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HOW TO COOK UP A KILLER CONTENT MARKETING HEADLINE What’s in a name? A lot, actually, when it comes to creating killer headlines for your content marketing efforts. In fact, crafting a clear, powerful, and compelling title may just be the most difficult part of content creation. There’s a lot of advice out there on what makes for a good headline; but, really, there’s no definitive answer. Readers’ tastes vary. Trends come and go. SEO standards shift… and what seems like an exciting and inventive title construct one minute can feel stale and cliché the next. So how can content marketers strike the right balance between clarity and creativity to give their content the best chance of attracting an audience? Read on for ideas from our #CMWorld Twitter chat and wider CMI communities that will help put your content headlines on the frontline of success.
THE MAIN COURSE: ENSURE READER SATISFACTION RULE NO. 1 START WITH THE ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS A good headline is like a storefront: As people walk by, it should draw their interest, give them a sense of what they’ll find inside, and convince them that they’ll find value in what you have to offer. TIP: When crafting a headline, always keep your audience’s needs and interests in mind. Start by answering the main questions readers will use to judge whether your content is worthy of their time: 1. What are the “nuts and bolts” of this story? 2. Why is it important to me? 3. What will I miss out on if I don’t read it? EXAMPLE: The Most Innovative Part of U2’s Tour Is Something the Audience Never Sees READ MORE: 7 Ways to Write Eye-Popping Headlines Be concise and in the beginnin draw interest g. what’s in it for Answer the reader. —The Ga ry J. Nix
RULE NO. 2 USE JUST A DASH OF SEO-SONING Including keywords in your headlines will make your content more search-friendly. But treat them like you would a rare, exotic spice: Use them sparingly to stimulate your readers’ appetites, and take care not to let them overwhelm your offerings and render them indigestible. Remember: Though you certainly want your content to gain the attention of search engines, keyword stuffing is a big no-no. Ultimately, you should be creating content to engage human readers, not robots. If your headlines communicate the value your content provides for your target audience, you’ll get the clicks you are after, and better search rankings will naturally follow. TIP: Ideally, headlines should be distinctive so that they are easily searchable long after your content has been published. Consider using relevant hashtags in your titles so that readers can find and follow your conversations on an ongoing basis. EXAMPLE: 15 Creative Ways Brands Recognized #SCOTUS on Social Media THE MAIN COURSE: ENSURE READER SATISFACTION Headlines are for human s. Readers interact & enga ge w/ content; robots crawl and shouldn’t determine your headline —Liliana GH
RULE NO. 3 IT’S OK TO TEASE, BUT DON’T DISAPPOINT If you promise caviar but only offer California rolls, your audience is going to leave unsatisfied — and probably won’t come back again. TIP: Headlines set an expectation of what your content will deliver, so make sure you aren’t filling yours with deceptions, exaggerations, or meaningless buzzwords just to get a click. In the words of a certain March Hare, be sure you say what you mean, and mean what you say, by offering useful, honest information with real value. EXAMPLE: This Is What the Brain of a Stroke Survivor Looks Like Don’t be The Boy Who Cried ‘Awesome’. THE MAIN COURSE: ENSURE READER SATISFACTION —Doug Kessler Entice and keep it releva nt to the content! Don’t menti on the Bieber unless you are ac tually writing about him!! —Brandie McCall um
RULE NO. 4 DON’T STUFF YOUR READERS FULL OF “BREAD” Ever lose interest in your entrée because you filled up on the endless basket of breadsticks brought to your table? Similarly, if you give away all of the important information in the headline, people won’t feel the need to click through to read more. TIP: Play off readers’ natural curiosity by leaving a little bit of mystery in your headlines. A reader who passes by the headline Add Milk to Make Fluffy Omelets Like the Pros might find the temptation of learning The One Foolproof Trick for Perfect, Fluffy Omelets too tantalizing to resist. EXAMPLE: No More Free Checked Bags on JetBlue: The Lowdown on New Fees THE MAIN COURSE: ENSURE READER SATISFACTION Tell me enough to draw m e in but not too much that I don’t need to read the article —Lucy Rendler-Kap lan
RULE NO.5 CREATE SNACKABLE APPETIZERS This is a “scans” world, so lengthy headlines that look like a lot of work to read are more likely to get passed by. Also, long headlines get cut off in search engine results pages (SERPs). TIP: Get to the point as quickly and concisely as possible. In general, 10 words maximum is a good rule of thumb for headlines, and fewer is even better — especially for social media posts. EXAMPLE: Debt Payment Looming, Greece Seeks a New Bailout THE MAIN COURSE: ENSURE READER SATISFACTION Your audience [are] skim mers, scanners and glancers, n ot readers... Grab them with genuine headline and 1st paragraph summary. —Lois Martin
RULE NO.6 SURVEY THE LANDSCAPE, THEN SERVE A SIGNATURE DISH THAT STANDS OUT It’s always helpful to see how competitors and other relevant media sources use headlines to position their content. This can give you a sense of the current trends and may spark ideas on what you can do to make your headlines unique and distinctive. Read everything. You can get inspiration from all sourc es — keeps you well rounded to o. —Josh St. Aubin TIP: If you want some headline inspiration, take a look at the top blogs in your niche, as well as general-interest publications that your audience is likely already consuming. Be aware of the current headline styles and trends they are following, but don’t feel like you have to rely on any gimmicks Check magazines like Co they may be using. smo & The Star. If you need headlin e help, read more magazine covers. EXAMPLE: —Heidi Cohen All the Weird Things Business People Do on Twitter THE MAIN COURSE: ENSURE READER SATISFACTION
RULE NO.7 PREPARE THE PERFECT PAIRING FOR YOUR CONTEXT Like a cocktail or a fine wine with dinner, your headlines should be well-matched to enhance the type of content you are serving up — and the place where you are serving it. TIP: You wouldn’t expect high-end scotch whiskey to be served at your local dive bar any more than your readers would expect a business jargon-heavy headline popping up in their Instagram feed. So make sure your headlines are context-appropriate and are crafted to fit the particular channel in which they will be appearing. EXAMPLE: CMI’s post headline, Learn the Secrets Behind 5 Great Marketing Projects was adjusted to Great Content: Get Secrets of 5 Marketing Projects to get more play on Facebook. THE MAIN COURSE: ENSURE READER SATISFACTION Each headline should be tailored to the medium used. Wri te at least 4 headlines per piece: fo r web, Twitter, email, blog. —Liliana GH
RULE NO.8 SERVE YOUR PATRONS RELIABLY AND CONSISTENTLY Reputation is everything when it comes to your content — especially if you intend to create lasting relationships with your audience. Just as you should be cultivating a unique brand voice or perspective in your content, you need to make sure your headlines communicate in that same signature style. TIP: Get to the point as quickly and concisely as possible. In general, 10 words maximum is a good rule of thumb for headlines, and fewer is even better — especially for social media posts. EXAMPLE: 5 Real-World Lessons College Teaches (By Accident) THE MAIN COURSE: ENSURE READER SATISFACTION Top headline-writing tip: Signal the voice of the piece. (H int: does the piece have a strong v oice?) —Doug Kessler
RULE NO.9 FUEL READER EXCITEMENT WITH ACTIONABLE WORDS You want your audience to take action as a result of reading your content, right? So why stifle the excitement you are looking to create by speaking in a passive voice in your headlines? TIP: Creating a headline that could also be used as a call to action will help get your readers in the right mood to take the next step after reading your content. EXAMPLE: Win Your Battle for Content Marketing Buy-In With This Checklist Use actionable words like “download” and “try” — it engages people & asks them to ac t. THE MAIN COURSE: ENSURE READER SATISFACTION —Jade Phillips
9 RULES FOR SERVING UP AN APPETIZING HEADLINE 1. tart with the essential ingredients. S 2. Use just a dash of SEO-soning. 3. It’s OK to tease, but don’t disappoint. 4. Don’t stuff your readers full of “bread.” 5. Create snackable appetizers. 6. Survey the competition, but serve a signature dish. 7. Prepare the perfect pairing for your context. 8. Serve your patrons reliably and consistently. 9. Fuel reader excitement with actionable words. http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2015/08/headlines-tips-tools
THE SIDE DISHES: SERVE UP SOME ADDED FLAVOR Once you’ve nailed down the basic recipe for headline success, you can spice up your efforts by testing different headline formulas, tapping into the latest title trends, or experimenting with creative constructs that might broaden your brand appeal. Know all the fo rmulas that work, but don’t get lazy about only ever using them. —Kristen Hicks
OPTION NO.1 USE NUMBERS AND LISTS Numerical headlines are effective, as they communicate how much information readers will be expected to absorb and help set manageable expectations of how long it will take readers to walk away with the information they came for. But be careful not to overuse the “listicle” format or force a headline to “take a number” if it’s not a natural fit. TIP: Consider using a number- or list-based headline when: Headlines with numbers (7 Ways…) It will help make difficult concepts or processes easier to signal important things : u tility, a understand, remember, and execute on quick read and some stru cture. You are discussing a manageable, step-by-step Readers like these! process — but be careful: Too many steps and you may —Doug Kessler make your content sound more complicated than it is Your content is informative, or it offers entertainment value Your collection of content uses a range of other headline styles. EXAMPLE: 7 Tips We Learned Analyzing 75 Content Marketing Examples THE SIDE DISHES: SERVE UP SOME ADDED FLAVOR
OPTION NO.2 PIQUE CURIOSITY AND OPEN UP A DIALOGUE Readers appreciate it when their own questions, concerns, and opinions get addressed in the content they receive. Help your audience see themselves in the content you create by asking questions, soliciting input, sparking a debate, introducing a controversial point of view, or otherwise demonstrating that you are interested in creating shared meaning through your content efforts. EXAMPLE: • Are LinkedIn Groups Worth the Trouble? • What Advice Would You Give Your Younger Self About Heartbreak? • What’s Next in Your Content Marketing Career Evolution? THE SIDE DISHES: SERVE UP SOME ADDED FLAVOR That’s what a good tweet should do : invite convers ation. —Martin Lieberman
OPTION NO.3 GET SAUCY Depending on your brand personality, adding humor, making clever quips, or injecting a little lighthearted fun into your headlines can be a great way to win over an audience (just ask any class clown). But it’s important that you have the creative skill to pull it off. Jokes can fall flat or get misconstrued, and who wants to risk losing audience favor due to an avoidable error in judgment? TIP: The ultimate goal of content marketing is to forge a lasting, trusted relationship with an audience. So make sure your quest to be clever or to crack a joke doesn’t mislead readers, confuse or offend them, or detract from the clarity and value of your content. Plays on words (good one s, at least) are usually a good way to go. EXAMPLE: Is the Funnel Clouding Our Online Vision? THE SIDE DISHES: SERVE UP SOME ADDED FLAVOR —Kip Meacham
OPTION NO.4 GO FOR EMOTION The very best headlines are often those that capitalize on the laws of basic human psychology by playing on emotions like fear and anxiety, anger, jealousy, or love and compassion. Moreover, studies show that headlines that trigger emotions are more likely to be shared on social media. TIP: The ultimate goal of content marketing is to forge a lasting, trusted relationship with an audience. So make sure your quest to be clever or to crack a joke doesn’t mislead readers, confuse or offend them, or detract from the clarity and value of your content. Write trigger headlines. Triggers are things that s et off emotional bombs like sho ck, joy, surprise, etc. EXAMPLE: • The One Content Marketing Question You Need to Ask (That May Scare You) • Who Killed the Content? Make Sure You’re Never the Suspect • Awful Plane Crash ‘Prank’ Will Actually Make You Feel Bad for Paris Hilton THE SIDE DISHES: SERVE UP SOME ADDED FLAVOR —Salma Jafri
OPTION NO.5 MAKE IT TRENDY AND TOPICAL Tying your headline to recent or upcoming happenings (like industry meetings or new technology releases), seasonal interests (like holidays), popular online memes, or important current events is a smart way to grab attention — not to mention it can convey that you are interested in the world beyond your business. Though their life cycle may be shorter than more evergreen topics, headlines that have built-in expiration dates can also add a sense of urgency to your content by signaling that your content should be read now, before it’s too late. EXAMPLE: • 36 Content Marketing Tips for 2015 • 60 Content Marketing Predictions for 2015 • 4 Tips to Combat Facebook’s Latest Algorithm Update THE SIDE DISHES: SERVE UP SOME ADDED FLAVOR
THE LAST WORD ON HEADLINES Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you’ll find that a piece of content you were expecting to become flavor of the month ends up leaving a bad taste in the mouths of audience members. But fear not! The beauty of content marketing is that many failures can be fixed — and even those that can’t might still serve as valuable teaching tools. So what can you do if your headline falls flat? If a headline isn’t workin g, think about why. What can you learn? Failure teaches. THE SIDE DISHES: —Doug Kessler SERVE UP SOME ADDED FLAVOR Change it. You have oppo rtunities to repurpose that conten t to your audience. Living docume nts can be changed/added/refer enced. —Carmella Lanni
Looking for a little hands-on headline help? Check out our list of tips and tools for generating unique headlines, evaluating their performance, and attracting your target audience without the need for shady headline gimmicks. ABOUT CONTENT MARKETING INSTITUTE Content Marketing Institute is the leading global content marketing education and training organization, teaching enterprise brands how to attract and retain customers through compelling, multi-channel storytelling. CMI’s Content Marketing World event, the largest content marketingfocused event, is held every September in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, and the Intelligent Content Conference event is held every spring. CMI publishes the bi-monthly magazine Chief Content Officer, and provides strategic consulting and content marketing research for some of the best-known brands in the world. CMI is a 2012, 2013 and 2014 Inc. 500 company.