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How to Write Headlines Readers Simply Must Click On

Tons of examples of what worked and what didn’t — and why

Illustration by the author.

Two days ago, I organized an event where I invited two other top writers to join me to analyze random headlines live in front of an audience. It was a fun experiment and I think everyone learned a lot from it.

Headlines are what get people to click on your article. As my friend

said during the event:

“You can write a stellar post with a decent headline and your chances of success are low. However, write a killer headline on a regular post and your chances of success are much higher.”

I second what Todd said.

I can confirm that it’s true based both from my experience and from data I’ve been collecting on both successful and unsuccessful pieces. The sad thing is that there are plenty of very good articles out there that have a headline readers just will never click. Let’s try to change that!

In this article, I want to highlight some of the best points discussed during the live event. I also want to show you data on what worked and what didn’t. And for each, I’ll specify why.

After reading this article, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge you need to create headlines readers will click.

How to write headlines readers click — general guidelines

Before we get into the specifics, I want to start with the general rules. If you’ve been writing for some time, you might already know them, but you might still learn and thing or two.

Bonus: The common mortal shouldn’t use “Hi.” or anything that looks like that as their headline.

Examples of ineffective headlines

I believe that there’s at least as much to learn from what didn’t work versus what did. As such, I’m starting with lessons to learn from what didn’t work. The following headlines have generated close to no traffic:

Source: author. Sourced from 20,000 articles published from Jan 1, 2017 to Oct 31, 2020.

Based on the general guidelines above, can you guess why each didn’t perform well? Here are some brief thoughts for each:

1. 6 Problems with the Business Model Canvas

I’m not sure what the “Business Model Canvas” is and I don’t think most people do. This was likely too niche. It’s also unclear if this is informational or if there are lessons to learn from reading the article.

2. New Book Releases: October 20, 2020

This is too generic.

3. The Ultimate Check Is The People

I’m not sure what that means. It’s missing a clear incentive to click.

4. Connery’s 007

This is too short and lacking context. My guess is that this is an analysis of James Bond movies portrayed by Sean Connery? What’s in it for the reader? What makes this piece unique?

5. Have You Hit A Mental Block Or Are You Fatigued?

What will I get out of knowing the answer to that? Can I take action on the answer?

6. The Secret to Learning New Skills

This is too generic. This would be a perfect case to drop a famous name here, like:

“Oprah’s Secret To Learning the Skills That Made Her [Famous/Successful]”

That being said, “secret” is a little too clickbait-y. This doesn’t work as well in 2020.

7. Go World!

Okay. Go world!

8. How entrepreneurs should think about the competitive landscape for their venture.

People don’t like to be told what they should do. This headline isn’t title case and ends with a period. The topic should be popular enough though, so once tightened, this could work.

9. Blinders

Huh?

10. Spending time on Instagram can be extremely helpful in learning a skill

This is intriguing as we usually associate social media to be a waste of time. Headlines that break common wisdom can do really well. This headline, however, breaks two rules: starting with a verb ending in -ing and not being title case.

A more effective variation of this headline could be:

“How to Use Instagram as a Tool to Boost Your Ability to Learn”

11. Level Up Your Meeting Culture

I’m not sure what a meeting culture is. Is that for companies that do too many unnecessary meetings? What does “level up” mean here? I’d be more specific. Maybe something like:

“How to Finally Run Effective Meetings”

12. Where Does ExxonMobil’s Donation Money Go?

I’m assuming this is an analysis of where the company’s donation money is spent. I’d go for something a lot more outrageous here. Maybe something like:

“Stop Donating to ExxonMobil, Your Money Only Helps <insert shocking fact here>”

13. Policy Solutions for Big Tech

This is too generic.

14. On the Future of Newsletters

Never start with “On the”. Be more specific.

15. Principles for New User Onboarding

Is that about the general concept of “User Onboarding” or is it for something more specific? How many principles? Is this helping me create better user onboarding experiences? You could try:

“The Top 10 Principles <insert famous company here> Used to Create the Best User Onboarding Experience in their App.”

16. The Latest: What if you can’t prove you had Covid-19?

“The Latest”? I’m not sure what this adds to the headline. Two pitfalls: it’s not title case and it’s a question. Also, as a reader, what do I get out of this?

17. Your Rocket Is Now Boarding

Okay. Is that the launch of a product? I have a rocket? Sweet!

18. Dark Twins of a Distorted American Dream: Gary D. Rhodes’ OFFED and Steve Erickson’s SHADOWBAHN

Why should I care about these two people? What will I get out of this article? Also, never use all caps on any part of a headline.

19. Unplugging After Work

This is too generic. Don’t use verbs ending with -ing.

20. How Shell Is Shifting Towards Clean Energy

Maybe Shell isn’t that popular of a use case? Also, most readers are probably not looking for ways to shift towards clean energy and are probably not affected by the fact that Shell is.

I’d go for something a lot more shocking:

“Shell Is [Doing/Making] <insert shocking fact here>. Here’s How This Will Affect You Soon”

21. Information Vs. Knowledge — The Forgotten Differential

I’m assuming this is an essay on information vs knowledge, explaining the differences between them. In that case, I’d go for something much simpler (though longer), like:

“The Subtle Difference Between Information and Knowledge and How to Use Each Correctly Every Time”

22. The Etiquette of Gratitude: How to Elegantly Receive A Gift

Is that a problem people have? Or, at least, that they’re aware of? Also, don’t prepend a “label” to a headline. I’d go for something like:

“How to Properly Demonstrate Your Gratitude When Receiving a Gift From Someone You Care About”

Or something shorter.

23. Your Phone Addiction Is a Codependent Relationship

The premise is good. Facts, however, rarely work. Make this more shocking. Can you fix that toxic relationship? You could try something like:

“How to Finally Break Your Toxic Relationship With Your Phone”

24. ‘Prize Light Over Heat’ And Other Essential Advice For Science Writers

I like how direct that last part is (Essential Advice For Science Writers). It’s very clear what you’ll get out of it and who it’s intended for. I’d lead with that. The issue here likely is that there aren’t that many science writers reading on Medium I’d guess.

25. A Formula for Writing a Traditional Business Profile

This is a little generic and underwhelming in its premise. “A formula” is just one out of millions. What makes it special? You could try:

“Write Business Profiles Like a Pro With This [Poven/Winning/Unique] Formula”

26. Transitions and Connective Words

Huh? I don’t know what this is really about.

27. Writing the Service Article

What’s a “service article”? Don’t start with a gerund. I have no idea what I’ll get out of reading this.

28. Love is the Antidote

The antidote to what? Says who? It’s not a unique concept, but the premise is still good. This should be spiced up greatly, like:

“Detoxify Your Relationships With the Magical Power of Love.”

That will make people cringe, but I think in an inquisitive way.

29. Lessons from a female start-up co-founder

There are many female startup co-founders. Who is it? Is it someone with a lot of success? Is it yourself? “Lessons” is also too generic. As for “female”, if it’s a personal story, I’d just let my name and photo do the talking. Here are some ideas on how to make this more interesting:

“My Startup Made $1M During the First Year But Died the Next One. Here Are My Lessons to You”

“After 10 Years in Business, I Was Forced to Shut My Startup Down. Here Are My Lessons to You”

“Here’s What It’s Like to Be a Female Co-Founder In a Male-Dominated World”

“My Top 5 Lessons As a Successful Female Entrepreneur”

30. Book Club: Consent for kids, sex and disability, LGBTI journeys, and more

I’m guessing this is an announcement for an existing book club? Announcement-type headlines very rarely work.

Top-performing headlines

Disclaimer: While a good headline is the main reason an article will succeed, there are other factors, like how good the article actually is. Some of the examples below have decent headlines but did really well. That’s likely because the article is very good. “Travel Is No Cure for the Mind” is a great example of a decent headline but is a killer article.

All-time

These are the 20 top-performing headlines used on Medium since 2017, ordered by descending order of popularity*:

Source: author. Sourced from 20,000 articles published from Jan 1, 2020 2017 to Oct 31, 2020.

*Popularity, in this case, is measured in number of claps.

Observations:

2020

What makes a popular headline changes over time. This list contains the 20 most popular headlines of 2020 (in blue are those repeated from the above list):

Source: author. Sourced from 15,000 articles published in 2020.

Observations:

October 2020

Let’s now look into how it evolved just in the last month. This list contains the 20 most popular headlines of October 2020:

Source: author. Sourced from 7,000 articles published in October 2020.

Observations:

Things that work no matter when it’s published

Looking at the analysis from different periods, can you identify some patterns? Let me help you with some observations not previously made in the general guidelines:

I hope this gives a good overview of what makes a headline good or not and how you can create ones that get readers to click. Now, it’s time to write some great headlines! You can do this!

— Danny
Do you want to take your headline crafting skills to the next level? Check out my upcoming headline analyzer tool!

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Danny Forest

Danny Forest

Just freaking do it, consistently over time => life will be good

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