The D and two Cs (and another C) of crafting irresistible headlines

No post on headlines would be complete (so let’s just start with it) without the following quote by David Ogilvy: ‘When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar’.

Headlines compete for our attention everywhere we look online, from search engine results pages, to email subject lines, to Facebook statuses. Your opening gambit has to be stellar, if you want to stand out from the competition.

1)Social shares

2)Search engine result pages

3)Subject lines

4)Aggregation/feeder services like Feedly or Prismatic

A forest of headlines: does yours stand out?

But why? Why is the headline such a crucial element to get right? The answer is simple (but not without depth): a headline is the first thing that people will see. Until someone clicks through it, your headline is your content, representing it in its entirety.

D is for decision-point

Content marketing has a lot to do with decisions. The decisions you make as marketer, of course, but also the decisions you present to your customers.

For the customer, it’s decisions all the way down, from headline to CTA. Sometimes, when a searcher has a very clear idea of what they want, a decision in your favour means a sale or a new client. Sometimes, particularly in the softer-sell arena of content marketing, many, many decisions will have to go your way before sale is made.

A client might subscribe to your mailing list, access your free webinars, join a hangout, all before actually purchasing goods or services from you. Every decision point must be carefully managed and presented at the right time - i.e. someone who is just finding your business might not be the best candidate for technical in-depth webinars, hence the need to appropriately tailor your content to the customer or client’s stage in the lifecycle.

Headlines have a privileged position in content marketing because they are the decision-point upon which all other decision points hinge. If your headline isn't persuasive, then the rest of your efforts - finely-tuned primary and secondary CTAs, carefully designed layout - will be moot, the marketing equivalent of a tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear it.

C is for Click-Through-Rate

CTR is simply the number of people both view and click and your headline as percentage of the number of people who view your headline as a whole.

Many, many factors will influence this measurement. Some of these will be controllable or influenceable by you. To name just a few:
  1. Platform: The CTR on Facebook marketing is generally lower than the CTR on Linkedin.
  2. SEO: Your position on the search engine results page - vastly more people click the first entry, or one of the first three, than any of the others.
  3. Time of day: Early mornings are best for clicks; evenings are best for retweets and favourites - though you are, of course, promoting and re-promoting your stuff.

Whenever you promote something, be it through social, or a google adwords campaign, you should be tracking CTR (and other metrics of engagement: mentions, retweets, likes, recommends, etc.). Set up your blog or website to work with Google analytics and webmaster tools - the latter is particularly useful for tracking which pages, including individual blog posts, are performing the best in rankings. 

For example, you might discover a blog post which has excellent CTR but a low ranking, suggesting you have written an effective headline but your keyword optimization and link-building need work. Conversely, a link to your content might rank very high but the CTR is poor, suggesting your SEO is paying off but your headline/title is just not resonating with searchers.

But can the phrasing of a headline, in whatever channel it appears, search or social, affect CTR? An analysis of 3.3 million paid link headlines by outbrain and hubspot last year, discovered some uncomfortable truths about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to headlines and CTR.

C is for CTR killers

The use of superlatives or negative words or specific genres of headline, like the question headline (Do question headlines still work?), to the eternal "how to" headline (how-to avoid decreasing your CTR with how-to headlines), can significantly affect CTR.

In fact the phrase “how to” can decrease the CTR of your headline by an average of 49 percent.

Words that create a sense of urgency - need (-44%), now (-12%) - and modifiers and superlatives - easy (-44%), free (-41%), best (positive superlatives -14%) - can also be detrimental to your CTR.

But what can give you a boost? A solid increase - an average of 38% - can be gained through the use of bracketed qualifications in your headlines,  like [video] or [infographic]. Clarity is the ultimate clickbait: bracketed qualifications serve to further define what someone can expect from clicking your headline. The word “photo” averages a 37% increase, while the word “who” increases it by 22%.

Character length is also crucial for CTR, not least because titles are truncated by google and past a certain width in pixels - desktop: 428px, mobile and tablet: 550px - they will fail to display completely in google’s rich snippets). The data suggests that titles with between 81-100 characters do best for CTR, but titles between 21-40 characters are best for conversion rate.

With content marketing, it pays to bare in mind where and in what form elements will ultimately appear.

C is for Clichés

The how-to headline is an example of how overuse can affect everyone's CTR. The fresh tactics of yesteryear - click-baity headlines jammed with superlatives like “best”, “always” and “easy” - are the interest-deadening clichés of the present. The same fate may await the bracketed qualification as has befallen the question headline and the how-to headline.

Again this is why tracking CTR along with everything else is so important. The marketers best positioned to avoid the negative impact of faltering trends will be those who are closely tracking the CTR, conversion and social engagement of their content.


Your content marketing is a joke. And how is a good joke structured? Set-up then punchline. Your headlines are the set-ups. Your CTAs are the punchlines. Set-ups and punchlines that are unrelated make for bad jokes: no one laughs, no one wants to hear more. Similarly, headlines and CTAs that are unrelated make for bad content marketing.

It pays, quite literally, to try and mimic the phrasing of the headline in your CTA.

“Curiosity” headlines are always at risk of being misunderstood. These headlines risk deceiving the visitor as to the nature of what follows from the title; the headline veils the content in (hopefully intriguing) mystery. This can work just fine if traffic is the goal - this is the headline style upon which upworthy founded its success (though it may be moving away from this) - but isn't so great if you are trying to elicit a particular action from a visitor.

Take an holistic view of your content marketing, every element, every decision point should be part of a coherent whole. When you write headlines, think about the offer that you will be pairing with it.

There is no gospel...

These discoveries are not to be adopted, as Outbrain and Hubspot suggest in the conclusion of their research, as inviolable content creation rules. You needn't go back and rewrite every single one of your headlines to better match these findings. Despite the negative impact, 'how-to' headlines are going nowhere because the phrase remains a supremely natural way of framing a search query. In fact, the diminished CTR of the term is down to its popularity, as whole sites have sprung up trying to dominate every possible permutation of the phrase, thus filling serps with content that is often on the lower end of the effort and quality scale.
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The deadly trap of being TOO generous in your content marketing

The deadly trap of being TOO generous in your content marketing

Be happy for me. A couple of weeks ago I solved a question which plagues freelancers: where should I buy my lunch?

I had so many options - sandwich shop, cafe or Mcdonald’s with a side of afternoon regret. 

Like trying to remember the name of a song, my brain recognised every wrong answer, while simultaneously failing to come up with a right one. The range of options was overwhelming - itself an obstruction on the path to making a decision.

Stomach grumbling, I stumbled past a truck that sold ciabatta stuffed with chicken and chorizo and various sauces and salads. The smells. The price. I knew my search was at an end.

A sure way to kill the buying mood

Uncertainty. A distinct and distinctly unpleasant emotion which reliably kills a buying mood. An emotion which can easily fester in your writing and marketing.

Offering too much in the sense of writing about too many things at once will confuse the reader. Attention is always a precious resource, particularly online. Don’t waste it by spreading it too thin, over too many topics at once. Doing so is a sure way to increase the already worrying number of people who won't make it all the way through your content.

That doesn't mean your marketing should lack for detail - in fact it should be stuffed with it - but you never want potential customers or clients to be at a loss as to what your central message is.

Editing as the natural enemy of uncertainty

The path to eliminating uncertainty in your content is through editing. In the heat of writing, besides the usual typos, the purpose of a particular piece of writing will get lost. Editing is the time to revive that purpose in your mind. And that done, it will prove easier to recognise and remove or redraft any redundant cul-de-sacs or redundant avenues you may have wandered down.

(1) The first and most important rule is to let the draft sit for a minute (or more). Stephen King, in On Writing, advises you put the draft away in the drawer for a week or two. Obviously if your deadline is the same afternoon, you have hours rather than days to make edits.

But the principle remains important. At the point of typing that last word your perspective is limited - you are nose deep in it. Even if the break you take is the length of time it takes you to make a cup of coffee, you will still edit better because for it.

Typos will be winkled out quicker and it will be easier to tell the difference between the three types of sentences, the living, the dead and the potentially resurrectable. 

Open up a gap, some gap, between the person who wrote the first draft and the person who is going to edit that draft.

(2) Adopt a style guide. There are many great ones out there - AP, Oxford University, The Writer (my personal favourite for its breadth and ease of use). Even should you have a company style guide, it is unlikely that it will cover everything.

Learning a style guide means less thinking and faster writing in the long run - should this be hyphenated? Colon or semi-colon? Stumbling over these questions, again and again, is not a good use of your time.

Adopt and adapt a style guide. Style guides are general things and they can't possibly cover every terminological instance that crops up in your speciality.

(3) Read it aloud. This is a classic bit of advice for a reason. Even if mutter it under your breath, you will come away with a better sense of how your writing will actually sound in someone else’s head.

(4) Give it another look after you hit publish. The advantage of digital publishing is the endless opportunity to edit and re-edit. Unleash your inner George Lucas on the thing after hitting the publish button and you will likely discover a few more typos; or maybe a sentence that could be improved by a George Lucas reference.

(5) Find another pair of eyes. It’s helpful if these are attached to another person. If you know other writers, or are sitting next to one right now, try to set up some kind of work share. An editing quid pro quo.

Editing requires disinterest and a certain ruthlessness. It’s an opportunity, not just to eliminate typos but also to home in on the central purpose of your content. What is the main point of this piece of content? What action do I want a reader to take? These questions should be constantly hovering around as you edit.

Answering these questions will likely mean axing a sentence or paragraph you really liked but consider them the cost of clarity (or maintain a rainy day please-help-me-come-up-with-an-idea file for those sentences you just can't bear to part with).

Can I phone a friend?

Uncertainty is a fact of life. We deal with it on a daily basis, at varying scales, from the very small - what shall I have for lunch? - to the very large - would I be able to make it work, if I upped sticks and moved to another country? At the larger end of the scale, uncertainty is like a bomb, ticking away, drawing a panicked look or two, but remaining essentially undefusable. 

We can defuse uncertainty on the smaller scale by testing our intuitions. On the larger scale, we can ultimately make things clear but often only at great cost - by sacrificing time, money or relationships.

Every person who views your content will be dealing with some measure of uncertainty in their lives. Try not to add to it with your content!

Image courtesy of hji, flickr

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Write eye-grabbing content that captivates from lede to CTA

Content that engages from pitch to sale

Capturing attention is one (very important!) thing; keeping that attention from lede to CTA is quite another. But the best headlines, keyword targeting and social media outreach won't make up for bland or just plain bad content.

Your audience's attention, tricky to catch, even trickier to keep, must be carefully guided from pitch to CTA.

But what's the best way of doing that? 

One tried, tested and true method is a good yarn.

From A to B

Storytelling is a marketing buzzword but it reflects a truth: stories are and have always been central to effective advertising.

For the marketer, stories achieve a number of extremely useful things:

- Value-defining: Wrapping up your brand's values in a neat bundle.
- Service-defining: Making your customer and clients aware of what you do in a way that won't send them to sleep.
- Calling-to-action: Bringing the customer or client to your call action in the best possible frame of mind.

Here's a brilliant recent example that the guardian ran a few years ago in which the classic three little pigs fable is reimagined in a modern setting. It begins with the horror of porcine on lupine violence and ends in riots and redemption. What’s emphasized is a core value of the guardian brand: capturing as many angles of a story as possible.

Stories are the best vehicles for communicating our values. This brilliant advert doesn’t simply list the guardian’s values - as if that would be convincing - it demonstrates them in action. It seduces, bends our ear, before the punch line, - ‘the whole picture’. Values and service wrapped up in one well-timed phrase.

Sonia Simone talks about the five things that every great marketing story needs: a hero, a goal, a conflict, a mentor, and a moral.

Who is the hero in this short tale? The advert cleverly expands the bounds of the original fable, pushing our sympathies from the wolf and then on to the pigs. Neither is the hero. Is the guardian, then, the hero? Not exactly. The guardian mediates, informs, analyses but the driver of the action is another figure: the guardian reader.

As Sonia Simone says "The biggest mistake businesses make is thinking that their business is the hero of the story".

The hero is the guardian reader, who reliably anticipates, even drives, the twists and turns of the story with his or her social media interaction. The guardian reports and reacts to these developments.

Of course the budget for this mix of live action and animation is well beyond the marketing means of most businesses.

A more attainable example was to be found on craiglist.

Selling the unsellable

This simple craiglist ad achieved something very difficult: it made a pair of second hand leather trousers exciting and appealing. The ad brought moderate fame to the author and lead to offers of work and other propositions(!). Several hundred thousand people – at least – viewed this simple advert. What made it so effective?

A killer opening line

‘You are bidding on a mistake.’ The last thing you expect from someone trying to sell you something is an admission like this, which essentially says: ‘don’t buy’. It’s arresting, it’s unexpected and of course it makes you want to read more – everything a good opening line should do.

The honesty continues as Sack spins a sad tale of the wrong trousers worn for the wrong girl. It’s an appeal to something universal – how we all do stupid things for the people we want desperately to impress.

The effect is to imbue a pair of second hand leather pants with a unique and desirable quality - the goal of every advert ever created.

And a great finish

They are size 34x34. I am no longer size 34x34. These pants are destined for someone else. Alas, it is now time to part ways. They are in excellent condition. Someone, somewhere, will look great in these pants. Please buy these leather pants.

More self-depreciation in the form of a very relatable anguish over an expanding waistline. The humorously plaintive call-to-action  please buy these leather pants  is the perfect finish for Sack's tale.

Plain speech

The voice Sack writes in is authentic – it’s not the anonymous, formal corporatese that characterizes much business communication. If you want to connect with your readers then jettison the bland buzzword in favour of a plainer, more direct and more personal mode of expression.

This is, as The Writer notes in a recent survery, a crucial element of connecting with your audience.

You have to take away the fetters of corporate-speak, talk like a real person and, most importantly, believe in the story you’re telling. 

This is also exactly what the guardian's three little pigs advert achieves. It uses the framework of simple, well-known and understood tale and a familiar visual language – courtroom scenes, a brief swat-team-esque action sequence – to elicit an emotional reaction. This is an advert with millions of views which still garners comments to this day.

What do you think? Have I missed a classic? Let me know in comments.

Image Courtesy of Rosino, flickr

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We are facebook's trained monkeys

We are facebook's trained monkeys

Social media trains us to share our experiences online, to fill those inviting comment boxes with just a quick word or two. The result is often a plague of banalities – ‘I just ate lunch’, ‘looking forward to the weekend!'.

Bad news travels fast

But there is a power in sharing and being shared that business cannot afford to ignore. And few things motivate sharing more than a feeling of having been wronged.

Your business's customer service failures will end up as someone's status update. The wrong story shared at the wrong time can result in a blizzard of likes, shares, retweets and recommends.

The publicity generated, for example, by hitting the front page of Reddit is massive - thousands, maybe millions of readers. And these threads can often be echo chambers: if others herd in with similar experiences then the dissenting or moderating voice may be lost amid a sea of negativity. 

A humorous, satirical skit about the state of cable providers in the U.S begets a massively negative discussion about the companies concerned. 

Cable companies are, perhaps, too large (and too dominant) to be worried.

But such activity - it seems like these companies can barely go a week without negatively impacting the front page - suggests a burgeoning consenus: cable providers bad, google fiber good.

Griping in two clicks or less

Ecommerce is particularly vulnerable because the same convenience which makes online shopping so attractive in the first place also applies to the act of complaining about that experience. Moaning is as simple as opening a new tab.

A confusing website, slow response time to queries, lack of email payment confirmation – perhaps you just lose one customer, perhaps, if they share their experience over social media, you lose many more, as friends of the sharer mentally un-tick your business - 'won't be using them!'.

The big, big upside

But social media is also a tremendous opportunity. The positive experience can be shared just as easily as the negative one. Fantastic customer service can even convert customers into brand ambassadors – people who will do some of the busywork of marketing for you, posting your press releases, tweets, etc on their profiles, walls and tumblrs without encouragement.

JDRucker at Soshable notes that such activity must rank higher than a review on something like Google Local. Social media is personal. A recommendation from a friend carries more weight, is trusted more than a gaggle of anonymous reviews and testimonials, which might, after all, be inventions. When a person ties a recommendation to a personal profile we instinctively accord it more worth – there’s more at stake.

You’re not going to make a loyal fan out of every customer but it doesn't hurt to try.

Some businesses have been slow to learn this lesson, particularly in e-commerce. Shoppers are less and less satisfied with internet shopping but more and more willing shop online. Ruinous PR is being generated on a daily basis.

There are, of course, companies that have generated tremendous online goodwill. The ongoing love affair between the internet and Taco Bell is a great example. The genius or geniuses behind Taco Bell’s twitter account have seen their tweets regularly land on Reddit’s front page (Taco Bell even has its own subreddit). Buzzfeed writes articles about their best tweets. 

Taco Bell, just through twitter, generates a host of brand ambassadors on a daily basis.

Amazon’s customer service is legendary. For eight straight years Amazon has taken the No.1 spot in ForSee’s survey of online shoppers.

My own experiences with Amazon have been very positive. After an issue with an incorrect order which they dealt with very quickly, I wrote them a short email just to say how prompt and satisfactory I had found their customer service over the years. I did not expect a reply. And yet a few days later I received a personal response from a line manager thanking me for my comments. A small gesture but one that really resonated with me – and here I am, passing on that experience over a form of social media. 

Amazon has made me an evangelist for their service and I'm only slightly ashamed about that fact. 

Learn from the best

Great customer service, which must include interacting with customers over social media, is, by itself, a chance to generate brand loyalty and brand awareness.

You never know when someone might share a positive or negative story.

Got a great customer service love/horror story? Share in the comment section below.

Image courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar, flickr
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A quick tip for dealing with writer's block

Destroy writer's block

Writer's block. It's a thing. The white page can feel like a tyrannical force, a reign which can nevertheless be ended by a few keystrokes.

How to start? How to find that first idea?

What follows is one tip for dealing with a blank mind and a blank page.

The struggles of better writers

I was lucky enough to see the brilliant author David Mitchell gave a talk about his book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. In his genial and soft-spoken manner, he expounded on the specific challenges involved in writing a historical novel in the third person, a perspective he had never used in any of his previous novels. 

He struggled – always nice to hear of a great writer struggling – with the question of what’s relevant in the third person, i.e. how to decide what to leave in and what to leave out when the FOV, the authorial perspective is limitless.

As you do, he got on the phone with Booker prize-winning author AS Byatt, who passed on the following bon-mot: ‘whatever you think people want to hear, that’s what you put in’.

The merits of this advice aside, what was most interesting to me was his discussion of getting the language right for the period he was writing about – the 18th century. He spoke about an instance of using a word - brinkmanship - he was confident was appropriate for the time, only to have an editor flag up that it was actually coined during the cold war. 

Visiting an etymology website will prevent these kinds of embarrassments – though it may rob you of anecdotes for book readings – and allow you to delve into the fascinating and possibly inspiring history of a particular word.

Like delve, for instance! A word which derives from the Old English Deflan, meaning ‘to dig’. Weak inflections first emerged between the 14th and 16th centuries – so it’s been around for a while.

Exploring the history of a word can spawn new thoughts and associations. The word cliché, for example, dates from the 19th century and has an onomatopoeic origin, describing the sound made by the creation of printing plates, the sound, then, that accompanied the presumably noisy dawn of mass media. 

Given its origin in a technology that refined the mechanical reproduction of words, it’s not surprising that cliché eventually became a synonym for ‘trite remark’.

Such searches are not a guaranteed solution to writer's block but they may lead to a smidgeon of inspiration.

if you've got a your own quick tip for battling writer's block, please (please!) drop it in the comments below.

Image courtesy of Micka972, flickr
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