By Scott Severson published November 25, 2013

3 Content Creation Tips to Win the Battle for Attention

guy with megaphone-grab attentionIn the not-too-distant past, it was relatively easy to win the battle for attention. Win a few key media placements and you could build instant awareness and attention.

It’s not so easy today. In a world where everyone is a publisher, it’s not just your brand vs. your competitors; it’s your brand against every funny cat video, every must-read “listicle,” and every celebrity meltdown. It’s your brand competing against my friends’ latest Facebook posts for attention.

The signal-to-noise ratio is going to increase, unabated, for the foreseeable future. Every day we’re exposed to hundreds, if not thousands, of brand messages, and it’s growing more difficult to rise above the clutter.

Fortunately, this doesn’t mean you are powerless. Here are three things you can do in your content creation efforts to get consumers to pay more attention to your brand.

Tip 1: Headlines

In my own completely unscientific study, I estimate that with email, news, and social media sites, I’m consciously exposed to more than 300 brand messages on the average day. Whether or not I engage with the content largely comes down to relevance and the quality of the headline. (Note: We’ll use “headline” here as a universal content creation term that includes, tweets, Facebook posts, news headlines, subject lines, etc.)

If you want to win the battle for attention, headline writing is a skill that you need to master. In the last three years content marketers have seen a radical change in the way we write headlines. Once sensational and provocative headlines were the purview of direct response advertisers and tabloids, but today they’ve gone mainstream. And for good reason — they work. If you want to rise above the clutter, your headline has to smack me in the forehead and get me to think, “I have to read this!”

The editors at sites like Huffington Post, Business Insider and BuzzFeed are all brilliant headline writers. If you can write headlines that would belong on any of these sites, you’re well on your way to securing more attention. The headline today is the descendant of the outer envelope in direct mail marketing: Its sole job is to get opened. To me, this should also be the benchmark for strong headlines: Does it compel me to click or open the content?

The very best headlines capitalize on the laws of basic human psychology by playing on emotions like fear, greed, humor, or all of the above. Take this headline example from CMI’s own Joe Pulizzi: 13 Scary Reasons Your Content Marketing Will Fail.

13 scary reasons-jack-o-lantern

This headline has several things going for it.

  • It’s topical, as it was published prior to Halloween.
  • It specifies the number of reasons (13). Joe gets two points here: He used a number, as we all respond well to data organized in lists; and he used a number that relates to Halloween, giving it timely relevance.
  • Joe pulls out the stops by warning me that my content marketing will fail. It’s a brilliant use of psychology — playing on readers’ fears and insecurities. After I viewed this headline, there was no way I wasn’t going to click to read it. What if I’m committing one of Joe’s 13 deadly sins? (I’m not, by the way).

Whether we’re B2B or B2C marketers, we have to be interesting to get noticed, and sometimes that means taking risks and being provocative. I think Brian Clark from Copyblogger put it best during his session at the recent Content Marketing World conference: “It’s better to [risk annoying] a few people to get 100 people to love you.

Tip 2: Images

Your image selection is critical for both capturing attention and creating sentiment. The attention factor here is obvious: If you want people to read your headline, line it up next to the most interesting image or photo that you possibly can. Hint: If it looks like stock photography, it’s not going to win you any attention.

Provocative imagery works well here — as long as it’s consistent with your brand voice. Think about it: When the same headline is used, the photo of the pretty girl in the bikini with the cruise ship in the background will likely get more clicks than the photo of just the cruise ship will.

As for sentiment, this is where it gets interesting. Understanding the sentiment that you want to convey and selecting the right imagery to tell that story are both essential to capturing a greater share of audience attention.

In fact, the right photo can establish the sentiment of your content, as well as alter it. Consider the headline, “7 Ways New Technology Makes Bikes Crazy-Fast,” in relation to each of the following two photos:


The headline conveys a positive sentiment when placed in the context of the first picture; but the mood completely changes to a negative sentiment when associated with the second photo.

So which sentiment is more likely to capture attention? In another completely unscientific study, I recently took a look at some of the headline and image combinations on the home page of Huffington Post. There were 118 headlines on the homepage, and I placed them into four sentiment categories: Positive, Negative, Neutral, and Provocative. The results: Positive and Neutral headlines tied, at 24 percent. Provocative headlines made up 16 percent, and the clear winner was negative headlines, at 44 percent. Again, as long as it’s consistent with your brand voice, don’t be afraid to try a bit of negative reinforcement in your content from time to time, if you’re looking to capture attention.

Tip 3: Optimize

Headline writing used to be mainly an art. Today, it is still partially art, but mainly it’s a science. To understand what content is working, you have to measure its impact, and optimize on an ongoing basis. I’ve written some headlines that I was in love with, but clearly no one else was. And, thanks to good analytics, I was able to find that out quickly and adjust accordingly.

If you pay attention, you’ll notice that many top news sites change out their headline/image combinations for the same article several times during the day as they refine their content for optimal engagement. While most brands will not need to make adjustments to their content on nearly as frequent a basis, they shouldn’t be satisfied to “set it and forget it” either. The only way to increase the impact your content has on your audience is to pay attention to what’s resonating, and use the knowledge you gather to adjust what isn’t.

Find your voice

Though the tips above may scratch the surface on tactics for grabbing consumer attention, they are certainly not the only options available to your brand. One of the coolest things about today’s marketing practices is that they help businesses foster stronger and deeper relationships with our customers than were ever possible before. It used to be we shouted, and some customers listened. Now we get to listen, and to engage them in two-way conversations. If you haven’t already, now is the time to give your brand a voice. Please, just try to make it more interesting than that of my friends. Or cat videos.

For more tips on creating content that sets you apart from the competition, read Joe Pulizzi’s latest book, “Epic Content Marketing: How to Tell a Different Story, Break through the Clutter, & Win More Customers by Marketing Less.”

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Scott Severson

Scott Severson is the president of Brandpoint, a leading content marketing services and software company. They provide content strategy, writing and design services, marketing automation content, sponsored content, and native advertising solutions. BrandpointHUB is their award-winning content marketing software platform. Sign up for a Free Trial of BrandpointHUB Content Marketing Platform here. Scott is a passionate advocate for content marketing tactics, measurement and optimization, and has employed his digital expertise to a wide range of businesses. Follow him on Twitter @scottseverson.

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  • B2Bstartupmarketer

    Hi Steve – Great post. I like your third point around optimization and wish I was more savvy at doing this. Can you elaborate more on your optimization strategy and the tools you use to inform how you refine your headlines and/or images after launching content? For example, how do you glean whether to update a certain word in a headline, or that it’s time to test a new image creative? To what end do you decide that you have come up with the best headline/image combination that no longer needs optimization?

    • Scott Severson

      Thanks B2B. Here’s a few suggestions based on your questions:
      Optimization Tools: Google Analytics
      Time frame:It really depends on your goals and your traffic. It makes sense for a site like CNN to optimize several times a day. For a small B2B marketing firm a couple of times per month may be enough.
      The concept of the best headline/image combo: I don’t know if the best exists, I’m not striving for the best headline ever, I’m striving to find a winner of A vs B, and then to create a challenger to the champion that I’ve just established.

  • Simon

    What about optimisation for a therapy service?

  • ‘TC’ Teresa Clark

    Hey Scott,

    Some awesome tips here on how to win the attention of readers! I completely agree with you that we need to optimize on an ongoing basis to find what works best to really grab their attention. Here is what I do to create content that will be sure to grab the reader’s attention.

    I interact with people without causing them to think that they are being sold. Whenever we feel as if we are being sold we go to what many call ‘the lizard brain.’ As a result individuals feel dubious and responsible for watching for danger and confrontation. As an alternative we have to get individuals in the buying part of their brains. Whenever we are in buying mode we are more likely to ask, for instance, “Does this come in my size? ” and stick to the salesperson eagerly. I refer to this component of my brain as ‘my purring cat.’

    Thanks again Scott for a riveting article,
    ‘TC’ Teresa Clark

    • Scott Severson

      Thanks TC

  • ronellsmith


    I’m convinced many of us are so busy extolling the virtues of content we forget the elements that go into creating consistently compelling content. Headlines and images are now seen as givens, things to be concerned with as time permits.

    However, the best content marketers constantly share that a significant portion of time should be spent finding the right images and choosing the best headlines.

    Each is anything but a throwaway, though they are often treated as such.


    • Scott Severson

      Thanks Ronell, I agree. The quality of your content should not be an afterthought.

  • Barbara Mckinney

    For me,these three tips are the most important things to do to get the attention of your readers. Thanks for sharing this article Scott!

    • Scott Severson

      Glad you enjoyed it Barbara

  • Carolina

    Great article Scott! It can be frustrating trying to compete for attention with the thousands of people trying to make a name for themselves. Living in a visual society with a quickly diminishing attention span, I find that including compelling images can make all the difference in drawing people in.

  • ReferralCandy

    Hey Scott,

    I agree! In psychology, nothing works better in getting attention than appealing to the senses, and inducing an emotional response.

    Sensual elements, like visuals (bright colours and vivid imagery), scents (aromas) or sounds (jingles or popular songs) can very easily improve the response. This works very well in terms of getting them to take a longer look at your content before clicking.

    The element that makes them click will probably be emotional triggers. As you mentioned, the halloween-themed headline that played on fears and insecurities is one very effective trigger. Many people who have these worries would definitely click on it, as they want solutions that can allay their fears.

    Thanks for the enjoyable article!


  • Robert Doll

    Thanks, Scott.

    It’s also important to consider the SEO side of headline writing and segment articles out into posts that will be shared on social sites/posts that you hope to gain organic search traffic from.

    The most engaging headlines are not always the most “search friendly.” It’s a conundrum that Google has recognized. And fortunately for us, they’re moving away from rewarding the exact match keyword title tags (headlines) and rewarding outside factors like social shares, which can sometimes be attained by more clicks/more interesting headlines.

  • Sergey Shevtsov

    I completely agree on this. The main point of nowadays marketing is to capture attention and in order to succeed your content must be of a perfect quality and headlines must attract and make people want to read your valuable information.

  • Jim Young

    Why commenting on this article will make you smarter (and
    more handsome).
    Is it pretentious to give comments a headline? I have to admit, headline writing is one of my favorite parts of creating content. That said, the key is to actually delivering on the headline (which, for example, this comment fails to do). I think I’m also going to find a way to do some A/B testing with different sentiment-driving pictures attached to headlines. It would be interesting to see how much the picture impacts the reading. Nice bit of writing Scott, thanks.

    • Scott Severson

      Awesome headline to your comments Jim! Thanks