Gini Dietrich

How to Write a Compelling Headline

By: Gini Dietrich | October 23, 2014 | 
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Compelling HeadlineBy Gini Dietrich

Lindsay Bell and I have been working on a project for a client to help her write more efficient headlines.

During a call last week, she asked if we had a checklist of things we do before we publish a piece of content.

Of course we do, we said! (In our heads.)

To help her, we had to take what was in both of our brains and put it on paper.

As we finalized the project, we realized it might be very helpful for you, too.

Write a Compelling Headline

One would think all you have to do to write a compelling headline is add a number, create a “how to,” or drop a famous name.

But it turns out, it is much more work than that, particularly if you want to attract both humans and Google.

You have to be creative (and, yes, there are certain tricks like those listed above that work) and you have to be strategic.

A compelling headline is not to be taken lightly.

Be Creative

First, to create a compelling headline, look at the project with a creative eye—as the potential reader—and try to imagine what would grab them, draw them in, and make them curious to want to not only read more, but share the piece with their social communities.

Think of things, such as: 

  • “Is it as dull as dry toast?”
  • “Does it grab the reader?”
  • “Would it make you want to read more?”
  • “Can it be controversial in some way?” 
  • “Will it drive social shares?”  
  • “Are there creative and/or relevant pop culture references that might work, or catchy turns of phrase that fit the subject matter?” 
  • “Is the headline making false promises? Does the story match, in other words, and deliver on the promise of the headline?” 

Of course, the keyword or phrase must be included, and it’s ideal to place it as close as possible to the start of the headline.

That said, it should never feel forced.

To be a compelling headline, it has to work as a lure, and trying to make something fit where it just doesn’t will work to your detriment when it comes to your audience and other potential readers. 

Be Strategic

Once you know if your headline speaks to your audience and entices them to click, you have to be strategic.

You want Google to know you are an expert on said topic.

Therefore, there are four steps you should take with every piece of content you publish.

  1. Check your topic/headline/keyword/phrase in the Google keyword planner (don’t be scared that it asks you to sign in to your AdSense account…just sign in as if it’s your Gmail). For this exercise, I used “PR metrics.” There are 50 monthly searches and the competition is “medium.” If our site authority was low, I’d choose a different keyword. But, for Spin Sucks, medium competition is doable.
  2. Do an incognito Google search (go to file/new incognito window in your browser toolbar). This will allow you to see what people outside of your sphere of influence see when they search. I entered “PR metrics” into the search bar. 
  3. Install the moz toolbar (it’s free and is a Chrome extension). Click it on in your toolbar so you can see what the domain authority is of all the sites on the first page of results.
  4. Create a quick spreadsheet. Add the blog or newssite in the first column, their domain authority in the second, and whether you can compete in the third. Andy Crestodina has a great visual to show you where you should compete in Increase Targeted Website Traffic.Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 4.24.14 PM
    If your site’s domain authority (which you can check either by installing the Moz Chrome extension and pulling up your site or by going to Open Site Explorer) is 45, for instance, you shouldn’t try to compete with any site higher than 60.As he puts it, you can beat a runner running a marathon if you’re riding a bike, but the car driver will beat you every time.Our domain authority is 70, which means we can compete with sites up to 80.

    Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 5.34.31 AM
    If our competition for “PR metrics” was more than just the two sites, we’d go back to the drawing board and do these four steps all over again. (As it turns out, Spin Sucks comes up on the first page of results for “PR metrics.” These steps work really well!)

When I sat down to write my compelling headline, it could be:

  • PR Metrics: You Have to Do Real Math
  • The 10 Things to Consider with PR Metrics
  • Which PR Metrics to Track Every Week
  • What Kim Kardashian Taught Me about PR Metrics
  • Your Campaign Will Die if You Don’t Use these PR Metrics Now

As you get used to using this tool, you won’t have to create the spreadsheet.

You’ll just scan the domain authority of the sites listed on the first page of Google results and make a quick decision.

But I do recommend creating the spreadsheet the first few times so you can visually see what you’re up against.

Now it’s your turn. How do you write a compelling headline that both humans and Google will love?

photo credit: Shutterstock

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

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74 Comments on "How to Write a Compelling Headline"

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biggreenpen
1 year 11 months ago

Super interesting. AND a little confounding. My question seems so basic I sent an email before exposing to the world how clueless I am about one of the aspects of it. 🙂

biggreenpen
1 year 11 months ago

ClayMorgan I mean it’s REALLY basic. I’ll report in once I’ve figured it out! 🙂

ClayMorgan
1 year 11 months ago

I long for the days when we had copyeditors who were experts at writing clear, compelling headlines.

Headline writing is an art form, and a tough one at that.

ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

biggreenpen It wasn’t basic at all! In fact, I’m going to update the post for anyone else who has a similar question.

biggreenpen
1 year 11 months ago

ginidietrich biggreenpen Thanks!! There are probably others with the same question!! Really appreciate it!!

ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

ClayMorgan Now you know what sucks about this? You all have to do it for the blog posts you write.

Eleanor Pierce
1 year 11 months ago

ClayMorgan  I do kind of miss having someone else write my headlines, now that you mention it. 
I don’t miss some of the _other_ traits of copy editors though, I’m not gonna lie.

AmyMccTobin
1 year 11 months ago

You mean that we aren’t supposed to LIE in the headline??? WHAT social media have you been connected to?????

ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

AmyMccTobin Crap. I knew I was doing something wrong.

bobledrew
bobledrew
1 year 11 months ago

ClayMorgan I long for the dayes when wee had copy editers.

biggreenpen
1 year 11 months ago
Okay, I am back (from the original comment earlier today. Maybe it was just me but I kept getting hung up on the fact that the whole process looked like I had to sign up for an ad (despite the fact that people prior to Gini had told me that was not the case. I didn’t realize you just play around with the keywords on that first screen AS IF you were going to be doing an ad. Yay! Thanks much ginidietrich for your help, and to replying to my “I must be an idiot” email. Here’s a post with a step-by-step… Read more »
AmyMccTobin
1 year 11 months ago

I want to hear from AmyVernon on this.

annelizhannan
1 year 11 months ago

This headline checklist process is heady (intoxicating) in breadth and depth! No wonder your team is always giddy while they work 😉

belllindsay
1 year 11 months ago

bobledrew ClayMorgan HAHAHA! Right, Bob???

belllindsay
1 year 11 months ago

I could write headlines all day long. Not even kidding. Love it. 🙂

ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

bobledrew LMAO!

ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

AmyMccTobin AmyVernon She’s going to say we have to lie in headlines, isn’t she?

ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

biggreenpen Atta girl!

ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

annelizhannan I wouldn’t say they’re ALL always giddy while they work.

ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

belllindsay Note to self…

biggreenpen
1 year 11 months ago

ginidietrich biggreenpen I feel like I should go out and purchase a lottery ticket.

ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

biggreenpen I’m not sure I’d go that far.

belllindsay
1 year 11 months ago

ginidietrich annelizhannan Only if I’m drinking….

bobledrew
bobledrew
1 year 11 months ago

ClayMorgan I seriously agree with Clay, though. The hollowing out that’s happened in media and related disciplines has led to a galaxy of typos and generally bad writing. (PRESENT COMPANY EXCLUDED, of course)

AmyVernon
1 year 11 months ago

ginidietrich AmyMccTobin Since when would I tell people to lie in a headline????
This is actually pretty interesting stuff. I’d say, though, that it depends on your purposes. Obviously, a news site isn’t going to have the time to do this , though it would be interesting if they did do it for longer projects they already were spending time on.
For my own stuff, though, I do still tend to fly by the seat of my pants.

KristenDaukas
1 year 11 months ago

So much good stuff here.. bookmarked Andy’s post to go back and read again.. installed the Moz bar.. I get so frustrated with my one parenting site because it’s literally one of the only sites that specifically caters to parents of teens and tweens and I can’t get it to rank where I want. Or at all for that matter. This should help.

ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

AmyVernon AmyMccTobin I still fly by the seat of my pants on some things. But for things that I know matter to our prospective clients (PR metrics), I am VERY strategic about it.

ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

bobledrew Did you see what happened at the Sun-Times yesterday. The timing coincided with what was going on in Ottawa so I didn’t want to send it around.

ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

KristenDaukas Ohhhhh. I’ll bet I can help! Is it the Rooster and 4 Hens one? Or?

KristenDaukas
1 year 11 months ago

ginidietrich KristenDaukas No..that’s my fun site. It’s Ten to Twenty Parenting (10 – 20.. it’s an age not a sentence 😉 ) (tentotwenty.com)

AmyVernon
1 year 11 months ago

ginidietrich AmyMccTobin Absolutely! I think it’s the cobbler’s son has no shoes thing. We work our hardest for others and our own kind of suffers at times. However, I think that also allows us to keep exercising our creative muscles – by being less methodical on our own things, we can sometimes stumble upon something we’d never have found otherwise.

Now go fix all those typos! 😉

belllindsay
1 year 11 months ago

AmyVernon ginidietrich AmyMccTobin Amy V. for the win!! LOL #typos

bobledrew
bobledrew
1 year 11 months ago

Nope, totally in the dark.

ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

bobledrew Let me know what you think: http://davemckinney123.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/why-i-left/

ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

AmyVernon Sigh…

bobledrew
bobledrew
1 year 11 months ago

that is almost frighteningly close to an incident that happened during the last Ontario provincial election here.

TheJackB
1 year 11 months ago

My doppleganger and I have been playing around with this a bit lately. I wrote about Sex on Halloween and he spent some time musing about how the more outrageous headlines sometimes cause trouble for the writer.

What I have found is that when I spend less time writing for Google and more for humans the bounce rate decreases, engagement goes up and people tend to be happier. It is a slower process but…

AmyMccTobin
1 year 11 months ago

ginidietrich AmyVernon Hey, I get total credit for bringing her brain here. I get the assist.

bobledrew
bobledrew
1 year 11 months ago
ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

bobledrew What. The. Heck.

ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

TheJackB Here’s the BIG difference, though. You are an established blogger. You’ve been doing this a reaaaaaalllly long time. You have built authority, community, and a brand. When you’re just beginning and are in a niche industry that needs to focus all of its efforts on bringing qualified leads to your website, the work has to be much more strategic.

That said, I didn’t take my own advice for this headline. Let’s see how it does in the next couple of weeks!

belllindsay
1 year 11 months ago

AmyMccTobin ginidietrich AmyVernon I’m pretty sure Amy V’s heard of Spin Sucks before today. 😉

JackVincent
1 year 11 months ago

Even THIS headline is compelling. And then the you deliver on the promise, too 😉

biggreenpen
1 year 11 months ago

KristenDaukas ginidietrich Currently serving a “sentence” in that demographic. I’ll check out your blog Kristen!

AmyMccTobin
1 year 11 months ago

belllindsay AmyMccTobin ginidietrich AmyVernon BUT you don’t know how busy she was today and I MADE her come here. So there. Assist

JimHolben
JimHolben
1 year 11 months ago

Got me to click on this. I think that makes it a good headline!

ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

AmyMccTobin belllindsay AmyVernon LOL

ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

JimHolben Ha! Why, thank you! Someone else made fun of me and said it wasn’t very creative.

ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

JackVincent It was all for you, Jack.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
1 year 11 months ago

ImMarkBernhardt I am craving popcorn jelly bellys

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