Posts Tagged ‘headline writing’

Watch Me Write a Headline That Goes Viral

Posted in Blog on October 18th, 2013 by Carol Tice – 63 Comments

Watch your blog traffic explode when you write a strong headlineSometimes I’ll see a top blogger comment on social media and boast, “I just wrote a blog post that’s going to go viral!”

When I was a newbie blogger, I would think: “How do they know that?”

Now that I’ve been blogging longer, and blogging for paying clients, I know what they mean.

Once you get a sense of what the hot button concepts are for a particular audience and what words set them off, you can build that into a headline that’s guaranteed to get a lot of attention.

I’m still not the champ at this, but I’m getting better.

The making of a great headline

The ability to write eyeball-grabbing headlines can really improve your income, so I thought I’d give you an inside look at how I create headlines that get a lot of traffic.

The place I write for right now that I can get the most visitors on is my Forbes blog about franchising and entrepreneurship.

I’ve learned that concepts my Forbes readers love include:

  • technology
  • social media
  • making tons of money
  • business ownership
  • restaurants

Any opportunity to combine two or more of these ideas tends to do well.

Forbes readers also love slideshows, so a topic that could be the basis of a related slideshow is also highly desirable and can give rise to a lot of pageviews as readers flip through the slides.

So I got excited when I saw a new survey from the foodservice trade publication QSR Magazine on the top-earning fast-food chains. What caught my attention wasn’t their rankings of the Top 50 largest chains, but that the survey also published per-unit revenue.

This store-level figure is of high interest to anyone looking to buy a franchise, and also of passing interest to diners in general — and it’s always a plus to have a topic that appeals to more than one reader segment.

Now that I had a concept — the fast-food chains where individual stores ring up the most cash — I had to find the perfect headline for it for maximum exposure. I’d build a related slideshow of the dozen top-earning brands.

Here’s where I began, and some of the iterations the headline went through before I got the final one.

First try: Million Dollar Stores: The Fast-Food Restaurants That Gross The Most

I rejected this headline first off because it’s too long. Forbes prefers headlines of 10 words or less. Visually, ones that don’t wrap around more than two lines I believe also work better because it’s less work to read through the headline.

The other problem with this headline: it’s too vague. Using “stores” at the beginning could mean any type of retail store, so that didn’t fly.

Finally, “gross” is a word with two meanings — gross profit is familiar to business owners, but regular diners might just be, um, grossed out. And think the story was about something totally different than the real topic.

Time to try again.

Second try: Top-Grossing Fast-Food Restaurants

This solved the vagueness of ‘stores,’ but failed to get rid of the “gross-out” problem.

And I think it’s too short and lacks detail. Back to the drawing board.

Third try: The Most Lucrative Fast-Food Restaurants To Own

I’m getting better! This is short enough, but I think too specific. This construction limits the audience to people who want to buy a restaurant and eliminates regular diners. Want to keep it broader.

Also, it’s just a bit too plain-vanilla. Where’s the zing? It needs something really ‘grabby’ and it’s not there yet.

And the winner is: Million-Dollar Burger: The Most Lucrative Fast-Food Restaurants

Bringing back the word “millions” from my first headline draft was a big plus — Forbes readers love posts about people making millions or even billions of dollars.

Then the contrast of millions with a burger raises curiosity. We all know burgers cost only a buck or three! So what could this mean?

By chopping “to own” off the end, the interest becomes broader to include all diners again. Who wouldn’t be curious to know which of their favorite fast-food stops is raking in the dough? Ding-ding-ding, we have a winner.

Here’s what happened when the post went live at the end of August:

Viral Forbes post - traffic report

Was it worth investing that extra hour in tinkering with the headline? You bet. Since I get paid a bonus for visitor numbers on Forbes, creating a super-strong headline that gets more eyeballs is like money in the bank.

Even if you’re not in a situation to get a cash traffic bonus, stronger headlines are worth it. They tend to create post longevity — they keep bringing traffic for your blog or your client’s blog for months and even years to come. Showing you can write these is a great way to impress clients.

Speaking of longevity…a few weeks later, Forbes decided to submit that Million Dollar Burger story to MSN, which syndicates some of Forbes’ blog content. Because all the internal links back to my own Forbes posts came along with the reprint, the new exposure on another big site resulted in this all-time record traffic spike for me back on Forbes:

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 8.55.41 AM

Yes, you read that right — this time the post went way more viral, getting over 600,000 views in a single day thanks to the MSN exposure. My husband about blew milk out his nose when I showed him that chart! (At first, I was sure it was a mistake.)

Even on a small blog, headline strength can help make a post draw ongoing traffic, as it’s more likely to be referenced and linked to in other peoples’ blog posts, and each of those links creates a new ongoing source of traffic for the post. May not happen on this scale, but I see this all the time here on this blog, where new links help a post stay busy.

One other ingredient to note that made this particular viral post possible is that I picked a topic that wasn’t too time-critical. The information should be fairly evergreen — I often use survey data that will be good until that survey is done again next year, as I did here. That gives the post 12 months of relevance.

Obviously, if this had been breaking news of the day, MSN wouldn’t have wanted to pick it up a couple weeks later. Evergreen content allows your post to keep bouncing around social media until it’s discovered by a site that could be another big traffic driver.

Let’s do it again

If you’re wondering what made that second spike on the first chart up top, it was another post. It’s about a new YouTube channel I discovered a consulting firm had started. They’re posting interviews with Walmart managers about how to get your product into their stores.

Getting into Walmart is a topic of high interest to many inventors and startup entrepreneurs, so I wanted to write it for Forbes. It offered the opportunity to mention two company names that are always of high interest to Forbes readers, Walmart and YouTube.

But sculpting the headline to be both enticing and clear was a challenge. Here are the iterations it went through:

The YouTube Channel That Helps You Get Your Product Into Walmart (too long)

How One YouTube Channel Can Help You Get In Walmart (ungrammatical and unclear — it’s not you but your product)

YouTube Tips To Help Get Your Product Into Walmart (sounds like maybe YouTube the company is giving tips, instead of this one channel)

The YouTube Videos That Help You Get Your Product On Walmart’s Shelves (too long again)

How To Get Your Product in Walmart — With A Little Help From YouTube (the corporate-vs-channel problem again)

How To Get Your Product In Walmart — How YouTube Can Help (too many ‘how’s — and still too long!)

And the winner is…

How To Get Your Product In Walmart (Hint: Check YouTube)

This parenthetical version of the headline adds interest — it’s like saying “Psst — here’s a secret!” The first part is very direct and has that strong “how to” focus that makes so many blog posts a hit.

And it also conveys clearly that the answer to how to get your product into Walmart is on a YouTube channel, rather than something YouTube itself is teaching people. The headline has 11 words, but many are short words, so it still fit on two lines.

You might think I’m crazy to spend this much time and effort picking over the exact wording and length of my headlines — until you look at the results. Investing time in perfecting your headlines is always worth it.

What headline got you the most traffic? Leave it here in the comments and tell us about your headline-writing process.


An Inside Look at 10 Classic Headline Writing Fails — and Their Fixes

Posted in Blog on December 12th, 2012 by Carol Tice – 27 Comments

There’s one big problem that holds freelance writers back from earning more.

It doesn’t matter if you’re pitching a big magazine’s editor a story idea, or a top blog’s editor a guest post that could bring thousands of new readers to your blog.

The same issue gets your idea rejected every time. What is it?

Weak headlines

Editors get dozens of query letters every day. When they scan through them, what are they hoping to quickly find?

A great, intriguing headline that tells them what the story is about.

If it’s not interesting and informational, that editor moves on.

If you haven’t bothered to provide a headline for your proposed article or post, that editor moves on.

I’ve said it before, but learning to write strong, fascinating, informational headlines is critical to your freelance writing career.

It makes the difference between earning big and making peanuts.

Why doesn’t everyone fire off awesome headlines? Having just reviewed dozens of story idea pitches for one of my classes, I can tell you — writing strong headlines is hard!

That’s true in part because what’s needed in a headline has changed.

How to build a successful headline

The Internet has changed the definition of a good headline. Even if you’re writing for a magazine today, they probably plan to put that article online, too. That means you want to write headlines for the Internet in any case.

Newspaper headlines used to be both obtuse and complex. You could write a conceptual or witty headline such as, “Goodbye to All That.”

Which tells you nothing, really. But it didn’t have to, because a long subhead was going to come next and explain the actual topic: “Ice Caps Continue to Melt at an Alarming Rate.”

Increasingly, this construct doesn’t work. Headlines need to work online. And there are no taglines on the Internet. The headline has to do it all.

What does that mean? Successful modern headlines need:

  • Key words so Google can send readers
  • To be fully-fleshed out but not too long, so they can be easily shared in social media — about 10-14 words is good
  • Clarity about the topic
  • To create interest or build mystery to drive clicks

Where exactly do many headlines go wrong? Take a look below at this collection of common headline errors, with actual examples and suggestions on how to improve them:

1. Can’t tell what it’s about

If you go with the old newspaper-headline style, your headline often provides no clue as to the topic of your article. There is no tagline online, so you end up with something inscrutable.

Example: The Helping Hand That Wasn’t

This turned out to be about hospital admittance rules, but there was no way to know that from the headline. You can often fix these with a compound headline such as “The Helping Hand That Wasn’t: When Hospitals Turn Patients Away.”

2. No obvious benefit

When I asked my mentor Jon Morrow what the top problem is that he sees with online headlines, he didn’t hesistate. “No benefit.”

Readers want to know how their lives will be better if they take the time to read your article or blog post. Everybody’s short on time, so make it useful if you want them to click.

Example: 25% of Your Household’s Heat is Escaping Out the Windows

This is a “statement of fact” headline. Yes, that’s true…but so what? It appears you’ve given me the one fact you had on this topic, so I can move on without reading more.

This sort of story does better when it’s recast with a service-oriented headline: “How to Save 25% on Your Family’s Heating Bill.”

3. Book or school-paper style headline

I see this a lot with writers who are fresh out of school. There is a real difference between the way you title a school paper and a well-written article headline. School papers can have dull-as-dishwater headlines and still get an “A,” but that’s not going to work with a magazine editor.

Example: Sexism in the Catholic Church

This is a book-length topic — it’s not going to work for an article. Big topics such as these need to be narrowed down to work as articles. Has there been a recent case of sexism that is unusual in some way?

Remember, you’ll only have perhaps 800-1200 words in a typical feature these days, and often less in a blog post. So you’ve got to engineer your headline to promise just a slice or angle on the topic rather than everything that could ever be said.

4. Can’t tell who it’s for

You’ll lose a lot of readers if they’re unclear whether the article is suited for their interests.

Example: Sports-related Traumatic Injury in Children

Is this aimed at sports-injury doctors? Parents? Medical-school professors? You can’t tell here.

Turning it into “What Parents Need to Know About Kids’ Sports Injuries” immediately brings focus and lets an editor know if their readers would be interested in the topic.

5. Too preachy

Often, a writer will be on a soapbox about a topic. They want to convince other people of their point of view. Unfortunately, these ‘vent’ type posts don’t often get assigned by magazine editors. They’re looking for more balanced reporting on issues.

Examples: Dirty Deception: Are You Poisoning Your Garden with Bio-Solids?

Why Creative Thinking Should be Taught in Schools

If you have a topic you’re all het up about, write about it on your own blog, or write a letter to the editor. Or get hired by a newspaper that can support the months of investigative work and dozens of interviews needed to make your case.

This sort of thing will never pencil out as a freelance assignment — there’s too much work involved in documenting all your facts and interviewing people on all sides of your controversy.

You can report on topics you are passionate about — by getting out of the way and letting experts discuss the issue. That second one could be recast as, “Why Teachers Want to Add Creative Thinking Classes” — which would provide an opportunity to hear about why this is a good idea, but through the voices of professional educators, perhaps for a teachers’ association magazine.

6. Confusing

A little mystery in a headline can be good, as with How I Became a More Productive Writer By Doing This One, Simple Thing. But too much means readers have no idea why they should click — so they don’t.

Examples: Cell Shocked!

The Teacher’s Pest

I thought that first one would be about avoiding getting electric shocks…but the pitch turned out to be about high cell-phone bills when you travel. Whoops!

The second I thought might be about common bugs that infest classrooms…but it was about how to not be a helicopter parent when you have a special-needs child.

Always think about other all the possible meanings of words you use in headlines, to make sure you’re being crystal-clear.

When I pointed out the ambiguity to the writer of the second headline, she rewrote it to a far more useful headline — I can tell both who it’s for and what I’d learn: Five Things the Teacher Should Know About Your Child’s Learning Disability

7. Old news

If a story has already been covered a lot by the media, you’ll need something fresh to spin it forward.

Example: Would You be Ready if Hurricane Sandy Hit Your Town?

At this point, Sandy is probably one of the most-covered stories of 2012. You might propose a story called “Where the Next Sandy Will Hit,” in which you talk with meterologists and disaster-preparedness experts — now that would probably still get some interest.

8. Can’t sum it up

If you haven’t focused your article topic well, it’s easy to end up with overlong, rambling headlines that raise too many ideas:

Examples: Questioning the moral and ethical framework of caregiving institutions and why pregnant mamas are resorting to natural means of childbirth

Flight Etiquette: Five Flight Crew Tips on How to Fly Without Provoking Your Flight Attendant to ‘Pop’ You, or a Slide

Wind on too long with a headline, and your audience will wander off. Also, too-long headlines also sometimes cram in too many ideas, more than will fit in a single article or post.

Good rule of thumb: You should be able to say it without taking a breath.

For instance, that last headline could be shortened and made clearer as: “Five Tips on How to Fly Without Provoking Your Flight Attendant.” In the original, I’m not totally sure if the intended audience is flight crew or air travelers.

9. No key words

Those old-time newspaper headlines just don’t work now, but writers keep trying to use them.

Examples: Blame it on Dad

Leave Home Without It

Readers are just not going to click here — they’ve got no clue if you’re going to talk about cell-phone use or child abuse, or if the article is for parents or therapists or who-all.

The former example — which turned out to be about childrens’ fears of going to the dentist — was rewritten by the brilliant Other Den Mother Linda Formichelli as “Fear of the Dentist? Blame Dad.” She’s good, eh?

10. No market

You can have a fascinating idea in your headline, but if there is no publication it’s a fit for, it’s going nowhere.

Example: What Motivates the Wikipedians?

Sort of an interesting question — what does get those unpaid Wikipedia editors to do it? But the question is, what magazine would you see this in? I can’t think of one — or at least not one that pays well.

It takes practice to get the hang of writing a tasty headline that gets you the gig. But if you spend more time on headlines, there’s a big payoff: Your story gets better defined and becomes a whole lot easier to write.

Freelance Writers Den

How to Write Headlines so Irresistible that Big-Money Clients are Begging You to Write for Them

Posted in Blog on February 1st, 2012 by Carol Tice – 27 Comments

Do I have your attention now?

That headline was pretty grabby, huh. Sort of made you have to click on it to find out how to get good clients.

That’s the magic of a well-constructed headline. It works like a magnet to suck readers onto your blog — and not just any readers, but exactly the readers you wanted. The ones who’re interested in just what you have to offer.

If you know how to write a compelling headline, it can also make editors love your query letter.

It can make businesses read your emailed letter of introduction and give you call.

Great headlines get you good-paying writing gigs.

Then, when other businesses and publications see the headlines you wrote for your clients, they call you up. They can’t wait to have you bring your writing savvy over to their website.

You’re done marketing your writing business. Your strong headlines do the job for you.

Why doesn’t everybody write great headlines?

It’s sort of an art form unto itself.

Lots of us who came up through journalism and newspapers weren’t trained to write headlines. That’s an editor’s job, we were told.

Others have been grabbing titles off content-mill dashboards, where the headline is pre-written by the SEO department.

Bottom line: Lots of writers don’t have any experience or training in how to write headlines. And their careers are suffering as a result.

I have reviewed hundreds of writers’ blogs, and I can tell you, bad headlines are an epidemic. I scan a typical blog, and I can’t even figure out the topic. Nothing makes me want to click through and read more. I’m not surprised when I see there are no subscribers, no comments, and nothing is getting sold.

So if you learn to write good headlines, you can really stand out.

What’s wrong with most writers’ headlines?

Three quick headline-improvement tips:

  1. Use key words. Headlines like “Watch out for the red flags,” or “Another day” (both ones I’ve recently read) don’t tell me what the post is about, or who it is for. So search engines don’t find it when I search on what I want to know. And I don’t read it.
  2. Tell me your topic. What will I learn about if I read your post? Your headline needs to tell me, so I’ll want to click over and read it.
  3. Leave a little mystery. The headline of this post told you there’s a way to write headlines that will bring you great clients, but it didn’t tell you exactly how.  You needed to read the post to find out.

I have a confession to make.

I didn’t write that headline — Jon Morrow did.

Jon is one of the best headline writers around. He wrote the Headline Hacks report on how to create sure-to-go-viral headlines that Copyblogger uses as a guide for its writers.

His blog posts often get 1,000 retweets or more. Maybe you read How to Quit Your Job, Move to Paradise and Get Paid to Change the World, or A 7-Step Guide to Mind Control: How to Quit Begging and Make People Want to Help You. Yeah. That guy.

What’s the best headline you’ve seen lately? Leave a comment and share.

Why Vagueness Causes Headlines to Fail

Posted in Blog on March 17th, 2011 by Carol Tice – 18 Comments

Sean D'Souza

By Sean D’Souza

The root of all trouble in your headlines is understanding that headlines aren’t some fancy words strung together. On the contrary, they’re simple words that are put together with a clear thought. But the point where it all goes kaput is our thoughts are kinda too vast.

What do we mean by vast?

Let’s take a topic such as: ‘Why article writing is the key’

But the key to ‘what?’

Most writers leave out the core detail. They miss out telling you where the article is going. And these writers don’t leave out the core detail on purpose.

They just don’t realise the importance of the core detail. And the core detail should usually contain what we’d loosely call a ‘target.’

A ‘target’ is simply ‘who or what are we speaking about?’

Let’s me demonstrate what I mean, by doing a little addition.

So instead of: Why article writing is the key…

We say: Why article writing is the key ‘to getting strategic alliances.’
We say: Why article writing is the key ‘to getting clients.’
We say: Why article writing is the key ‘to getting paid.’

Notice what happened when we put in that ‘target’?

First, it actually gave your article a solid direction. And hey, it did even more. It created curiosity.

Your la-la topic suddenly spruced up, brushed its hair, and put on a tuxedo.
And if you’re amazed at what adding a ‘target’ could do, let’s now add a ‘specific’ to that headline.

I’m going to replace just one word/one phrase at a time. And you watch.

Watch how the article literally swings from one side to another.

Example 1:
Why article writing is the key.
Why article writing is the key to getting strategic alliances.
Why article writing is the key to getting ‘active’ strategic alliances.

Example 2:
Why article writing is the key.
Why article writing is the key to getting clients.
Why article writing is the key to getting ‘higher-paying’ clients.

Example 3:
Why article writing is the key.
Why article writing is the key to getting paid.
Why article writing is the key to getting paid ‘in advance.’

So you see what we did?

We took the core topic.

We added a target.

We added one specific such as ‘active’ or ‘higher-paying’ or ‘in advance’.

And we instantly intensified the power of the headline.

Not surprisingly, the change in the headline did a lot more. It made the article easier for you to write. Without the ‘target’ and the ‘specifics’, the headline was weak, and the resulting article would be a soggy waffle.

But as we put in the ‘target’ and the ‘specific’ it actually forced you to focus on that specific, thus resulting in a mucho superior article. Instead of the article being general and vague, it’s now specific.

You’re either going to be writing about ‘article writing’ and ‘active strategic alliances.’

Or ‘article writing’ and ‘higher-paying clients.’
Or ‘article writing’ and ‘getting paid in advance.’

You’re most certainly not going to write about all three (not right today, at least!)
Because as you can plainly see, they’re three completely different articles, going in three completely different directions.

But when you have a vague headline, it’s almost impossible to keep the content of the article focused. When you have a specific headline, it’s darned impossible to go off track.

What’s more is that your audience is more focused too, because the rest of your article is delivering exactly what the headline promised. The specificity of the headline is what drew the reader in, and it’s the specificity of the rest of the article that will keep the reader reading.

And if you don’t believe me, remove those measly words…

Remove the specifics. Chop off the target.
Then write your article.
The headline loses power.
The article weaves, then stalls.
What’s worse is that the entire article becomes so much harder to write.

And even if you were to actually complete and publish the article, your reader would not experience a sense of clarity.

And you get that clarity with just two measly words.

The addition of just a measly word or two, and your article is vrroooming down the road.

And hey, in the right direction too!

To sum up:

Your initial thought is incomplete, because it’s too vast. It’s not easy to write about a whole topic. You have to get more specific.

You get more specific with two simple tweaks:

First you add a target. Then you add a specific. And tah, dah, you’ve now clarified the thought process.

As a result your headline will be stronger, and your entire article will be focused instead of rambling all round the countryside.

If you want more goodies just like this, there’s a report on Why Headlines Fail at Sean D’Souza’s site, Psychotactics. Get your own copy (yes, it’s free) and start to write headlines that really get attention.

What do you think is your best recent headline? Leave us a link to the story below…and we’ll see if we find it irresistible and have to click on it.