How to Write Click-Worthy Blog Headlines Without Resorting to Clickbait

fishing image relaying the message of headlines
You shouldn’t have to bait your prospects. Provide value in everything you write and prospects will naturally be drawn to you. Image source

No matter what goals you have for your content marketing, you need to be able to write headlines that get clicked. As Jessica Black, Marketing Manager at Contently, notes: “If your headline isn’t good, your article is irrelevant.”

And if your article is irrelevant, then you’re not getting any traffic.

Beyond that, failure to draw traffic affects your ability to gather insights about what makes your customers tick (and click). As CRO expert Tommy Walker suggests in his article about why you should focus on clicks before conversions:

Clicks are the best insight we have into what drives people to action. If you’re not putting click behavior under a microscope on every level, you don’t stand a chance at reliably building online marketing funnels that convert.

So how do you write headlines that get clicks and draw in qualified traffic? Well, an easy way would be to write a clickbait headline; something like, “You Won’t Believe the Marketing Campaign This Marketer Came Up With.”

But headlines like this typically create a lot of hype and under-deliver. You put effort into your content marketing, and you want the benefits to be clear in the title, right?

So, how do you write a good headline that:

  • Draws people in
  • Is shareable
  • Isn’t manipulative

In short: how do you write clickbait alternatives that still get clicks?

Here are six tips to equip you with the tools you need to write benefits-driven headlines that rise above the clickbait noise.

1. Understand the psychology of clickbait headlines

What exactly is this phenomenon that entices us to click? Here’s an explanation from Facebook’s Khalid El-Arini and Joyce Tang:

“Clickbaiting” is when a publisher posts a link with a headline that encourages people to click to see more, without telling them much information about what they will see.

Clickbait is psychologically compelling because our brains start craving the information that is left out of the headline. As marketer Jeremy Smith at JeremySaid writes:

Our minds are not content with the imbalance of disequilibrium — the lingering sense of incompleteness that we feel after reading a successful article title. So, we click. We pursue equilibration.

However, just causing disequilibrium by leaving information out of the headline isn’t ideal for readers.

Why not? Because readers want to know what to expect when they click a headline. They want to know what they’re going to get from reading the article.

Want proof? Here’s more data from the Facebook Newsroom:

When we asked people in an initial survey what type of content they preferred to see in their News Feeds, 80% of the time people preferred headlines that helped them decide if they wanted to read the full article before they had to click through.

So how do you create disequilibrium but still tell people what they’re going to get?

Speak to the benefits.

2. Focus on the benefits

You can create the same sense of psychological disequilibrium with a benefits-driven headline such as “10 Proven Ways to Increase Website Conversion” as you can with a clickbait headline like “You Won’t Believe How This Company Changed the Game.”

Both of these headlines leave out enough information to cause readers to want more, but only the benefits-driven headline tells them what to expect in the full article.

A study from MarketingProfs, featured on Ion’s Best of A/B Testing series, used A/B testing to show that benefits-driven headlines increased conversion rates by 28%.

As Barry Feldman puts it:

Consider content marketing a war zone. The battle is for attention and your headline is your weapon. The reader’s perpetually – but subconsciously – asking, “Why should I read this?”

Answer the question. Make it unmistakably clear what the reader gains by investing time in your content.

The pulling power of a magnetic headline traces to its promise. Simply stated, it’s a benefit.

3. Brainstorm multiple headlines and use your email list to A/B test them

When I reached out to Jessica Black, Marketing Manager at Contently, she shared that one of the most effective ways of optimizing your headlines is to A/B test them via your email newsletter:

I’ll usually send two different subject lines to a percentage of the list. I’ll send 10 percent one version of the headline, and I’ll send another 10 percent a second version of the headline.

After either a day or a couple of hours I’ll see which headline performs the best, and I’ll send that headline to the last 80 percent.

So you’re ready to A/B test your headlines, but how can you start generating headline ideas?

Brainstorm first and edit later

If you’re brainstorming headlines for your next A/B test, here’s some advice from digital strategist Alexis Grant:

Often when you start writing a headline, people start writing and then they erase, and then they write some more and then erase, trying to create the perfect headline.

If you don’t let yourself erase, if you just write them all out, you can see all the important keywords and all the best elements of each headline, and you can combine them into your final choice. The process of writing out a lot of headlines gets you closer to the best one.

Create headlines that align with reader interest

As you’re brainstorming, keep in mind that readers are most likely to resonate with headlines that convey the value of clicking – and demonstrate that they align with your readers’ interests and goals. Here’s what Alexis Grant recommends:

Creative and cutesy headlines perform really well for Upworthy, but for us, something like “The Marketer’s Guide to Data Science” performs really well because that’s what our target customer is looking for.

4. Test for numbers and percentages in your headlines

Jessica also noted that 31% of Contently’s top 10% performing email subject lines included a number, such as this one: “8 Scary Stats for Content Marketers — and What You Can Do About Them.

Numbers tend to do particularly well in headlines, as Conductor indicates:

overall headline preference
Quantifying your benefits in your headlines will help boost conversion rates. Image source

As the Conductor chart shows, the headline “Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful” lets the reader know that he or she will learn something about drinking tea – but the headline “30 Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful” promises the reader 30 unique benefits.

It also touches on the disequilibrium concept discussed earlier: when 30 potential benefits are listed, the reader begins to wonder what those 30 unique ideas might be, and part of the brain remains unsatisfied until the reader clicks and scans the list.

5. Optimize for keywords that will drive more traffic

When Alexis Grant generates headlines for her clients, she generally steers clear of using clickbait.

Why, you ask?

Because clickbait isn’t good for SEO:

Clickbait doesn’t work incredibly well if you’re trying to get a keyword into the headline. It’s more important to put the keyword in that describes the story.

Instead, Alexis relies on keyword research and her SEO knowledge to write clickable headlines that drive long-tail traffic.

“We’re looking for a headline that’s catchy but that also uses the keywords that we want the site to rank for,” Alexis told me. “We get a lot of traffic from search, and we get that traffic for a lot of reasons, but optimizing our headlines is a big part of it.

If you want to start doing keyword research for your next headline, these are the tools that Alexis’ team at Socialexis team recommends:

  • Google Trends, which lets you compare different search terms and choose keywords that are likely to be high performers.
  • Keyword Planner, which helps find long-tail keywords that give your site a SEO boost over time.

6. Complement the headline with a benefits-driven dek

Here’s Jessica Black’s advice for content marketers: instead of focusing just on the headline, focus on the entire package:

Another thing that I think is really important, that a lot of people forget about, is the dek.

In short, the dek is the line of text that accompanies your headline, whether on your blog post page or in your email blasts. The Society of Publication Designers defines the dek as “the phrase or two that furthers the headline, explaining the story briefly and enticing the reader to keep reading.”

benefit driven headlines
The ‘hed’ (or headline) and ‘dek.’ Image source

Jessica makes the dek a big part of her marketing strategy.

The dek is a really big deal, especially for social. The way our social editor uses the combination of the header, the subject line, the image — those things all come together and tell a story.

Just remember to leave enough out so that your reader is still intrigued by what they’re going to click on.

If you’re not seeing the click-through rate you want, try changing the dek. It’s as easy as updating it in your CMS, and you’ll quickly see whether you get results.

As Slate’s editorial director, John Swansburg, said in a recent article about heds and deks:

I remember [the] days when Julia and I would spend 10 minutes, maybe 15, carving in stone a beautifully crafted hed and dek that would last the entire next day on the homepage. Now, Chad bounces a headline after an hour if it’s not performing!

Applying these tactics to your headlines

Here’s a recap of how to write a great benefits-driven headline that is more likely to stand out from the clickbait-y imitators of the online publishing world:

  • Don’t try to trick or manipulate your readers into clicking
  • Use online tools like Google Trends and Keyword Planner to find SEO-rich keywords for your headlines
  • Write many headlines and look at common elements before choosing the best one
  • A/B test your headlines via your email newsletter
  • Don’t forget about the dek. As Jessica shared earlier, “Tell a story, but leave enough out so that your reader is still intrigued by what they’re going to click on.”
  • Present your article as a full package: headline, dek and relevant featured image

Whatever you do, don’t tell us that we won’t believe what we’re about to read.

In all likelihood, we’ll believe it. Your job is to make us want to read your article because of the benefits we’ll get from reading it. In return, we’ll click – and maybe even convert.

— Nicole Dieker

default author image
About Nicole Dieker
Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer and copywriter. She writes the "How A Freelance Writer Makes A Living" column for The Billfold, and her work has also appeared in The Toast, Yearbook Office, Boing Boing, The Penny Hoarder, and The Freelancer by Contently. Follow her on Twitter @HelloTheFuture.
» More blog posts by Nicole Dieker