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How Do You Write the Perfect Headline?

how to write the perfect headline
(Image source)

Perfect? Wouldn’t it be subjective to say what’s perfect? Nah.

From the point of view of a marketing writer of 25 years (yeah, that’d be me), a headline has one objective: inspire the reader to read the next line.

This applies to your email’s subject line or your blog post title in the biggest way. It applies to social media because it’s your headline that will most likely be shared and clicked—or not.

So Which Headline Writing Technique Works Best?

Marketing geniuses always yack on about how important it is to get right to the point. Old school ad guys Ogilvy, Bernbach and Burnett seem to have cemented a rule stating a user benefit goes in the headline.

They’d tell you the headline is often the only line people read. Get right to the point, they’d insist. Don’t bury the lead… and blahbiddy blah.

As much as I admire these pioneers, I think this advice is crap.

Verbal Foreplay Is More My Style.

Perhaps you’ve noticed. I didn’t subscribe to the benefits-first formula in this article and I seldom do with the many things I write.

I believe when the goal is to get people to tune in, the tact to take is to turn on their curiosity. But it’s not like I’ve tapped into some breakthrough new discovery in psychology and human behavior. I’m simply saying a little dose of suspense or even an anxiety inducer makes for the ultimate attention-getter.

You Have To Choose Your Words Carefully.

And if you buy into this technique, which I’ve labeled “perfect,” you’ll understand the perfect headline is a teaser. A hint. You hold out on the big idea. You work up to it.

You pose a question. Why? Good question.

It drives you crazy not to know the answer, doesn’t it? You may even get more worked up when you don’t entirely understand the question. Or the question is the answer. Or the answer is a question.

I’m messing with you a little. It’s working like a charm too. I keep stringing you along and you’re hanging in there.

I love that about you. You’re curious. Your customers are curious. I’m curious. Everyone is. So choosing your words is also about choosing which ones to leave out.

Bring On Some Psychology

This Guy.
This Guy.

Wouldn’t my premise be even more perfect if it was verified by a little science? I thought so and decided to tap the mind of online marketer and blogger extraordinaire, Gregory Ciotti. You know his work from contributions he makes here at the Unbounce blog.

Gregory is an expert on behavioral psychology and seems to always have a study on the science of persuasion in his back pocket. So it wasn’t surprising when Gregory recognized the approach and cited “The Information Gap Theory,” made famous by George Loewenstein, a leader in the fields of behavioral economics and neuroeconomics.

“This is one of the better research papers in my opinion that relate to marketing,” said Ciotti. “The theory claims when you spark an interest or desire that is already there—which means topicality is important— you tickle that interest and the reader attempts to close the gap by finding out the answer.”

Another explanation I found comes from a Wired.com article, “The Itch of Curiosity,” by Johan Lehrer, who writes, “According to Loewenstein, curiosity is rather simple: It comes when we feel a gap between what we know and what we want to know. This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain. We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.”

The Nagging Effect of Dissonance

In my interview with Ciotti, he also cited the “Zeigarnik Effect,” which essentially speaks to a human desire to finish what we start. When a task is unfinished, we experience dissonance. (More on this here.)

Gregory explained, “When you give people brain buster puzzles and stuff like that and then interrupt them and tell them they must stop now, experiments have proved up 90% of the people go back to finish the test. We really do feel discomfort when we don’t know the answer to something we want to know.”

But Nothing’s Perfectly Perfect

“The problem with headlines that aim to pique curiosity is they can go wrong if the desire isn’t already there,” Gregory said. “If you do happen to ask the right question and spark an interest on a topic readers are already passionate about and ask a question they really, really want to know the answer to, then you can use that mystique to get people to pay attention.”

Did it work here?

Your curiosity got you here. So it worked on you. Those not interested in closing an information gap on writing the perfect headline are probably off scratching some other itch.

What if I wrote this?

The Perfect Headline Arouses Your Curiosity

Not bad, I guess, but you’d have gathered the gist of the article before you read it.

How about this?

Use The Information Gap Theory to Write The Perfect Headline

Risky, right? You may not be curious enough to read on if you never heard of the theory.

I’m good with the headline I wrote. It sucked you in. It itched your brain. I hope I was able to scratch it.

— Barry Feldman


About Barry Feldman
Barry Feldman is a content marketing consultant/creator, copywriter and creative director (and has been for a very long time). "Storyteller" is the one-word version. He'll give you a piece of his mind at Feldman Creative and his blog, The Point. His new ebook "The Plan to Grow Your Business with Effective Online Marketing" is worth more than the price (free) too.
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Comments:

  1. Amit

    Well Barry , I believe what goes best in the PAIN in headline and promise of route of solution below – goes very well .

    Reply
  2. Hal Wechsler

    5.13.13
    Hi Barry: On-the-dinero, based on my experience. I am choosing a title for a
    book being published by Barron’s, and for Kindle.
    a) The Yogi in SpeedReading101 OR
    b) The Zen in SpeedReading101 OR
    c) SpeedReading101 & The Presidents
    We use Yoga exercises & Zen in the 5-hour
    live workshop & book, and taught Speed
    Reading to Four U.S. Presidents.
    Thanks,
    Hal,
    Educational Director
    917-441-9019.

    Reply
  3. Gregory Ciotti

    I saw this post in my Feedly this morning and it was the first thing I clicked… so maybe it works. ;)

    Reply
    • Barry Feldman

      Yes, The psych guy thinks so. However, based on what you wrote, all we know is you “clicked.” The perfect headline gets people reading.

      Reply
  4. Adeel Vanthaliwala

    Thanks Barry – we do quite a bit of email marketing. We’ve found that nothing works better than putting a problem and curiosity together. i think you were kind of alluding that if i am not mistaken, We consistently get 30% or more open rates on this combination. We’ve played with lots of different combo – if you’re interested we can connect and I can share the data with you.

    The way i’d apply our lessons here is “Why your headline gets ignored” What do you think?

    Reply
  5. Robert

    Great blog Berry but what Ogilvy, Caples, et al favoured most when it came to writing headlines is testing, testing, testing. And that’s what Unbounce is for right? :)

    Reply
  6. Jason Darrell

    Hi, Barry.

    “Did it work here?
    Your curiosity got you here. So it worked on you.”

    The headline may have got me to the bottom of the page, but I’d contend that that was on account of my curiosity being piqued, but not really answered.
    True, there were variations offered that may not have worked.
    But does the article really answer the question: “How do you write the perfect headline?”
    In that cited quest for closure, I’m walking away with that mozzy-bite still itching beneath my scalp…

    Reply
  7. Barry Feldman

    Busted. The perfect headline and the imperfect article.

    Reply
  8. Michael

    Hi Barry,

    Very nice! I read the entire article. It’s just like using nested loops in NLP and utilizing cognitive dissonance. For instance, “There is a very important secret about women I’d like to tell you, which by the way, have you ever had a feeling that something amazing was about to happen?”

    It makes your brain go: “yes, but … uh … uh …” I want to know about them both!

    Your example of using it in a headline is very effective. Another tool for my tool box. Thanks again!

    Reply
  9. Tim Orr

    You got me only part way. The story’s headline conforms to the oldest rules there are about headlines. Nothing new there. But frankly, when you called Ogilvy, Bernbach and Burnett’s ideas “crap,” you lost me. You must be joking! Are you going to put your track record up against theirs? After that, I scanned your subheads and decided there was nothing more I felt compelled to read.

    Reply
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  15. Jayden Barbour

    “A headline has one objective: inspire the reader to read the next line.” To that I agree. But when it comes to headlines, I am less impressed with wordplay. I always go for hitting people right in the gut – telling them what they need and providing them answers. I use it sometimes just for continuity’s sake but almost always, being direct wins readers.

    Reply
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