I’m uncomfortable with the headline advice being offered in the blogging and content marketing space.
Every couple of months, experts (including me) get hot and bothered about the quality of your headlines.
They say your headlines suck. They prod you to study headlines written by dead copywriters. Finally they encourage you to use “tried and true headline ”templates including
- “How to”: How to Write Eye-Grabbing Headline in 5 Minutes
- “Numbers”: 7 Ways to Write Content That Sells
- “Questions”: Do You Want More Blog Readers?
- “Danger”: Are You Making These Common Retweet Mistakes?
As a good reader you dutifully comply hoping that the “template” will insure success.
The problem is that the top publications, both online and offline, aren’t using these power headline templates. And they still are creating traffic stampedes to their blog.
On the other hand, a quick scan of Alltop shows these headlines from the media section of Huffington Post:
- “Jon Steward Blasts Fox’s Obsession with Food Stamps”
- “Allison Williams is Obsessed with the The Bachelor”
- “Katy Perry Gives Al Roker A Lesson in Weather Reporting”
- “Rachel Maddow Remembers What CNN Used to Be Like”
Take a look at these headlines taken from my new favorite magazine Runner’s World:
- “Power Workouts : Why We All Need A Little Speed”
- “The Secret to Constant Motivation”
- “Special Report: Pounding Out PTSD Can Running Cure Combat Trauma?”
- “Best Legal Performance Enhancer”
- “100,000 Miles to Nebraska A Long Run With Bruce Dern”
- “Injury Prevention Get Fit & Strong (And Stay That Way!) The Whole Body Solution”
None of these headlines use the so-called tried-and-true headline templates!
To be fair, I do see “How to” headlines pop-up from time to time on the top media blogs but you would assume that these publications wouldn’t dare deviate from the headline canon. But they do on a regular basis as if they know something that you and I don’t.
What the Big Blogs Know
Arguably, Gawker is the most viral blog publication on the planet. They consistently hijack millions of eyeballs with sinfully interesting headlines.
How do they do it?
Neezan Zimmerman, Gawkers most viral writer, reveals a bit of his magic in a recent HubSpot post –
“I made a game out of this – finding stories that at first blush didnn’t seem that interesting, and turning them into viral powerhouses.”
When you look at his headlines you can see how crazy good he is at this –
- Russel Brand May Have Started a Revolution Last Night
- Man Wakes Up From Surgery Realized He’s Married to A Beautiful Women – (I saw and shared this one)
You’ll see other publication stealing a page from Neezan’s playbook.
- “How Not to Use the USDA’s New Meat Labels.” – Buzzfeed
This headline turns a meat label factoid into a must-see post.
I believe it’s time to seriously rethink the headline advice we are getting from the content marketing elite.
How to Write BuzzFeed Headlines Without Getting Fired
You are not BuzzFeed. This headline probably wouldn’t fly for the corporate blog:
“Fat Hamster Vs. Tiny Gap Under Door”
But you need to amp up the appeal of your headlines or drown in a sea of me-too “How to” headlines.
Here are three pointers:
Contrast the Ordinary with the Extraordinary
Human beings are superb contrast spotters. We pay close attention to thing that seem out of place. We won’t rest until we’ve analyzed and re-labeled something that is out of place. Great headlines hacks our natural fascination with spotted zebras.
- “Discarding worn ball bearings is killing your profit margins.”
- “Golden Retrievers Are Excellent Largemouth Bass Spotters”
- “Actually Video Games Are A Great Way to Stop Bullying”
(I bet you wish these were actual posts!)
Connect the Dots in an Interesting Way
Our world is complicated. Nothing is as simple as it seems and everything is connected. “Connecting the Dots” is a critical skill for thought leaders working in information dense industries.
- “Why Your Intern Recruitment Process is a Competitive Advantage”
- “How Vladamir Putin Will Set Your International Operations Agenda for the Next 3 Months”
- “Why Every Therapist Should Care About Groundhog’s Day”
Create a Conversation Starter
You publish a blog to stay relevant and top of mind. But face it, most of us aren’t working in industries that can compete with the 18th episode of House of Cards. You need to give your reader something to work with by combining urgency with relevant information.
- “How Your Congressman Would Vote If He Cut Grass for a Living”
- “Why It’s Time to Fire Your Best Customer.”
- “Perhaps You Should Cheat on Your Accountant”
You can test your idea by doing a little role playing. Imagine Happy Hour this friday and talking to a colleague.
“Bob, I read this article [Insert Headline].”
If you sound like a dork, write another headline.
Do The Classics Still Work?
Yes but the real question is are you working with “weak heroes?”
The venerable “How to” and “Number” headline posts could be your most popular but you have still problem if your traffic is steadily declining. By themselves, they work, but overall they are boring your readers.
I still recommend using the classic templates if you are struggling with creating good headlines but I wouldn’t rely on them to build a fast-growth blog. You will need something drastically different to get dramatically different performance.
I suggest spending more time on BuzzFeed and Gawker (if you aren’t already!).
What do you think?