12 Ways to Create, Test, and Optimize Successful Headlines

Headlines have always been one of the most important aspects of a content strategy for companies. Even before there was competition, before social media existed, and in fact even before the age of the Internet, hooking your audience with a clever headline was taught in schools. Now that we do have social media, competitors and other online optimization efforts to deal with, headlines have only become more important, and how we create those headlines changes from year to year because of these different factors.

Fortunately, creating a headline doesn’t have to simply be a writer staring endlessly at a computer screen hoping to come up with something catchy. If you break down the headline creation process into brainstorming, tools to help test headlines, and optimization tactics, you can craft the perfect headlines without feeling overwhelmed. And remember—it really matters. According to famous businessman David Ogilvy, “on average, only 1 out of 5 readers gets beyond your headline.”

6 Ways to Help You Think Up Engaging Headlines

A big part of being able to come up with headlines that work means understanding what your audience really wants and what characteristics work. Believe it or not, there is a psychology to what people will read. Understanding this can help you craft headlines in a way that sticks. A few tips to keep in mind include:

1. Use a number in your headline.

According to a Social Media Examiner article, studies have proven that readers prefer headlines that include numbers. This could be because it tells you right away how long the content might be, and it also tells readers that it will be easy to skim and scan because it will be clearly split up into sections.

Example: 25 Ways to Teach Yourself SEO or Top 3 Most Effective Exercises for Weight Loss

2. Keep it 8-12 words long.

Short headlines pop. They’re easier to digest and read quickly, and today as readers browse through blogs and scroll through content that’s exactly what you need. You want to grab the attention of your readers while still engaging them to click.

3. Evoke an emotion such as curiosity or anticipation.

Any kind of emotion that you can create in a headline is going to be a winner, but it’s hard to do when you only have 8-12 words. Still, focusing on emotions can help get the creative ideas flowing. Curiosity and/or anticipation seem to be two of the best because it offers a little taste of what’s to come. According to an article by Jabed Hasan:

“There’s a psychological phenomenon you can use effectively called the curiosity gap, which is the gap between something a person knows and something he or she wants to know. People start to feel a kind of deprivation when they notice a gap in their knowledge.”

Keep in mind that while sometimes this can sound like clickbait or turn into clickbait; it’s not clickbait if you actually write an article about what the headline says. If the article doesn’t have much to do with the headline or doesn’t satisfy the curiosity, it may be seen as clickbait which could help your CTR for the short-term and hurt it for the long-term.

Example: The Five Countries With the Most Job Opportunities or The Company with the Best Vacation Policy in the US

4. Ask a question.

Going along with the last point, asking a question can evoke curiosity and make people want to click. The question has to be relevant and it has to be something you answer in the article, but it’s a great way to grab attention. Utilizing questions from your customers is also an excellent way to get ideas here. Look at your reviews and social media posts and see if there are any questions that you can turn into articles.

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5. Get inspiration from customers and competitors.

As discussed briefly above, a great way to come up with content ideas is to talk with your customers and take a look at your reviews and social accounts. See what people are talking about and what articles seem to be getting the most attention. Start there and see if you can think of a topic to write about, and then use some of the tactics above to create a headline that really works. Remember, the content of the headline is just as important as the structure.

Getting inspiration from your competitors is also a great way to come up with a headline that works. See what they are doing and what works for them. If you find that a lot of your competitors are succeeding with headlines that ask questions, give it a try and see how it works for your business.

6. Write several headline options.

Upworthy very famously discusses that they have staff members come up with several different headline choices before picking the right one. This gives you options and helps force you to really think about your headline, which can be an effective tactic in coming up with your best choice. Even if it takes you a few days to write out 10 different headline options, take those few days and then look at them with a fresh mind. You will be surprised at the difference this makes!

3 Tools and Strategies to Help You Test Your Headlines

1. CoSchedule Headline Analyzer.

The Headline Analyzer is one of the only tools out there to actually test your headlines outright. You simply type your headline into the tool for analysis, and then the tool will give you a score for that headline and then a score for each category where the tool analyzed your headline. It will then tell you what you need to work on to improve the headline. A few criteria the tool analyzes includes:

  • Word Balance
  • Headline Type
  • Length Analysis
  • Word Count
  • Keywords
  • Sentiment

Using this tool is a good last resort when you think you have the perfect headline. It makes you think about things you maybe forgot to consider, so although it isn’t always going to be spot on, it’s a great endpoint just for piece of mind.

2. A/B testing through email.

Set a subject line and/or your content up with two different headlines when sending out email marketing campaigns. If you use a tool called Campaign Monitor you can send out two different emails, one to half of your subscriber list and one to the other half, to see which gets more clicks. Whichever email gets more clicks will then be sent out to your subscribers. This can help you know which headline is more successful with your specific audience, which should then help you know which headline to use for a blog post or article. Below is an example from a ClearVoice article I wrote a few months ago:


3. Test headlines on Twitter.

In order to test your headlines on Twitter (or really any social media account), simply tweet both of your headlines one hour apart and see which gets more clicks from your users. You can look at performance data on Bufferapp to see where you’re not only getting the most clicks, but also the most retweets and mentions. It’s up to you to determine which data is most important to you, but the more you test headlines the more you’ll be able to see trends and make that distinction.

3 Headline Optimization Tips

1. Don’t forget to use keywords.

You always want to make sure that you include keywords in your headline. Google tends to recommend having the first word of your headline be a keyword, but this can be tough when trying to grab your audience and really create something great. Therefore, it’s important to focus on your audience first and the search engine bots second. Still, keywords are something to take seriously, even if it is a secondary consideration!

2. Keep it natural.

Going along with the last point, you have to keep your keywords natural. If you have too many keywords in your headline Google will look suspicious, so keep it to just one keyword. That will be enough and allow you to create something great for readers that can also rank well.

3. Length matters.

While length is important for readers, it’s also important for search engines. 8-12 words still applies, but Google gets a little bit more specific and wants something until 60 characters.

In the end, creating a killer headline really does need to go through all of the steps above—think about the psychology of what readers want, test the headline, and then make sure the headline is optimized. If you can make sure to spend time on your headline, you should start to get more comfortable with what works for your particular website.

Give a few of these ideas a try first. Is there anything you would add to the list above? Do you have any personal experiences with writing and testing headlines? Let us know what has worked for you in the comments below.

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