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How an effective headline formula will transform your content

Good headlines are more important than ever. Why? Because in this age of ‘clickbait’, the study of what works (and what doesn’t) has taken a huge leap forward, and your competition is infinitely better than it was a few years ago. I have no idea what’s on Buzzfeed as you read this, but go ahead and click through, and pretend you’re not tempted to click on one – or most – of the headlines.

Now, you might say: “But my story won’t appear on a page like that”. Unfortunately, it may. Many sites run sidebars or “you may also like” panels which could well contain more exciting stuff than your blue widgets. Your competitors might be putting more effort into writing these things than you. And your headline may become the subject line for an email; in a customer’s inbox, you could be up against anything.

We’ve all seen lists of different types of headlines which apparently perform well. But wading through them and trying to relate their styles to your own stuff is hard work. You’re probably hoping that there’s some kind of formula which could be used, right? Well, you’ve come to the right place.

According to this article, one magic formula is this:

Trigger word + Adjective + Keyword + Promise

Let’s break down the elements. The ‘trigger word’ is something compelling, such as “How To” or a number. The adjective is, well, an adjective, although it could be an adverb, I reckon. The keyword is what the article is all about: the big thing for which you want to be found. And the promise is why people should want to know about the keyword.

Say our article is about a new blue widget which is 20% faster than its predecessor. When I single-handedly wrote entire issues of a What’s new in… magazine 25 years ago, I would wade through 500 or more press releases each month with headlines like “New Blue Widget is 20% Faster”. How can we improve on that using the formula above?

Well, the keyword here is probably going to be ‘blue widget’, although if that’s a bit general for a Google search, you might like to consider a modifier: perhaps it’s an ‘ATEX certified blue widget’ or an ‘aerospace grade blue widget’, or whatever your customers might be searching for. Those are just labels though. Our adjective could be ‘faster’, but what does that mean for the customer? Does a faster blue widget mean higher throughput? That might work better.

What about the promise? Maybe the product could ‘revolutionise the industry’. Or perhaps it might just be ‘the next step forward for flange machines’. Either way, that’s a reason to read the article.

An obvious trigger word might be “How…”. But maybe an interesting name making a quote could be a good trigger. Put all that together and we get headlines like:

How a new ATEX certified blue widget will revolutionise the industry


BWCo CEO: “Higher throughput aerospace widget is the next step forward for flange machines”

…or many other options, all of which you could consider. Many can be criticised in some way, which is why you should write several alternatives. However, all will probably be better than the “20% Faster Blue Widget” label slapped on most articles as an afterthought.

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