5 Tactics for Creating Headlines that Generate Leads

Post written by Jesse Aaron
On Monday, July 21st, 2014

Content is important for any marketing endeavor. However, if the right pieces aren’t at play the content itself won’t generate leads. Every post or article needs a solid introduction, a clear call to action and relevant, useful information throughout. Still, before the content becomes a factor in lead generation, something else requires attention, the headline.

If a headline doesn’t grab attention, it’s not likely to be opened, shared or acted upon in any way. With this in mind, why do so many marketers overlook headlines, or consider them to be after thoughts? It doesn’t have to be this way.

Curious myself, last summer I posed the question “Do headlines matter as much as they used to” on Quora. The discussion garnered a lot of attention and collectively resulted in an affirmative yes.

Here are some important tactics for creating headlines that generate leads. Also, stick around for the last paragraph which includes a short, helpful infographic about all the influencing factors on headlines.

1. Focus on Length

If a headline is too long or too short, it’s not going to be effective. Many factors play a role in proper headline length, user attention spans, how the text will be displayed on various screens and so on. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it just comes down to word length.

A recent report by The Guardian – an international news agency well-versed in headline creation – found that titles with 8 words had the highest click through rates; 21% higher to be specific. While it can be difficult to come up with titles that all contain exactly 8 words, the Nielson Norman Group expands the recommendation to 5-9 words, citing the fact that users generally scan headlines and retain the first and last 3 words of a headline. Headlines that are too long are easily forgotten and headlines that are too short are easily ignored.

Of course, context plays a big role, especially if it’s breaking news:

gaza headline

With igniting words such as “crisis” and “immediate ceasefire” we’re actively drawn to click through.

But what about when the context is not breaking news and more on the lines of something educational or promotional? Let’s check out Hubspots’ blog:

hubspot blog headlines

Their headlines use a combination of list style, questions, light negativeness, and emotional targeting (underlined in red).  They’ve hit an ideal length for each headline, telling us exactly what the content entails and the educational benefit we’d receive from clicking through.

2. Use Numbers

Whether you’ve noticed it or not, most content that is widely circulated online is accompanied by a number. It just works.

Studies prove this fact. Highrise recently found that headlines that include numbers have a 30% higher conversion rate than headlines that do not include numbers. To take it one step further, headlines containing odd numbers have a 20% higher click through rate than even numbered headlines.

list style articles

Whether your headline contains a number indicative of a list like “3 Reasons to Purchase This Product,” a special offer like “30% Off Today’s Sale Items,” or a free trial or length of days “Sign up for a 30-Day Trial,” numbers are important factors in lead generation and conversion.

3. Be Clear

If a headline fails to give a clear view of what the content it is introducing includes, users have no reason to open the content, let alone to read what it has to offer.

Want to sweeten the deal? Include a promise. By sharing exactly what a potential reader has to gain by looking into the content that you’ve created, you’re adding an additional draw. “5 Ways to Decrease Your Debt” is more effective than “Debt Reduction: Processes and Standards,” according to this tactic.

Let’s say you’re more focused on acquiring B2B  leads and the popular B2C blog method with catchy list headlines does not seem to be a good fit for your goals. Instead, you realize potential clients are majorly interested in your results – that’s the big question after all – if businesses are going to invest in you, they want to have an accurate estimate of their ROI. That’s where marketing your own case studies can have a lot of influence.

case study earns press

For example, the Jay Group markets their Heineken Case Study which has the appeal of a globally famous brand. This created a ripple effect of results, such as getting featured in press and establishing a more direct B2B communication path.

When your business gets a big win – such as a client with the clout of Heineken – create a case study that stresses a benefits driven campaign. The name alone grants brand association, so let your case study do the rest of the talking.

4. Get Negative

Wait, what? Why would content that is negative lead to higher click throughs and conversions? It’s about science.

As a marketing professional, it’s easy to become accustomed to using positivity whenever possible. Positive energy tends to generate excitement that leads to results. However, with headlines, a little negativity can go a long way.

It’s not about overall connotation, it’s more about word choice. Positive words include: always, best, most, top and greatest. Negative words include: never, worst, avoid and mistake.

pos vs neg headlines

Negative headlines outperform positive headlines by nearly 30% in terms of user engagement. Why does negativity work? The researchers at Outbrain hypothesize that, “Audience aversion to positive superlatives may simply be a product of overuse, or it could be because readers are skeptical of sources’ motives for endorsement. On the flip side, sources of negative information may be more likely to be perceived as impartial and authentic. Whereas positive superlatives may have become clichéd through overuse, negative superlatives may be more unexpected and intriguing.”

Switching to headlines that point out mistakes to avoid and tactics that could cause harm are more likely to generate the user interest that draws a prospective audience toward a product, service or brand.

5. Add Intrigue

Your target audience wants to know that the content you have to share cannot be found anywhere else, no one wants to read the same article and the same tips or pieces of advice that they’ve read hundreds of times before.

A little intrigue can guarantee that the content provided in a given email marketing campaign or blog post is unique. Starting titles with “Little known ways to…” or “5 Secrets to…” or other buzz words that indicate mystery leads to an increased perception of value. The more valuable content appears to have, the higher the chance is that a post will be opened or read.

quicksprout secret bonus thing

The example above comes from Neil Patel’s popular marketing blog, Quicksprout. Call to actions are often thought of as a separate entity from the headline discussions. They aren’t. Your call to action, just like a headline, needs to grab attention, bait with a benefit, and trigger an emotional response.

  • “Free” is a tried and tested buzzword to grab attention. Paired with the “Valued at $300”, this creates the idea we’re receiving the monetary value equivalent of $300.
  • “Double Your Traffic in 30 Days” is the promise – but what makes it effective is that it’s realistic. If it said 7 days, we might be a little more skeptical.
  • “Secret Bonus” is an ultimate buzzphrase, but it still creates that need to know in our heads.

Collectively, this is a well-crafted headline optimized for generating leads.

The 5 tactics above can help ensure headlines are effective components of an inbound marketing campaign.

Final Thoughts

After holding that Quora discussion last year I continued researching into headline influencers, ultimately creating a pretty in-depth post about the topic (here) for the Crazy Egg blog. Seth Godin even provided insight in the comments section and really opened up the possibilities for enforcing your own brand identity with unique headlines. I packed what seemed like the most vital headline influencers into a short infographic below:


Lastly, when sending any type of email marketing campaign or article headline strategy, make sure you have call to actions and landing pages optimized for all the leads that trickle in.

What do you think is the most important headline influencer? Which type of headlines work best for you?

About the Author:
Jesse is a professional blogger with a passion for homebrewing. He writes about social media marketing strategies with actionable tips on his blog.

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