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The Headline Checklist: Remarkable Titles in 9 Idiot-Proof Steps

I’m kind of like that Russian IT guy who hacked into the coffee machine at his office and was able to run a script to have it pour him a cup in the exact time it took him to walk over there. You know, someone who creates a processes for everything they do more than once.

Of course, as a blogger, something I do practically every day is write headlines.

When I first started at Process Street, I had no idea what copywriting was. I wrote bloated, awful headlines which wouldn’t compel candy from a baby.

Pretty soon after my CEO realized this, I was given tasks and time off to just read books. I read David Ogilvy’s Ogilvy on Advertising I poured over the headline examples from John Caples’ Tested Advertising Methods, read the whole suite of Copyblogger’s free ebooks and started creating a swipe file from all the emails, landing pages and sales letters and copywriting examples I could get my hands on.

Within a few months of trial, error and red-eyed reading, I’d slightly improved…

Hey, that’s how it is when you learn something new.

The thing is, I can write headlines as well as most now not because of experience but because I follow a process and I have a basic grounding in what it is I’m doing from reading some classic and modern copy.

Hold on ’til the end of this post to grab an actual checklist of this process which you can run every time you need to write a headline

Let’s dig in! Remember to keep track of your headlines along the way. You’ll need ’em

1. Check over the most successful headlines ever written

If you don’t have an idea you’re comfortable with straight away or want to create a bunch of iterations on the theme, a quick flick through a list of headline formulas can be extremely useful.

While it’s not the most organic way to write great headlines, sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.

the $12,000 secret of an ohio housewife

Here are some popular ones:

  • How [industry expert] solved [problem] once and for all
  • The secrets of influencers that always get [results]
  • How I improved [problem] without [objection] in just [time]
  • What smart [target market] do when faced with [problem]
  • The weird science behind [topic]

BONUS: Get my 147 favorite headline formulas from top copywriting authorities.

Once you’ve got that spreadsheet, there’s something else you can do for the future to expand the (already pretty big) list:

Go to the most shared content of large media outlets — that’s places like Buzzfeed’s Trending section and Mashable‘s What’s Hot section – and templatize the headlines that made you click or have a much larger amount of shares than the rest.

That short exercise will help you develop a swipe file of copywriting examples that will be useful forever.

2. Outline the benefits, not the features

You can’t appeal to everyone, so try conveying specific benefits in your headline, not general, meaningless ones.

Benefits are what your content can do for the reader whereas features are just what it is.

why models stay young till sixty! headline

Here are a few examples:

Bad: Use this 19 Step Keyword Research Process to Find Keywords

Good: Use this 19 Step Keyword Research Process to SKYROCKET your Organic Search Traffic

Benefit: Skyrocket organic search traffic

BadHow to Use Emojis in Your Marketing

Good: The 20 Best & Worst Emoji Marketing Campaigns to Boost Engagement

Benefit: Boost Engagement

Still a little unclear? Check over this table:

3. Accurately describe the content

While keywords and over-excitedness can sometimes get in the way of clarity, one of the most important things a headline should be is accurate. That’s because there’s no one bouncing quicker than a misled reader.

So, how do you check if you’re accurately describing with your headline?

  1. Name it correctly by format — worksheet, template, checklist, etc.
  2. Don’t call it an ‘ultimate guide’ if it’s just a few bits and pieces.
  3. Research that you’ve got your idea right and that most would agree. I once wrote a piece about ‘marketing automation’, but marketing automation is actually something totally different.

4. Address objections before they’re made

If your content is good enough, an accurate headline will probably sound too good to be true. Not all headlines have enough room to address objections, but it’s something you might want to consider if you’re making a big promise.

Here are five examples, with the objections they are addressing in bold.

  • Learn C# in 14 Days (While Still Working a Full-Time Job)
  • 15 Tested Headline Templates You Can Use Right Now
  • Get the Best Spreadsheet Software, Free Forever
  • Rapid Hair Regrowth within 30 Days Or Your Money Back!
  • The Scientifically Proven Way To Instantly Double Your Sales

5. Try to include these key power words

It’s not always possible or desirable to include certain words in your headlines, but if you get a chance, there are certain words we human beings simply respond better to than others.

Kevan Lee from Buffer analyzed the titles of over 3,016 articles from 24 different sites and collated a great spreadsheet which is just as interesting as it is useful.

CoSchedule’s list of 500+ Power Words is available in exchange for your email address, so I’ll respect that and leave the link here for your use.

There are tons of takes on which words are power words, and if you were to list them all you’d end up with the dictionary of all emotive language, which isn’t ever so useful.

Unless I really need to kick my headline up a notch, I stick with the 5 most persuasive words in the English language and Ogilvy’s original 20 power words:

david ogilvy's power words for headlines

5 most persuasive words:

  1. You
  2. Free
  3. Because
  4. Instantly
  5. New

6. Keep it between 5 and 18 words

george orwell quote

Research by CoSchedule shows that anywhere between 6 and 16 words makes for the best headline, but it depends on where it will be seen. That’s because of how some places have character limits.

Here’s a quick summary of the CoSchedule and NNgroup research:

  • To make sure people actually read it: 34 characters (~5 words)
  • For search results: 70 characters (~12 words)
  • For email subjects: 50 characters (~9 words)
  • Twitter: 71–100 characters (~12-15 words)
  • Facebook: 40 characters (~7 words)
  • Google+: 60 characters (~10 words)
  • LinkedIn: 80–120 characters (~14-18 words)

7. Add a number, fact, statistic or percentage

Whether you like them or not, list posts are amongst the most popular kinds of content. What started out as a ‘Hey, BuzzFeed sure has a lot of numbers in its headlines…’ has blown up into a full-on cure for the attention deficit problem caused by the internet.

This doesn’t mean everything you write with a number in the title has to be a list post, though. Numbers give you clarity. They either tell you that you’re about to see 43 Dogs So Cute They Will Destroy You or Why 68% of Bloggers Have No Friends.

In an analysis of nearly 1,000,000 headlines, Garrett Moon (CoSchedule again!) writing for OkDork found that the most frequent type of post was a list post, and that had good reason: list posts were the most likely type of post to be shared more than 1,000 times.

Take this lot for example: 

great headlines examples

8. Make it SUPER specific

Don’t be scared of ruling people out. If your headline doesn’t target a particular group of people, desire, or fear, it’s not going to work anyway, so you might as well target properly.

Here’s a real example of what I mean:

And the difference between vague and specific** headlines:

  • Vague: You’ll lose money if this happens and you don’t fix it
  • Specific: Your organic search traffic is about to PLUMMET — Here’s exactly what to do

Another way of doing this is by targeting your audience in a very direct way.

  • Vague: Small Businesses: Here’s a tip to make more sales
  • Specific: London Street Florists: Here’s a tip to make more sales

Your content won’t appeal to as much of a wide range of people, but it will appeal strongly to them, and that’s what gets conversions. 

**Sort of like That Time I Was Hunted by Prana Yoga Company: A Remarketing Analysis

9. Draft, redraft, then analyze until you’re sick of it

As branding master, David Ogilvy once said:

“When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar”

It’s okay to spend as much or more time on your headline as you would on the body of your content because it’s that important.

Gathering together all of the headlines you’ve written so far using this process, test them 1 by 1 in CoSchedule’s headline analyzer.

By the end of the testing (as long as you didn’t refresh the page or close the tab), you should have a history of headlines and scores under the search bar.

9 idiot proof headline tips checklist

Let’s grab your reusable headline checklist for your next article:

As promised, your reusable headline checklist. HERE. WOO! How do you use it? Well, make a Process Street account (that takes about 30 seconds), then go to the headline checklist. Hit the big green ‘Give me this checklist!’ button. When you do that, the checklist will be added to your account and you can run it each time, work through the steps and make sure your headline is checking all the boxes.

If you liked this headline checklist and want to read more like it, let me know in the comments. 🙂

Oh, make sure to grab the accompanying headline formulas before you get started!

2 responses to “The Headline Checklist: Remarkable Titles in 9 Idiot-Proof Steps

  1. Nice post. Btw it isnt necessary to visit all the blogs in order to grab their taglines, titles and suchlike. You can simply use a backlink checker like megaindex, semrush, ahrefs and get them all in one report. This trick saves me lots of time.

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About the Author

Benjamin Brandall is a content crafter for Process Street. A part time video game geek, full time writer and intermittent wise guy. Find him on Twitter @benjbrandall