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What's in a Headline? How to Write to Get Attention

What’s in a Headline? How to Write to Get Attention

“Creating the product is half the challenge, capturing the customer’s attention is the other.”

You’ve just launched your dream business. New office space, a fresh batch of employees, your favorite pen sitting on your desk… Everything is in place. There’s only one problem: You don’t have any customers. No big deal! You’ve spent the past nine months refining your service offering to the point of irresistible. People will come flocking to your doors just to get a taste of what you have given your life savings and a few grey hairs to so carefully craft.

Right? Wrong. Nobody thinks this way.

Small and large business owners alike understand that we must sell. Traditionally, we could set up a sales division to go out and conquer our neighboring communities, but today we live in the digital world. Here, headlines are our sales hooks and blog articles are our proposals. We know that if our headlines aren’t grabbing attention, our proverbial salesmen aren’t closing the deal and our beautiful, new service offering will never be appreciated.

We also know that our target audience is drowning in an ocean of information, and we only have a brief moment to catch their eyes. Every nano-second another internet user is answering the question “Is this worth my time?” and making the snap decision to either “read on” or scroll past one title among thousands. Many expert digital marketers are telling us to spend as much time writing a headline as writing the article itself. If we want to win business online, this is the approach we must take. Fortunately, we humans are somewhat predictable. Writing headlines to get our attention is not as difficult as it may sound with the right tools.

Made You Look

BuzzSumo is a tool used by many digital marketers to determine which content gets the most attention among their target audiences. The tool analyzes millions of headlines to report on which titles perform best on platforms from Facebook to Reddit. Last summer, they published a study on their findings after an analysis of 100 million headlines for phrases and length of headlines that receive the most engagement. The results are enlightening. Below is a list of the three-word phrases that received the most engagement on Facebook:

If you read through this list, you probably started to notice some trends. The list is loaded with phrases like “are freaking out,” “make you cry,” and “give you goosebumps,” indicating that emotions play a significant role in headline engagement. Some of the top phrases are also “this is why” and “the reason is,” indicating that headlines which promise education to the reader are also among the most popular. When it comes to content marketing in general, we typically take one of two directions in our approach–Emotional or Educational–because we know that these are the two types of content that consistently perform the best.


According to the BuzzSumo study, “will make you” is the #1 phrase that drives engagement. Why? There are a couple reasons. For one, the phrase very directly links the content to the impact it will have on the reader, for example, “These adorable cat photos will make you wish you had a kitten of your own.” But as you will notice, the impact that follows is often emotional. If you want internet users to interact with your content, give them an emotional appeal and they will love you…at least for the split second it takes to click. The second thing this phrase does is answer the “Why?” “Why should I care about what you’re going to say enough to click and spend time reading it?” The answer? A promise for emotional impact.

Although using emotional words in headlines is highly effective for driving engagement, it is important not to overuse them. Sensational language that makes too big a deal out of content gets flagged by Facebook, and users can smell a fish. Instead of saying, “This is the most awesome bestest article on teeth whitening ever and reading it will make you feel amazing!” be sure to take a measured approach toward your emotional appeals, saying something like, “This article on teeth whitening will make you question traditional methods.”


The second biggest phrase for engagement is “this is why,” promising an educational moment to the reader. They are about to find out why something in the world is the way it is. Readers who appreciate educational content are always looking for that “nugget of gold,” something they can take away from the article they read to prove that it was worth their time. Articles like these typically begin with “how to” (kind of like the blog you are currently reading), answer a question, or are a numbered list of important facts. If you want clicks, offer up a piece of wisdom from your personal or professional experience that your target audience will remember.

Some Useful Tools

If you read the entirety of BuzzSumo’s study, you will find that headline performance depends on more than just popular words and phrases, but the audience, context, and platform they are on as well. For example, the study found that the ideal number of words for a headline on Facebook is 12-18, but on LinkedIn it’s less, at 5-10. This makes sense considering the audience of LinkedIn is almost entirely business professionals who tend to prefer efficiency in their communication. Another example is the difference in popular words and phrases on Facebook versus Twitter. The study found that although Facebook users prefer headlines that promise emotional impact, Twitter users prefer headlines that announce something new. This also makes a lot of sense considering Twitter was designed to be a platform for quick updates.

Whenever we sit down to write a blog article at Beacon, we start by performing searches in the general topic area in Google Adwords’ Keyword Tool. This tool will take your search and show you which variations of it are actually being used by internet users in that topic area. These searches help us narrow our big ideas into practical words and phrases that will resonate with our specific target audience.

After we have determined the correct words and phrases to use when communicating our ideas, we run a search using AnswerthePublic. This tool will show you exactly which searches are being performed most around a particular word or phrase. Many times, we use these results as our headlines directly. Typically they require some adjustment to make them more user-friendly.

If you feel stuck writing a headline, you can always run your ideas by your current clientele or make a habit of checking them using some of the free, helpful headline checkers available. One of the tools we use most frequently is CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer, which scores headlines based on metrics like emotion, relatability, novelty, and strength. The goal is to achieve a score above 70, the best scores reaching upwards of 100.

From the Trenches

After years of writing headlines at Beacon, we have found a few “nuggets of gold” ourselves that can be helpful for getting in the right mindset to grab attention. Hopefully, these will help you too!

#1 Be direct and okay with telling the reader what to do. Use the word “you.” If you are a kind and gentle person, this can be difficult. Just realize that people are just wading through oceans of content looking for direction. If you truly believe in what you are doing, be confident in that and grab their attention. You can even demand it!

#2 Use your biggest offer and speak to the reader’s motivation for taking it. No sense in beating around the bush. You are a business and people are going to expect you to be pushing your product or service. Show them the best that you have and tell them exactly why you think they might want it.

#3 Don’t get stuck in a headline rut, always writing in the same format. Be fluid. Write multiple headlines for the same piece, throwing around your most random thoughts and the craziest superlatives you can think of. You never know what might break the mold and drive the traffic. Creativity, innovation, and success are funny animals.

Headlines are a part of everything we do at Beacon, from Facebook advertising to Google AdWords to blogging and email marketing. They are like currency in the online sphere. In fact, many people simply share headlines, failing to read the very content they title (congratulations for being among a very select few to not only click, but read all the way through this blog). If you want to drive engagement online, it is very important that you nail down the headline, how to write them and what the best practices are for getting attention. If you are looking to increase your online marketing efforts and would like to learn more about using headlines to boost traffic, give us a call! We would be happy to discuss our experience putting this powerful marketing tool into practice with you.

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