Using Headlines Well in Your Content Marketing

How you construct your content marketing headlines will impact your ability to reach and engage your target audience. Different approaches are appropriate for different goals.

Last time out, we talked about ways to make your content marketing work harder for you. We can continue that conversation by turning our attention to how headlines impact your ability to attract your target audience.

Headlines Can be Clever or Conceptual

First, there are two very broad approaches to writing headlines: clever and conceptual.

Clever headlines are interestingly written and meant to be attention-getting. They pique curiosity. So, for example, I could have titled the post I mentioned above something like, “Build It and They Won’t Come.” A dyed-in-the-wool SEO would take issue with that — and with this approach, in general — as it simply isn’t geared for SEO performance. More on that in a moment.

The other approach, broadly, is to highlight the concepts or topics you’re discussing, as in the case of that article’s actual title, “3 Ways to Make Your Content Marketing Work Harder for You.”

Clearly, if strong SEO performance is your goal, then the conceptual approach is the way to go. There are going to be far more searches done each month along the lines of, “How can I make my content marketing work harder” than there are for, “If I build my website will they come?”

On the other hand, if your goal with a particular piece of content is to engage more deeply with an audience who already knows you well, then the clever approach can be a better choice. Remember that as much as we want to be informed when we’re consuming marketing content, we also want to be entertained. You’re probably never going to rise to the level of enjoyment that the latest bingeworthy streaming show will have, but that doesn’t mean you need to be the content consumption equivalent of a root canal. Have some fun and your audience likely will, too.

Keyword Considerations

Implied above are considerations about keyword usage. If you can include them, do. That’s generally going to be harder to do with clever headlines; though you may be willing to make that sacrifice, depending on your goals. For more topical headlines, be sure you’re using the best keyword phrases you can. (In my example, we would want to know for sure that “making content marketing work harder” is likely to get more search attention than “making content marketing more effective.”)

How Long Should Your Headlines Be?

Once you decide on your approach, there are more technical matters to address. For example, headline length. According to research done by Backlinko, “headlines that are 14-17 words in length generate 76.7% more social shares than short headlines.”

If your goal is generating something other than social sharing, you might need to look at different metrics. (Which is one reason to take all metrics like these with a grain of salt. Even if they were generated using rigorous protocols, they might simply not be appropriate for your situation. Use them as a guide and gather your own data.)

Should Your Headlines Be Questions?

Backlinko data also tells us that headlines in the form of a question “get 23.3% more social shares than headlines that don’t end with a question mark.”

Again, that’s a very specific metric, aimed at achieving a very specific goal. So don’t twist yourself or your ideas into knots just to tick off a particular box.

The point of these examples isn’t for you to view any of these data points as the gospel truth for your own content marketing work. It’s to encourage you to recognize that paying attention to the details can yield great benefits in your content marketing.

Why Direct Mail Control Packages Fatigue

Almost every direct mail control package will fatigue at some point. The question is simply this: why? Today, I offer my insight and perspective about why winning packages slowly fatigue, and how you can get ahead of the inevitable downward curve.

Almost every direct mail control package will fatigue at some point. The question is simply this: why? Today, I offer my insight and perspective about why winning packages slowly fatigue, and how you can get ahead of the inevitable downward curve.

To understand why a direct mail control — that package you’ve invested time and money that’s now tested and wins above all others — fatigues, it’s first helpful to understand why it worked in the first place. There are a number of reasons, but there are a couple that rise above others:

  • Using the right list, you nailed the emotional hot button of why prospects respond in mass, together at this season in their lives.
  • Using the right offer, you identified the unique selling proposition that sells at this season in their lives.

Key words in the bullets above are, I believe, “at this season in their lives.” Why? Because often, as marketers we’re not always sure the buyer’s mind frame, worldview, or where they are in the season in their lives.

You’ve surely heard the cliché marketers use that says how it’s important to meet buyers where they are. Cliché or not, it’s true.

Your prospect’s state of awareness of their problem, and your solution, along with where you meet them with your copy and offer, dictates your success.

In other words, people are at some point on a continuum of knowledge about their problem and solution. Imagine a scale of 1 to 7 where a 1 represents that your prospect is completely unaware of any aspect of your product or service. Conversely, a 7 means your prospect is completely aware.

To create a winning message — whether direct mail and any other channel — your headline and lead should match the awareness on the 1 to 7 scale to be effective.

If your prospect is, say, at a 2, but your copy is at a 5, you’ll lose them because the prospect didn’t understand what you were trying to sell.

After testing various messaging approaches in your copy to “meet your prospect where they are,” let’s say you finally hit a winner: most of your prospects on the 1 to 7 scale have an awareness of 4, and your sales message aligns with that spot. You’re achieving your objectives. Time to roll out!

So you do, mailing over and over the same direct mail package, or using this message in digital channels. But in time, your prospect has seen your promotion … or they’ve caught a story on social media or TV on the topic … or they’ve read something somewhere that makes them a bit more educated and moves them up the knowledge scale.

In today’s lightning fast news cycle, in a short time — perhaps a few months — but maybe only days or hours — your market’s awareness has risen from, say, 2 to 4, or maybe even quickly from a 2 to a 7. But if you haven’t been testing different copy and creative in anticipation of this increase in awareness, you risk your message no longer being aligned with your market. If you don’t stay on top of this changing awareness and understanding, your direct mail control package or messaging in other channels fatigues, and you’ll wonder why.

In a future blog post I’ll dive into various degrees of awareness, and how you can better determine where your customers are, and where you should be. But in the meantime, here’s what you should be doing:

  1. Assess your prospect’s awareness of the problem your product or service solves.
  2. Write several different headlines and leads, with each aligning at a different level on an awareness scale.
  3. Start testing them against one another to find the sweet spot — in this moment.

Remember: if your successful headline today is a 2, you need to be testing at levels 3, 4 and higher. If you do that and find that a test is “over the heads” of your market today, tuck it away in the wings and consider testing it again when the time is right.

If you don’t identify your future “sweet spot” today, then someday, when you least expect it, your prospects will have moved higher up their awareness scale, and you’ll be resting on your laurels, thinking you’re spending money on a direct mail control winner that’s gradually slipping away.

Gary Hennerberg’s latest book is “Crack the Customer Mind Code: Seven Pathways from Head to Heart to YES!” is available on Amazon. For a free download with more detail about the seven pathways and other copywriting and consulting tips, go to Hennerberg.com.

The Secret to Great Headlines: COFFEE

Headlines are important. They were always important, but I think they’re even more important now. This string of words is often the difference between success or failure. Headlines are as important as coffee in the morning. Yeah, that serious …

Headlines are important. They were always important, but I think they’re even more important now.

Most of our content — just like your marketing content — is viewed, or not viewed, based only on the merits of the headline. This string of words is often the difference between success or failure.

Headlines are as important as coffee in the morning. Yeah, that serious. serious-coffeeAdd SEO considerations and things get even more complicated. Right?  Well, maybe not.

Over the years, I’ve developed the philosophy that writing for SEO and writing for people is not actually that different. (Forgive me, Denny.) In fact, I think humans and spiders are both essentially looking for the same thing when they evaluate a headline: keywords.

The term “keyword “tends to make people thing of soulless SEO manipulation, but humans think in keywords as well. We have topics and questions in our heads that are all categorized by keyword. A keyword is just something that’s on your mind.

Someone who searches for the keyword phrase “call to action” is going to recognize that phrase when they browse our newsletters or magazine or webinars. They’ll click on headlines that have that word too, just like they would on a search engine results page.

I don’t necessarily do a lot of keyword research to figure those keywords out (although it can be very valuable). If I know the audience we’re aiming for, I’ll usually know the words that are on their minds. We write around those.

Headline COFFEE

Which brings us to COFFEE. It’s not just a delicious, pick-me-up drink for breakfast (or in my case, any time of day). It’s a way to think about how to write headlines around the words I believe our audience is thinking about, and align that all so humans and search engines will both recognize it as the content they need.

COFFEE stands for:

  • Catchy
  • Obvious
  • Far Forward
  • Emotional
  • Evocative

Catchy: The headline wording should be a catchy turn of phrase, something that sticks in the mind and grabs attention. A fish hook baited with an ear worm.

Obvious: The specific topic of the article — the keyword — should be super obvious from glancing at the headline. This is a departure from some classic headline writing techniques, which might use a mystery/reveal trick. In today’s world, we need to grab attention and build trust and convince someone to read more all at once. People see so many headlines, most of which don’t pay off on their promises, that I don’t believe they are inclined to click on a wide open mystery. Making it crystal clear that this is the article that will answer the question on your mind is essential.

Far Forward: The keywords should be far toward the front of the headline. This is a clue to search engines that those words are important in the article. I think it’s also essential for people reading digitally. Human readers looking at a paper page can recognize keywords at the end or in the middle of a headline. But online, especially on mobile where they might only see the first few words, Front-loading the keywords makes sure they’ll be seen. Your keywords should be in the first five words — first three is even better.

Emotional: Good headlines play on an emotional need. Think of the emotional copy drivers, pick the emotion you’re drawing on, and hit that hard in the headline.

Evocative: The best headlines aren’t just emotional, they trigger strong reactions, images, memories or feelings. They may even start an argument, or propose something preposterous that people hope will be true (and you will explain away in the article). This is the special sauce that turns a good headline into something that can take off and go viral.

All that together should have the same effect as coffee: It will perk the right audience up to want to read your content.

Maybe even first thing in the morning, as they’re having their other coffee.

coffeepoem

 

7 Secret Formulas for Getting Free Earned Media

A few days ago, I read Neil Patel’s blog post: “How to Give Your Content Wings: We Analyzed 11,541 Viral Articles from 2016 to Uncover the Secret Formula.” Excluding articles considered “complete spam,” Patel’s post discusses ideas and confirms formulas that every marketer and copywriter should know. The secret? Killer headlines. The formula? Actually, it’s more like seven formulas.

article-71342_1280The right combination of truly shareable words and ideas will energize marketing without crossing the line of becoming fake news. So even if you don’t use content marketing to support your overall campaigns, every marketer and copywriter can learn something from an analysis of 11,541 viral articles that reveals the top seven formulas that not only grab your readers’ attention, but gets shared to their friends.

A few days ago, I read Neil Patel’s blog post: “How to Give Your Content Wings: We Analyzed 11,541 Viral Articles from 2016 to Uncover the Secret Formula.”  Excluding articles considered “complete spam,” Patel’s post discusses ideas and confirms formulas that every marketer and copywriter should know.

The secret? Killer headlines.

The formula? Actually, it’s more like seven formulas.

Even if you don’t write content articles, there is something here to be learned for copywriters.

Here is an overview of Patel’s top seven data-driven tactics in headlines that drive more social shares:

1. Use Numbers

Patel says, “Use numbers in at least half of your articles.” In his analysis, 61 percent of top-performing article headlines had a number. A reason people click on titles with a number is certainty of what they will read. Another observation: You don’t necessarily need the number at the beginning of the title.

2. “This Is What…”

Because headlines with the highest engagement have 16-18 words, Patel looked for phrases that have been repeated. The phrase “this is what” was used often. Again, probably because of the certainty created with the definitive and authoritative phrase.

3. 500 +/- Words

More traffic may come from longer articles (due to higher rankings and traffic). But for sharing, shorter works. Images also impact social sharing. If you are publishing breaking news, write articles around 500 words.

4. “How to” Still Works

The phrase “how to” has been known to work for generations. No surprise here. An article in the vein of “how to” is usually informative, and teaches.

5. Question Titles

Two-word phrases forming questions like “Do you…?” “Can you…?” and “Is the…?” work. So does this three-word phrase: “Do you agree…?”

6. Controversy

2016 was certainly a year of controversy, especially with a nasty election. But controversy sparks curiosity and interest, according to Patel. His recommendation? Create a title that contains a controversial issue.

7. Video

Another non-surprise was that using the word “video” resulted in higher shares. That’s been true of email subject lines for some time. So, whenever possible, post videos and include “video” in the title.

If you’re looking for something new to test, start your search with what works, and add to it from there. These formulas, revealed by analysis, should energize your messaging, whether you’re writing online articles, email subject lines or direct mail headlines.

Intended Ambiguity Demystified

While driving through a small Midwestern town on a recent road trip, we came upon a sign in front of a business that mystified me. There were three words posted on the marquee, and they didn’t make sense. As I tried to decipher the ambiguity of what they meant, my curiosity spun as I tried to resolve the meaning of “Hot Loaded Italian” …

Intended Ambiguitiy Exemplified
Intended Ambiguity Exemplified: Win what? And from whom? And why did you draw a computer mouse to illustrate a contest?

While driving through a small Midwestern town on a recent road trip, we came upon a sign in front of a business that mystified me. There were three words posted on the marquee, and they didn’t make sense. As I tried to decipher the ambiguity of what they meant, my curiosity spun as I tried to resolve the meaning of “Hot Loaded Italian.”

Hmm. Hot loaded Italian … what? As we neared the sign, we could see it was in front of an Arby’s restaurant which offered more context. At least now we could assume “Hot loaded Italian” was a sandwich instead of someone who was beautiful (or angry), intoxicated (or packing heat) and from Italy (or of Italian heritage).

Intended ambiguity may, at first glance, seem like an oxymoron. But, let’s dig deeper to explore how it can work for you.

“Intended ambiguity,” stimulating “unresolved curiosity,” is a powerful headline and subject line copywriting technique. Why? Because it arouses thought, curiosity and questions, the mind spins until the question is resolved with an answer. And that draws your reader in.

By using a few words that aren’t a complete thought, but tantalizing in what they suggest, you create an air of mystery and hook your reader into wanting to know more.

If you’re a dog lover, here’s another intended ambiguity puzzler:

“Dogs Indoors at Risk”

The unresolved curiosity here? Dogs, presumably inside a home or apartment, are at risk of … what? Sleeping?

Then there are emojis in email subject lines that can also create a sense of unresolved curiosity. As I was writing this column, an email came in saying:

“We’re making improvements that we think you’ll ♥”

At first glance, I missed the emoji heart, thinking the sender erred and left off a word. But there was unresolved curiosity with the use of the emoji.

Then there are ambiguous unresolved claims.

“We’re ahead 30 percent.”

Thirty percent ahead of what? We hear claims like this in political campaign speeches all the time these days. The claim hits us, the mind either spins for a moment wondering “30 percent of what?” or accepts the statement and moves on to keep up with the rest of speech.

Intended ambiguity can be a strategic copywriting tool. Use it for headlines and email subject lines to stimulate unresolved curiosity and the irresistible urge for the reader to pause and want to learn more. But, be careful—there’s a fine line between drawing readers in with ambiguous words creating unresolved curiosity, and repelling them through simple vagueness or borderline deception.

(Looking for tips about how to attract more customers? Download my free seven-step guide to help you align your messaging with how the primitive mind thinks. It’s titled “When You Need More Customers, This Is What You Do.” Or get all the details in my new book, “Crack the Customer Mind Code” available at the DirectMarketingIQ bookstore.)

You Won’t Believe What Happens Next in this Shocking Post About Clickbait

For me and many other Millennial Marketers, the word “clickbait” makes us roll our eyes and mutter a curse against sites like UpWorthy and Buzzfeed. It’s often lazy copywriting, cashing in on people’s curiosity for the sensational, but then failing to deliver relevant content (and usually the websites are a hot mess, IMHO).

Clickbait memeFor me and many other Millennial Marketers, the word “clickbait” makes us roll our eyes and mutter a curse against sites like UpWorthy and Buzzfeed.

It’s often lazy copywriting, cashing in on people’s curiosity for the sensational, but then failing to deliver relevant content (and usually the websites are a hot mess, IMHO).

For some of us, hearing someone benignly say, “You won’t believe …” causes a collective shudder, and if you tell me something is going to shock me, it better be pretty horrific.

That said, Pat Friesen — one of my copywriting mentors — presented on a recent All About eMail session titled “You Won’t Believe It! Clickbait and Email Subject Lines,” and made a great point: All subject lines and headlines are bait of some sort. They’re in place to convince readers to open, click through, read, etc. The editorial staff here at Target Marketing knows that all too well: Our subject line can make or break our daily e-newsletter’s performance.

But here’s the caveat: It’s what you, the marketer, provide after the click.

Buzzfeed Chips StoryOkay, admittedly, I’m already skeptical. Chips (actually, in this case, the Buzzfeed piece is referencing what most Americans call fries) are a pretty basic food. A little salty, a lot potatoey. Don’t get me wrong, I love them, but I don’t consider them capable of blowing my mind. So let’s look beyond the headline.

Buzzfeed Chips Body

Ohhhhhhh. Yum. So we have a few things going well here.

No. 1: excellent food photography (seriously, who would stick around on an article about food without some photos?! Instagram has trained us all to well).

No. 2: Each listing links to a recipe. Yes, that’s right: You’re going to scroll through this Buzzfeed piece, get a bunch of ideas, and when something looks really good, you can click the link and go to the recipe, which you can then pin on your Pinterest board for later. To make my point, here’s the Buzzfeed link so you can get pinning yourself.

Now, is the Buzzfeed headline kind of ridiculous? Yes.

Is it kind of clickbaity? Yes.

But does it deliver on the headline?

YES. And better yet, to throw back to last week’s post, this content arguably levels me up. How? Because now I have a recipe for kimchi fries for my next party and everyone attending is going to be impressed. Thanks Buzzfeed for making me a better me.

Now for something completely different …

ClickbaitIn comparison … well, Macaulay Culkin is still very much alive, and the other two headlines result in sites that try to sell you suspicious products (not provide you any information about how to do the thing). These three are the epitome of time-wasting and useless clickbait. I’ll pass.

So remember, there is a difference between provoking your reader to make the click, then delivering on that headline, and being a lazy marketer who’s just out for clicks. Don’t be that guy.

If you’d like to listen to Pat’s complete session, register to access entire virtual show on-demand, because I barely scraped the surface of all the solid copywriting information she provided in our 30-minute session.

And now, as a special treat, here’s a taste of @clickbaitrobot … yes a Twitter bot that takes trending topics and attempts to turn it into bizarro clickbait. (I dare you not to laugh or at least question humanity.)

Two Proven Approaches That Supercharge Headlines

The headline and lead are considered the most important pieces of copy that make or break direct marketing campaigns. So why do some headlines come out so feeble? I think it’s a combination of reasons. Today I share six culprits and two ways to review copy and strengthen weak headlines.

If your headline doesn’t grab the reader, all the effort to write the rest of a promo will probably be a waste. Some copywriters suggest that 80 percent of time should be allocated to writing the headline and lead.

Personally, I think it’s less about time and more about ideas.

There are hundreds of winning direct mail control packages available for review (and to wisely steal from) at Who’s Mailing What. And there are plenty of books and copywriting programs available with proven formulas, created by successful copywriters that are a lot less costly to purchase and apply than producing a losing promo.

Before I share two approaches to supercharge your headlines, there are, I believe, several culprits behind weak headlines that should be overcome first:

1. Lack of Information: The lack of information about the product, market and benefits usually results in the copywriter lobbing a powder puff headline that’s cute and doesn’t sell a thing. If you’re the product or marketing manager, it’s your responsibility to deliver a list of all features and benefits to the copywriter.

2. No Research: This is a shared responsibility of everyone, marketing managers and copywriters alike. Look for research studies that support the need for your product to build credibility in your message.

3. No Competitive Intel: The marketing team should have samples of competitive products and promotional materials. It can be tough to get samples of direct mail, but in this day and age, a website surely exists for competitors.

4. Lack of Copywriting Experience: We all start our careers somewhere, so it’s tough to suggest that you bypass an eager, up-and-comer copywriter. But if you are working with someone a little green behind the ears, point them in directions where they can hone their skill about how to write headlines by reading books, going to seminars, or other training (in a moment I’ll share another resource I recommend).

5. Lack of Identifying the USP: The marketing team should work with the creative team to identify the unique selling proposition to set your product or service apart from competitors.

6. Approval by Committee: A great headline isn’t likely to come via a committee of well-meaning critiques. Let the copywriter do his or her job. Better yet, read on for a better solution for producing the strongest headline possible with a team approach.

Two Recommendations
If you want to supercharge your headline and lead, I can think of no more powerful and effective tool than engaging in a peer review between the copywriter and a handful of marketing staff. More than a decade ago I was introduced to a peer review system that helped me write a headline, and carry the theme through an entire direct mail package, that resulted in a 60 percent lift over a long-time control package. Millions were mailed. That copy review process introduction came from American Writers and Artists (AWAI).

You can read about the AWAI peer review system by clicking this link, but in short, you gather a small group of people together to evaluate a headline and rate it on a scale of 1 (low) to 4 (high). If the average is under 3.2, brainstorm ways to improve it. If the rating is really low (perhaps 2.5 or lower), then it’s probably best to start all over. In all cases, let the copywriter do the job of rewriting and editing.

Another copy strengthening system that I like and teach for AWAI students is called the C.U.B.A. review. It’s simple, but effective. While reviewing copy, you ask peers in a group if any copy in the headline or lead is:

  • Confusing
  • Unbelievable
  • Boring
  • Awkward

Both the peer review and C.U.B.A. are fully explained in Copy Logic, a book by Michael Masterson and Mike Palmer.

If you’re having trouble with writing strong headlines, try these two peer review systems. They work, and I speak from first-hand experience.

And if you use another proven system that strengthens headlines and copy, please share your process in the comments below.

Pop Culture, News and Politics in Content and Direct Marketing

On a recent marketing team conference call, someone asked if everyone was happy. I said, “sure!” and remarked how a recent song, “Happy”—the infectious hit by Pharrell Williams—had been playing in my mind all day. “What’s that?” was the reaction from the team. Those on the call agreed that they don’t pay attention to or care about hit songs. Which, by extension, suggests they are missing what’s going on in

On a recent marketing team conference call, someone asked if everyone was happy. I said, “sure!” and remarked how a recent song, “Happy”—the infectious hit by Pharrell Williams—had been playing in my mind all day. “What’s that?” was the reaction from the team. Those on the call agreed that they don’t pay attention to or care about hit songs. Which, by extension, suggests they are missing what’s going on in pop culture.

Now, some of you may disagree that “Happy” is a song that merits the description of being pop culture (the definition being “cultural activities reflecting, suited to, or aimed at the tastes of the general masses of people”). But this is a No. 1 song from the hit movie “Despicable Me 2,” and it was showcased on the Oscars, which was the first time I heard the song and experienced its energy. The official Happy music video has been viewed over 200 million times on YouTube.

Listening to this song, which energizes my creative juices, got me thinking about the use of pop culture, news and politics in content and direct marketing messages.

The fact is, when properly and responsibility used, pop culture icons, news headlines or politics work to get attention. Why else do you suppose you find the names of political leaders in promotional headlines?

Feel-good pop culture at one end of the spectrum, and negative headlines, at the opposite end, are proven to work. It’s all a part of the way our brains are wired, with the left amygdala reacting to positive messages and the right amygdala engaged with negative messages. So as you look for ways to make content and direct marketing work for you, consider the possibilities:

  1. News Headlines: Borrowing from the news shows your audience that you’re timely. Headlines can be either positive or negative. Marketing and PR guru David Meerman Scott, calls this effective technique “newsjacking.”
  2. Politics: Be careful with this one, but you can grab attention when you put a political spin on your story. This is usually negative, and why negative ads during campaigns are used (and work—it’s how our brains are wired).
  3. Pop Culture: Feel-good happy moments are few and far between. People embrace positive news, especially in social media. Pop culture can be a big winner when you need to grab onto something positive (even if possibly outrageous).

Obviously, the hard news/politics/pop culture combination doesn’t work for everyone or every product. But, if you want attention, consider how you can ramp up your content and direct marketing messaging with pop culture, news or politics.