Ever wonder why some headlines are better than others? I mean what makes some headlines irresistable and others fall flat?
More importantly, ever dream of actually writing headlines that clothes line people and then flings them into your article so they read every word of it?
Fortunately for you there are some rules you can learn with this quick and dirty experiment that involves you, Google Reader and about 90 minutes of your time.
Is 90 minutes of your time worth learning about a proven, highly effective method to writing headlines? If so, keep reading.
Step One: Subscribe to 100 Blogs
Time: 10 minutes
If you want a great way to subscribe to 50 blogs in about ten minutes, swing over to Ad Age’s marketing blog top 150 list. The nice thing about Ad Age’s list is you can subscribe to the blogs you like on that page. You’re not carried off to another page and you don’t have to hunt down the “Subscribe to RSS” icon.
But I don’t recommend subscribing to more than 50 of these blogs. Here’s why: you want a mix of blogs in your Google reader. And when I say mix, I mean blog across different industries.
Choose the bulk from the marketing and advertising world, but also choose blogs that deal with politics, environmentalism, science, history, SEO, fiction writing, news and economics.
Really, choose anything you are interested in. I chose blogs in running, reading, books, politics, economics, Christianity and art.
So why is it important to select blogs on a wide range of topics? I’ll explain below.
Step Two: Mark All Unread
Time: 10 minutes
When you subscribe to a new blog, Google reader will pull in the last 10 posts. Do the numbers: If you subscribe to 100 blogs, that means you’ll have over 1,000 posts to scan. That’ll take way too much time.
Instead, mark all as “read,” close out Google reader and go play Angry Birds until tomorrow morning.
Step Three: Scan the Blog Post Headlines
Time: 35 minutes
Get ready, because this is where the rubber meets the road.
Open up Google Reader, hit the “g” key then “a” which will allow you to view all items. You will want to view all the posts through this single stream. It’s fast and seamless.
Next, grab a pencil, piece of paper and position your index finger and thumb over the “j” and “k” keys. [These two keys are responsible for toggling forward and backward through your lists.]
The only other key you need is “s.” This key will “star” an item for you. In other words, it will store it in a folder with your other favorite blog posts.
And when you’re ready, star scanning headlines.
As you come across headlines you like, star that post. Try not to evaluate it…just go by gut instinct. And if you need to leave a comment, do so in the Notes section provided.
By the way, you can go back.
On a number of occasions I was five or six posts past a post when I thought “Hey, that was a pretty good headline.” At times I starred it. At other times I didn’t.
The point is you can go back to post if you feel it tugging on you.
Step Four: Review Your Favorites
Time: 15 minutes.
Once you’ve rifled through all the post headings, open up your Star folder. Start looking at those that you starred and thinking about why you liked them so much.
Was it provocative? Did it ask a question? Was there an element of urgency involved? Profanity? Ultra-specific? Just plain weird? Record your answer on the sheet of paper at your desk.
Step Five: Document Rules
Time: 20 minutes.
At this step your job is to create a list of the characteristics your favorite headlines have. Do this by writing the name of the blog post down on the paper and recording the rules underneath it.
For instance, I like Sean Platt’s “Blogging in 15 Minutes a Day” because of three things: one, I’m obviously interested in blogging, so it’s super useful. Two, I like headlines that tell me very specific details about the content, suggesting that grey matter–not fluff–actually went into the content. And third, a lesson in saving time is an urgent lesson for all of us.
So I wrote down under the headline of this post: “useful, specific and urgent.”
Another headline I starred was David Armano’s “The Cure for Social Media Schizophrenia? Simplicity.” The first word you notice is the “cure,” which suggests there is answer behind the headline to a problem I might face. The problem happens to be “social media schizophrenia.” It is a problem I face because of all the social media choices. I do feel like someone who is going crazy. And while I’m not a fan of giving away the answer to a problem in a headline, this one works nicely because it sets up a tension. How, you might ask, does simplicity cure schizophrenia?
The rules I wrote down were “cure, useful and tension.”
When you’ve examined all of your favorite headlines, go to step five.
Step Six: Look for Patterns
Time: 5 minutes
Once you work through your list of twenty or thirty favorite post headlines, you should see obvious patterns. In just the two examples I used above we saw that “useful” showed up in both.
That should tell us something. People might like useful information. Which brings us to our last step.
Step Seven: Test Your Rules
Now that you have a list of rules to write attention-grabbing headlines, it’s time to test those rules. That means start writing headlines for your posts that incorporate these rules, publish and track results.
What should you track? Track the number of people who read it, comment, link to it and share on social media sites like Twitter.
And once you’re finished with your experiment, do me a favor: share your results with me. I’m curious.
I’m pretty confident if you follow this seven-step experiment you’ll walk away with a solid understanding of what it takes to write headlines that attract attention, get opened and read.
And I’m confident, too, that the more often you put the rules you learn from this experiment into practice the stronger you’ll become at actually writing excellent headlines.
By the way: what rules do you think I used when I wrote the headline for this post? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!