When did you last see an email subject line or article title that got your mouse finger twitching – desperate to find out what it was all about?
Day after day I see a seemingly endless flow of headlines, blog titles and email subject lines that do nothing. They appeal to nobody in particular. They follow tired and unoriginal formats. They offer no enticing hint of entertainment or enlightenment.
They are murdering your content marketing through lack of effort and imagination.
Before I go into some examples of content-killing titles here are a few points to think about.
A venerable and high earning copywriter once described crafting (his words) a successful headline something like this: it’s like trying to attract the attention of a specific person in a crowded railway carriage speeding past at 100 mph.
In the case of your business and the next article you are about to publish, do you know who that target is? Do you know what’s going to get their attention (or not)? And in today’s multi-channel world, are you even sure about what train they are on?
Second, our brains are programmed by evolution to save energy. As neuroscientist David Eagleman explains, your first idea is always the easiest – not the best. For any business problem he advocates coming up with 10 answers and then picking the best.
The headline that tops your precious content deserves no less effort. Your first attempt at an email subject line, likewise, will not be the one that gets the mouse finger twitching. Market test your headlines around the office and, if you can, A/B split test to refine your approach.
Approach these headlines with extreme caution…
Here is a selection of headlines that almost always miss the target:
1. Any headline that starts ‘What is… ? As in, ‘What is Content Marketing?’
Who is going to read this? Somebody who understands content marketing won’t bother. Somebody who doesn’t know what it is won’t make the connection with their business ambitions and challenges.
Substitute ‘content marketing’ with whatever service it is you’re trying to sell through your content. People smell a rat straight away. At the risk of mixing metaphors, you couldn’t make the hook any more obvious.
2. Any headline that starts, ‘Is… ? Approach these with caution for similar reasons to the first example.
3. Headlines that start, ‘Are you…? A tired formula.
4. Any headline that is a question (see a theme emerging here?). These can be highly effective when they register with a question that your target audience is asking. Usually though, people can just answer yes, no or don’t care and then get on with their day.
5. Headlines that start with a number, as in: ‘7 Signs your Cat May have a Higher IQ than you.‘ Yeah, I know you’ve read an article somewhere that these get all the shares. Does that mean people read or value them? Or are they just joining in the noise around a particular topic or hashtag?
Here’s what the people who matter will likely be thinking: Oh, another of these, I’m guessing that four of these will be blindingly obvious and I probably already know or don’t care about the other three.
The other obvious category to include in this list are the headlines that commit gross acts upon the English language. Nil points for the nameless creative agency that popped the following beauty into my LinkedIn feed recently:
Your employees brand is as important as your companies.
Where do you start with this one? If you don’t know the difference between a plural and a possessive, if you have no inkling of how to use an apostrophe, find somebody who does! Never heard of capitalisation in headings?
Even correctly punctuated I’m not sure I would bother with it. It’s floating in a sea of words devoid of meaningful context.
The ‘Why’, not the ‘What’
The most basic advice I can give is to get away from headings that describe what the article is about. Tell me why it matters, and why it should matter to me. You then have a chance that I’ll read on.
Try something different rather than following the herd. Readers might then get the idea that you have something original to say or an interesting way of presenting it.
Could weak headlines be a symptom of bigger issues?
- You haven’t really thought through who you are writing for.
- You are not seeing the world through the eyes of the readers you want to attract.
- You are locked into your own perspective and your own need for more leads or sales.
Ultimately, maybe that lack of insight into your prospects is the real smoking gun at the scene of the crime. Your headlines were, in fact, just the empty cartridge cases by the body.