempt is almost guaranteed not to be your best option after you think up a few.

However, if your first one really is the best of the group, you can use it with confidence since you worked through other options that just didn’t match up.

Try some tools

When in doubt, it never hurts to play around with suggestions. Enter your topic or focus keyword into Portent’s Content Idea Generator for headlines suggestions.

At the very least, the generator can easily inspire you.

You also can get your headline analyzed for free by CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer. You do have to enter your contact information, but the tool will give you a score and break down the finer points that you should consider about your headline. 

Formulas can get you started

In addition, you can check out these 41 headline formulas for inspiration, and here are 41 more examples of great headlines to peruse through.

Measure the performance

Headline writing can be challenging, but we can all continue to grow as we go if we’re measuring what has worked and what hasn’t.

This can involve A/B testing, which is also known as split testing. This means that two or more versions of a headline (in this case) are shown to users at random, and you analyze which performed better for a given goal.

However, if the thought of A/B testing is overwhelming or beyond your resources, simply monitor your overall content performance (on your blog, for example), whether any web traffic is coming from organic search and how your social media posts are performing. 

If one headline approach appears to be performing better than others, make a note of that and try similar styles. Over time, you should have a decent grasp of what engages your audience and draws new readers to your content.

More than anything, take your time writing your headline. It really is the front door to the mansion that is your content. Never leave it as an afterthought.