Writing Headlines for Content Marketing: The ‘Clickbait-And-Switch’

Joe Kukura

April 20, 2016

The art and science of crafting a headline is a make-or-break aspect of online content marketing. Certainly the written text will drive the ultimate goal of sales, conversions or desired customer behaviors. But the headline is what’s most responsible for generating the lion’s share of clicks or page views.

Clicks and page views are ultimately not your most important content marketing metrics. Sophisticated marketers put more faith in shares, Likes, or on-page metrics such as scroll velocity (how quickly the reader scrolls down the article) and scroll depth (how far the reader scrolls down). A savvy marketer will “think beyond the click” to pursue sales and conversions. But you still need that initial click — you cannot make a sale without having the consumer’s attention. It is often wise to employ clickbait tactics in a headline to get consumers’ attention, and then use different, more sophisticated methods to create actual engagement. Think of it as a “clickbait-and-switch.”

Let’s look at eight proven-effective methods for creating headlines that get clicks, pile up the page views and solicit shares on social media.

Character Counts

Yes, you want to establish an engaging tone, but even more important is the actual number of characters (letters and numbers) that appear in your headline. Know your character limits – and that includes spaces! One rule of thumb is to keep the headline under 75 characters, which will help readers see the whole headline on a majority of platforms. Leave out unnecessary words and make the headline as tight as possible.

Tailor Your Headline to the ‘Heavy Hitters’

The ‘heavy hitters’ include Google, Facebook and Twitter. You might also use a content discovery or native advertising platform, so be aware of how headlines look and perform on different channels. For Google, tailoring means including the keywords that people use for their search terms. For Facebook and Twitter, tailoring means using tactics that get shares and retweets. Look at articles that are highly shared and retweeted, and try to duplicate their tactics. And don’t forget those character counts we mentioned before – optimizing headlines to work within each platform’s character allotment is part of the equation as well.

Stand Out and Provide Clear Value

There should be an obvious benefit that your content delivers to the reader, and the headline should tease (but not deliver!) that benefit. Headlines should promise a certain gift that reading the article will provide. Your headline will appear alongside many others, either in a social media feed, in an “Other Interesting Stories” widget or in — if the stars align — a Google search engine result page. The headline must give the reader a reason to click on your article instead of the many other articles they see.

Don’t Mislead With the Headline

Your headline should reflect the contents of the article. While it may be tempting to create a great clickbait headline to get as many clicks as possible, these will end up being garbage clicks that do not convert if the message is not in line with the rest of the article. Farhad Manjoo’s outstanding Slate.com analysis You Won’t Finish This Article found that nearly 40 percent of readers will “bounce” — leave the article before even reading a couple of sentences. If the reader does not see the payoff promised by the headline, that reader won’t scroll very far down the page and certainly won’t be converted by the brand message.

Go For a Laugh, A Cry, an ‘Oooh’ or an ‘Ahh’

This is the emotional response generated by the headline alone. The headline should provide entertainment value, emotional value or humor. Puns are great, tugging the heartstrings is even better, but simply being informative is not enough to stand out.

Target Your Audience

Visualize precisely what type of customer you hope to attract or convert, and target that type of reader with your headline. Speak in their language, and consider the tone your target audience would find most inviting.

Test Different Headlines

Does it seem silly to publish the same article with a different headline? BuzzFeed does this with nearly every article, and they’ve been pretty successful. It’s called A/B Testing, and it’s a way for smart marketers to test which types of headlines work best and which types underperform.

Evaluate existing formulas of success

DThere’s nothing wrong with paying attention to formulas that have proven to be successful and duplicate them. BufferApp’s 30+ Ultimate Headline Formulas for Tweets, Posts, Articles and Emails is a gold mine of “other people’s ideas” that are not new but can be tailored to your particular marketing needs.

Whether your goal is to go viral, get page views or convert sales, your headline is the most important variable in the content marketing formula. Keep these practices in mind, and pay attention to what other successful marketers do with their headlines. The quality of your content is what will drive conversions, but it’s your headlines that will really turn heads.

Joe Kukura is a Silicon Valley writer with nine years of experience covering tech, startups and the occasional basketball game with NBC Bay Area, the SF Weekly and the Daily Dot. He’s written content marketing for major IT companies, automobile brands and sports venues, and his work has appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

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