13 Ways of Looking at a Headline

Having a hard time coming up with headline ideas? Here are 13 tweaks, prompts, and hacks to keep you moving.

We’re working on headlines this month for our Copyblogger content challenge — but sometimes it’s really hard to come up with ideas!

Fortunately, there are lots of structures out there you can use to spark your creativity. I brought 13 of them together for you here, with apologies to Wallace Stevens and his nice poem.

13 ways to look at your headlines:

  1. Start with a number — or tweak an existing headline by adding a number
  2. The “Cosmo” technique, taking the structure of a magazine headline and adapting it for your topic
  3. Play with the promise. Amp the promise up with strong words … then try a quieter version that sets a more realistic-seeming expectation
  4. Try a warning — the “What Not to Wear” headline
  5. Answer the “protest march” questions: What do they want? When do they want it?
  6. The “monster” post — “101 ways to …”, “The Ultimate Guide to …”
  7. The “brief guide” — identifying the small set of key steps to getting started
  8. “The X Questions to Ask Before You …” (this is often nicely paired with a checklist, cheat sheet, or worksheet)
  9. The question without an obvious answer. “Do Lower Prices Lead to More Sales?” Remember: the audience needs to understand the relevance!
  10. Useful: What will the audience get out of reading, listening to, or watching this piece of content?
  11. Urgent: Increase the sense of urgency with time pressure or warnings
  12. Unique: Can you use an unusual word? Can you challenge conventional wisdom? Remember: Don’t let “unique” turn into “confusing”
  13. Ultra-Specific: Precision is interesting. Replace vague, waffly words and round numbers with specifics

The Show Notes

13 Ways of Looking at a Headline

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Sonia Simone:

Hey there, good to see you again. Welcome back to Copyblogger FM, the marketing podcast. Copyblogger FM is about emerging content marketing trends, interesting disasters, and enduring best practices, along with the occasional rant. My name is Sonia Simone. I’m the Chief Content Officer for Rainmaker Digital and I like to hang out with the folks who do the heavy lifting over on the Copyblogger blog. You can always get extra links, extra resources, as well as the complete show archive by pointing to Copyblogger.FM in your browser.

If you are joining us this month for our content challenge, or even if you aren’t, the group, the audience over at Copyblogger.com is doing a challenge to come up with better headlines. We start by coming up with more headlines. The challenge for the month is to come up with, let’s say, 20 or 30 headlines, brainstorm a whole big stack of them, and then keep adding to that every day by brainstorming a couple of additions.

One of the things we’ve heard back, and this is not surprising really, is that coming up with that many headlines is just hard, it’s just kind of a brain teaser. Today I thought I would revisit an exercise that I did way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I went to college. I had a poetry class, and we did a riff on Wallace Stevens’ poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. I don’t remember what the exercise was, but it was a poem to use that same idea, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Banana, I think it was.

So today, I am giving you Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Headline. This is intended as a way for you to kind of shake up your creative mind, shake out some additional ideas for headlines that you can try. Now, you might not use all of these ideas, you might only use one or two, but it’s a way for you to generate more ideas, so you can pick the ones that really jump out at you, the ones that you say, “Okay, that’s actually … seems like something I might want to read.”

If you’re doing the content challenge, and that’s awesome, I would love it if you were. This will help you get that done. If you’re not officially doing it, you can certainly sit down and brainstorm a big stack of headlines. It is so useful, no matter what you do to create content, to just have a bunch of headlines that you can start from and start writing something, or recording a podcast, or whatever it is that you do. Let’s get it started.

1. Start With a Number — Or Tweak an Existing Headline by Adding a Number

The number one tweak you can make to an existing headline or jumping off point for a new headline is to work with numbers. You might have seen there are lots of numbers-oriented posts and content all over the web. The reason is that just numbers and headlines just seem to work really well together. Now, my favorite way to handle a numbered list post, or, “13 different ways to do X, Y, or Z,” is to write the piece first and then pull the number out of that.

I’ll write a comprehensive how-to post about something and then I’ll just go back and count, “Okay, I’ve got 17 ways here, so this is going to be 17 ways to do a better job of X.” Starting from the content and then working back to the numbers, for me personally, is a best practice, but it doesn’t always work this way. For example, this podcast, I knew that I wanted to just have a little play on the Wallace Stevens poem, Thirteen Ways of a Looking at a Blackbird, so I knew that I wanted to come up with 13 ways to tweak a headline and come up with a new idea.

You can go either direction. Just realize that most of the time you should be willing to tweak the number to fit the content, rather than the content to fit the number. If you can only come up with 87 really good ideas and you had originally thought about a 101 list post, I would go ahead and go with the 87. Keep it strong, really make sure that the content is keeping the promise that the headline is writing the check for.

2. The “Cosmo” Technique, Taking the Structure of a Magazine Headline and Adapting it for Your Topic

Second tweak, this one is one of my favorites. I mention it nearly any time I talk about headlines, because I find it just handy and it’s something you can do right away, you can do it immediately. That is to head over either to a physical magazine stand or you can head to a virtual magazine stand, like Magazines.com, and look at very popular magazines. Look at their headlines and then just tweak those for your topic.

This is sometimes called the Cosmo headline technique, partly because Cosmopolitan magazine is really, really good at giving you headlines you can tweak for any topic at all: fitness, parenting, relationships, finance, business-to-business marketing. Their headlines structures are so tight and so solid, and so it’s a great place to go and you just take the shell, the skeleton, the structure, and then you just change the words around until it makes sense in your topic. It’s a really good way to knock out a bunch of ideas very quickly.

3. Play With the Promise. Amp the Promise Up with Strong Words … Then Try a Quieter Version that Sets a More Realistic-Seeming Expectation

Technique number three is to play around with the promises you make in the headline. Sometimes some words imply a big promise, like ‘breakthrough,’ or ‘sure fire,’ or ‘instant.’ Those are just words that imply a big promise, they imply that the content is going to deliver on something big. Play around with using some big promise words and then generate a couple of more alternatives, dialing down the promise, making it less ‘hype-y,’ for lack of a better word.

To take a big promise and, what would that big promise look like if you managed expectations on it a tiny bit and dialed down that promise? Play with the promises, go big, go a little softer, and see which one feels more compelling to you. It’s not always the big promise headline. Sometimes a more realistic headline is the one that will actually get more attention, but you have to play around with it and experiment and just try different possibilities.

4. Try a Warning — the “What Not to Wear” Headline

Technique number four is the ‘What Not to Wear’ headline. In other words, the negative headline. This is a headline that implies some kind of a warning that strongly suggests that people avoid some terrible fate, a headline that tells people what not to do, or what to avoid. These are always compelling, they are always interesting.

5. Answer the “Protest March” Questions: What do They Want? When do They Want It?

Technique number five is to answer what I call, the ‘protest march’ questions, and those are, “What do they want?” and, “When do they want it?” So, “How to teach your first grader to tie his shoes in less than an hour,” okay. What do you want to do? I’d like my first grader to be able to tie his shoes. When do I want to be able to get that done? I’d like to be able to get it done in under an hour. What do they want, and when do they want it? Answer those questions. Those are just always very solid headlines.

6. The “Monster” Post — “101 Ways to …”, “The Ultimate Guide to …”

The sixth technique is the monster post headline. So, “101 ways to do X, Y, Z,” keeping in mind what I said earlier that if you actually only come up with 87 or even 64, just go with the smaller number, it’s still impressive. The ’ultimate guide to,’ is another very time tested post formula. It can work very well, it’s used a lot, but it still has good promise. Think about what monster, massive, gigantic piece of content could you create and write a headline for that. Kind of an additional pro-tip on those, sometimes those can be turned into really interesting larger pieces of content also, like eBooks, tutorial series, autoresponder series, something like that.

7. The “Brief Guide” — Identifying the Small Set of Key Steps to Getting Started

Countering that, the seventh possibility for a headline is the brief guide headline. This is a headline that promises the most important steps to getting started with a particular topic or a particular thing that the audience wants to do. Really think about selecting, winnowing down from all the possible advice they could get, what’s the most important, most salient how-to you can provide, and then create your own brief guide to getting more whatever it is that they might want.

8. “The X Questions to Ask Before You …” (This is Often Nicely Paired with a Checklist, Cheat Sheet, or Worksheet)

Closely related to that is number eight, and this is “the X simple questions to ask before you … “ The eight simple questions to ask before you publish your blog posts, the six simple questions to ask before you do your workout today, whatever it might be. This is very related to the earlier one, which is it’s very step-by-step, it’s very concrete. You’re telling your audience what they should do and in what order. This is a great kind of content type to pair with a checklist or possibly a worksheet, so that you can actually give them a cheat sheet to remember the eight simple questions to ask before they move forward with their project.

9. The Question Without an Obvious Answer. “Do Lower Prices Lead to More Sales?” Remember: The Audience Needs to Understand the Relevance!

All right, technique number nine is more difficult to pull off, but they work really well when they work. That is the question that doesn’t have an obvious answer. I’ll give you an example from Copyblogger, “Do Lower Prices Lead to More Sales?” That one was written for us by Sean D’Souza and I like that because your first thought is normally, “Well yeah, law of supply and demand tends to suggest that when you lower price, you increase demand.” Then there’s a question mark and I think, “Well, maybe not. Maybe that’s not true.” There’s not an obvious answer there and I’m going to want to click through and find out why.

In one of his books, Bob Bly found this great one from Psychology Today, “Do You Close the Bathroom Door Even When You’re the Only One Home?” Now, I have no idea what that piece of content is about, that article in Psychology Today, but I think I would probably read it, because I’m just really intrigued. Now, these are tricky headlines, because curiosity is an important factor, but the pure curiosity headline, where the person really has no idea what they’re going to get on the other side of that, that, it tends not to get good results.

If I’m reading Psychology Today and I get that headline, I’m going to read it because I read Psychology Today to find out what makes people tick, right? I read to find out more about human psychology. That’s going to share an interesting fact about human psychology with me. That headline is very relevant for Psychology Today. It is not relevant for Copyblogger, and I think if we got clicks on that, it would be to ask us if we had been hacked.

However, Sean D’Souza’s headline, “Do Lower Prices Lead to More Sales?” is very relevant to Copyblogger and any reader of ours is going to know, “Oh, well that’s interesting, that’s going to be an article about the relationship between pricing and sales. That’s a topic that I think about and I’m going to click through and I’m going to see what Sean has to say about it.” If you have the question without an obvious answer headline, it has to be clear to the audience how it relates to what they come to you for. Otherwise, it just gets confusing and confusing is not helpful.

All right, so I’m going to wrap up the last four suggestions for you with the four U’s of copywriting, or the four U’s of headlines, which are ‘useful,’ ‘urgency,’ ‘unique,’ and ‘ultra specific,’ and I’ll walk you through how each of these might be something that you could use as a prompt to come up with some headline ideas.

10. Useful: What Will the Audience Get Out of Reading, Listening to, or Watching this Piece of Content?

The first U, letter U, stands for ‘useful.’ This is a really major tried and true thing to keep coming back to for your headlines. Which is, to ask that question, “What does the audience get out of reading this piece, or listening to this podcast, or watching this YouTube video?” These are the how-to’s, the tutorials, the guides. These are also the warnings and the pitfalls.

If your headline makes it really clear what the person’s going to gain from checking out your content, you’re going to have a good headline. Even if, maybe your other skills are not incredibly fantastic, that’s probably the most important one to master. Some people apply the ‘so what’ test, so you keep asking yourself, “Well, so what? Well, so what?” You should have a good answer for that. It should be an answer that makes sense to your audience.

11. Urgent: Increase the Sense of Urgency with Time Pressure or Warnings

The second letter U stands for the word, ‘urgency.’ This is about getting people to check out your content today, rather than never. Urgency language can include things like, ‘introducing,’ or ‘announcing,’ that suggests, “Okay, there’s something new here, I want to look at it.” It appeals to that sense of novelty. Another good urgency phrase is ‘why you must,’ and this is often paired with the word, ‘immediately.’ So, you know, “Why you must secure your WordPress based website immediately.” That’s an important post, because there are actually super bad things that could happen to you if you don’t do it.

12. Unique: Can You Use an Unusual Word? Can You Challenge Conventional Wisdom? Remember: Don’t Let “Unique” Turn into “Confusing”

The third letter U stands for unique. This is about catching attention and catching attention with things like, something unique, something that people haven’t seen before. You can get this done with possibly an unusual language choice, including one of my favorites which is, use words like ‘weird.’ Now, we’ve all seen that terrible stupid ad on social media, ‘this one weird trick to doing whatever.’

Don’t use ‘this one weird trick,’ because it’s horribly overused and associated with something that looks not very high quality. There are lots of other ways you could use the word ‘weird,’ that would cause people to just pause for a second and say, “Huh. ‘Weird.’ Well, I wonder what that’s about?” Think about playing with that. Any unusual language choice is going to make people just take that moment and stop and look at it.

Another very tried and true way to work the ‘unique’ angle is to challenge conventional wisdom. To take something that everybody believes is true, and turn it on its head. You have to be able to do this legitimately. Don’t just be a contrarian to be contrary. This actually has to support a real and useful position. Otherwise, you’re getting attention, but you won’t keep attention, because you’re not perceived as being reliable.

Again, I just want to caution you that when we want you to try and put a unique element in your headline, that’s not the same thing as confusing people with your headline. A lot of people go for unique, and what they end up with is unique and confusing. Again, it just won’t help. If people are confused, they tend to get a little bit nervous and when people are a little bit nervous, they don’t act. Anybody who’s a little bit nervous about what they’re going to find on the web will just tend to not click. “It just feels safer to not click, rather than going to that weird thing that I’m not sure what that is.” Be unusual, be different, be unique, but don’t be so different that you’re confusing and scary.

13. Ultra-Specific: Precision is Interesting. Replace Vague, Waffly Words and Round Numbers with Specifics

Our thirteenth tip is to be ultra specific, that’s the fourth U, ‘ultra specific.’ This kind of brings us full circle, because one of the best ways to get ultra specific is to use a specific number. Let’s talk about numbers for a moment. We have a tendency to want to round numbers, so we want to write posts with, “Ten things you should know about this,” or, “100 things you should know about this.”

It is often more compelling and more interesting if you go with kind of a knobbly number. If you go with a non-obvious number. 17 is a much more interesting number than 20, and 17.2 is more interesting than 17. Getting incredibly specific with numbers, with the facts, getting really, really pointed about what you have to say … very, very useful, very compelling. It just makes it feel like this is somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about.

Of course, you always want to back that up by, in fact, knowing what you’re talking about. If you see vague words in your headline, then take advantage of that and create a second iteration of your headline that makes that word much more specific, that really speaks to a specific individual. Use specific, crisp, clear, especially verbs and nouns, rather than vague, waffly, fluffy ones.

Those are 13 prompts or tweaks that you can use to look at your stack of headlines and grow it by quite a bit, double it, triple it, perhaps. I will go ahead and post all of these in text. If you go over to Copyblogger.FM, you can get the complete list in text just for your general reference. I would love to hear from you. If you guys have some headlines that you have tried one of these out on, let me know, drop them in the comments, always interested to see what you’re working on. And keep an eye on the Copyblogger.com blog for the next content challenge, which will be coming up in early February. Thanks so much guys, take care, and talk with you soon.