Hope you enjoy:
My confession? Even though my copy always had great headlines, my blog posts frequently didn’t.
I wasn’t (yet) struck by the need for trouble — and without a hint of taboo, or a challenge to the norm, or a perceived conflict, or at the very least a paradox, most headlines just never get off the ground.
Here’s why there has to be a sense of trouble living at the heart of your headline:
Your headline needs to hook the reader into reading your “story,” and stories are created by and live off of conflict. In fact, another phrase for trouble is “story appeal.”
Your goal: entice the reader with a hint of conflict, and then she “has” to click through so she can know how the conflict is resolved and what kind of transformation takes place as a result.
4 Ways to Create Conflict in your Headlines:
Technique #1 — Refer to an unseen action or back-story that hints at, or includes, trouble
This one is a favorite of novelists and short story writers. Here’s a classic opening sentence from Farenheit 451: “It was a pleasure to burn.” Whoah, Nelly, right? Who is burning what and why are they taking so much pleasure in it? That enjoyment reeks of trouble, because the only things normal people take pleasure in burning are cigars and red fire ant mounds. And some might question the fire ant part
So here are some examples of Copyblogger and Wonderbranding* headlines that use this technique
- One Big Way to Avoid a Headline Fail — To me, this one implies a “lesson learned” story behind it.
- What a Drunk Swiss Guy Can Teach You About Handling Criticism — Gotta be some back-story to this one, right? And where there are drunk guys there’s usually trouble…
- Confessions of a Comment Addict — “Confessions of” anything requires a backstory involving some kind of “sin”/trouble.
- The Most Horrible Blog Post Ever — Do I have to explain this one?
- Turning Leaf Wine Resists the Soccer Mom — Definitely a story behind this one, and the resist part seems to promise some kind of conflict, right?
Technique # 2 — Use paradox, a challenge to expectations, and “negative” promises
With this technique the trouble involves conflicting ideas in the mind of your reader. You’re challenging how they normally see or think of the world, or at least your blogging topic. Break reader’s guessing mechanism to shake them awake. Create the itch to know and to reconcile the incongruent by following the example of these great headlines:
- How Cross-Dressing Makes You a Better Blogger — Um, how the #$%!@! does cross-dressing relate to blogging? And how can you not click through to find out?
- Kill Your Good Ideas — Huh? Why would I want to do that?
- Can Your PowerPoint Presentation Rival TV Marketing? — PowerPoint as good as a TV ad — are you kidding?
- Write What You Don’t Know — Hey, that’s the opposite of the cliché, right?
- How Penny Pinching Can Improve Your Marketing to Women Strategy — Who ever heard of penny pinching attracting women?
- Why Everyone Should Grow Up Poor — There’s definitely got to be a story that explains this seemingly left-field statement, right?
Technique # 3 — Confront and offer to explain or fix your readers’ afflictions
The home of the “Do you make these mistakes in English” and the “How to” class of headlines, both of which are usually sure-fire templates. The key to this technique is to hone in on a genuine, sleep-killing fear or problem plaguing your readership — and of course to have an explanation or solution. “Why No One Links to Your Best Posts (And What to Do About It)” is a perfect example of that.
This category is straightforward enough that I’m canning the comments after the examples, OK?
- Do Your Readers Secretly Think You’re a Liar?
- Why No One Links to Your Best Posts (And What to Do About It)
- Do you know who’s killing your email marketing?
- When Web Analytics Lie
- Are Your E-mails Coming Up Short?
Technique #4 — Leave the trouble implied by your promised benefit
All positive headlines fall into this category. But positive headlines have to at least imply and address a real audience need, right? There has to be some dissatisfaction within your reader for them to see the appeal in the benefit. This one is great when a direct statement of the problem might be insulting. Take the headline, “Four Ways to Be More Interesting” for example; do you really want a headline that asks “Do people find you boring?”
Again, here are a few examples:
- S.P.E.E.D. Writing: 5 Tips to Double Your Writing Productivity — Is content creation a bottleneck?
- How I Got 294 Comments With One Blog Post — Is your blog comment poor?
- Internet Marketing for Smart People — What does that say about regular Internet Marketing?
- 3 Quick and Dirty Holiday Hints for Procrastinating E-tailors — They’re not saying you’re a procrastinator, but these optimization tips would solve your problems if, somehow, time has gotten away from you
While the idea of trouble living at the heart of story is a universal observation, my classification of techniques is largely personal and certainly not exhaustive, so I’d love to know what you think. If you see that I missed a category, or have some great examples of your own to share, please feel free to comment.
* I chose to use a lot of Copyblogger examples because: a) Copyblogger is well known both for publishing great headlines, and for offering awesome “how-to write headlines” content; and b) it’s easier to collect headlines from one, rich source than to scour the blogosphere looking for examples. Other source material and headlines were also taken from Wonderbranding, Men With Pens, Psychotactics, Get Elastic, and Roy Williams’ Monday Morning Memo. All readers are welcome to post additional examples in the comments.
- Deconstructing Great Headlines
- 5 ways to turn the lights on for your Web visitors
- Short-Form Drama
- Reading better fiction to write better copy