By Roger C. Parker published December 5, 2012

Write the Best Titles for Content Marketing: A 10-Point Checklist

content marketing titlesBefore writing, promoting, and publishing your next book, eBook, or content marketing premium (i.e., a report, SlideShare presentation, video, white paper, etc.), take a moment to make sure you’ve chosen the best possible title.

Titles play a “make or break” role in content marketing and publishing success:

Choose the right title, and you can establish instant rapport with your intended readers. The right title should clearly indicate who should buy or download your publication, why they should buy or download it, and how they will benefit from it.

Choose the wrong title, however, and your book or incentive becomes invisible! Just as the headline is the most important part of an advertisement, the title is the promise that attracts readers (and search engines) to your publication’s landing page and engages their interest. 

This post will review the key characteristics to successful titles, including 10 questions to ask when you are brainstorming and/or weighing your title options. I’ve also created a Title Evaluation Scorecard you can download to help guide your decisions.

Although the examples below focus on published books — books that, in many cases, have been long-term bestsellers that created lasting brands for their authors — the principles apply to choosing and evaluating titles for all types of content marketing projects.

1. Promise: Does your title clearly promise a desired benefit? 

Choose a title that clearly describes the benefit that your book, eBook, or premium offers your readers. The best titles promise to solve a problem or help readers achieve a desired goal.

Let’s start by comparing the following two titles:

  • Graphic Design Tools & Techniques
  • Looking Good in Print: A Guide to Basic Design for Desktop Publishing

The first title describes what the book is about. The second title describes the benefits that readers will enjoy.

2. Specificity: Does your title include supporting details that add specificity and urgency?

Specifics, like numbers, add credibility and urgency to your titles.

Numbers provide structure for information, as in Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Individuals.” (“The Habits of Highly Effective Individuals” doesn’t sound quite as compelling, now does it?)

Numbers also make big goals appear easy to achieve by describing them in a series of easy-to-accomplish tasks, like Terri Orbuch’s “6 Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great.”

Moreover, numbers can add urgency by providing a timetable for success, as in Jay Conrad Levinson and Al Lautenschlager’s “Guerrilla Marketing in 30 Days.” But my favorite “urgency” title is “21 Pounds in 21 Days: The Martha’s Vineyard Diet Detox.” The title here shows how much weight you can lose and how quickly you can lose it, which is exactly what potential consumers would want to know when considering a diet book.

3. Targeting: Did you emphasize your intended readers in your title? 

Whenever possible, identify your intended readers in your book’s title. This makes your article, book, or white paper appear like it was “written for them.” You can target your market by naming them, or by describing their characteristics. Either way, the more obvious you can be, the better.

C. J. Hayden’s “Get Clients Now: A 28-day Marketing Program for Professionals, Coaches, & Consultants” targets readers by occupation, while Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel‘s “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” targets by circumstance, as does Patrice Karst’s “The Single Mother’s Survival Guide.”

Jay Conrad Levinson is a master of targeting specific market segments. After the initial success of his book, “Guerrilla Marketing,” he adapted his ideas to hundreds of different market segments (i.e., “Guerrilla Marketing for Writers,” “Guerrilla Marketing for Financial Consultants,” etc.). He also wrote versions that addressed specific tasks (i.e., “Guerrilla Marketing on the Internet”).

Another approach is to target your market by describing who they’re not, like Robin Williams’ “Non-Designers Design Book.”

4. Position: Does your title differentiate your publication from competing titles? 

One of the best examples of positioning is the “…for Dummies” series (e.g., “Red Wine for Dummies”). Red Wine for Dummies wouldn’t interest you if you’re an informed wine buyer. But, if you’re just developing your appreciation for red wine, it’s likely that you will immediately gravitate toward this title.

By poking fun at those who are supposedly “experts” the “…for Dummies” book series creates a community among those who are willing to admit that they don’t understand a topic, but still want information presented in an informal way.

You can also position your publication by stressing your approach, such as “Prevent & Treat Cancer with Natural Medicine.”

5. Engagement: Did you engage your reader’s curiosity, or use metaphor, to make your title more memorable?

Here are three literary tools you can use to engage your reader’s interests:

  • Metaphors make titles easier to understand and remember by giving readers a mental picture or point of comparison for the subject you’re talking about. Jay Conrad Levinson’s “Guerrilla Marketing” communicates its promise of describing unconventional ways to achieve success, by likening the marketing tactics to tactics used in guerrilla warfare. Another metaphor-based series is the “Chicken Soup for the…” series, which communicates a warm, nurturing feeling by referencing the meal that mothers and grandmothers have traditionally served to their family members who need some TLC when they’re under the weather.
  • Alliteration, or rhymed consonants, also makes titles easier to remember. Examples include Cliff Atkinson’s “Beyond Bullet Points,” Dr. Frank Luntz’s “Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear,” and Lynne Felder’s “Writing for the Web: Creating Compelling Web Content Using Words, Pictures, and Sound.”
  • Curiosity can be aroused by unexpected words or contradictory terms, which can help set your content apart from “duller” treatments of the same topic. An example is David Chilton’s “The Wealthy Barber.” The contradiction between “wealth” and “barber” compels readers to find out “how” and “why” barbers can become wealthy.

Tim Ferris took curiosity to a new level with his first book, “The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich”. I was skeptical when I heard about it. After all, how could it be true? But, like many others, I bought it because I wanted to find out what he had to say.

6. Voice: Does your title communicate in a conversational tone?

Titles must offer their promise in words that can be easily understood. The best titles have an almost naïve obviousness, or transparency, such as:

  • Michael Port’s “Book Yourself Solid”
  • Scott Belsky’s “Making Ideas Happen”
  • David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”

Titles can never be too simple or too obvious, a point that is well taken by author Michael Larsen, who titled his classic and perennial bestseller, “How to Write a Book Proposal,” and his follow-up “How to Get a Literary Agent.”

Choosing the right verbs: The verbs you use in your book title play an important role in the way readers will approach your book.

  • Imperative or action verbs: Imperative titles begin with a silent “you.” They communicate in an action-oriented, conversational way. Notice the implied action in “Get Clients Now and Book Yourself Solid.”
  • Using gerunds: You can also use the gerund, or “ing” form of action verbs to communicate an ongoing process, as in my book, “Looking Good in Print” or Michael Stelzner’s “Writing White Papers.”

7. Concise: Did you edit your title to the fewest and shortest words possible?

Concise titles lead to high-impact covers online and in bookstores. Remember, your publication’s cover has to look good at small size. So the fewer the words in your title, the larger the type size they can be set in!

The fewer the words, the more attention each word receives. Malcolm Gladwell is a master of the short title, as exemplified by his books like, “The Tipping Point,” “Blink!,” and “The Outliers.”

8. Reinforcement: Did you include a subtitle that provides additional information?

Combine short titles with longer subtitles that provide additional details. Here’s an example of a bestselling book with a two-word title — and a 17-word subtitle: “Skinny Bitch: A No-Nonsense Guide for Savvy Girls Who Want to Stop Eating Crap and Start Looking Fabulous.” And one of the best examples I can offer here is Larry Fine’s “The Piano Book: Buying and Owning a New or Used Piano.”

In just two words, Gar Reynolds’ “Presentation Zen” sets the stage by describing what the book is about as well as positioning it as a peaceful alternative to competing books. Then, the subtitle provides additional information: “Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery.”

9. SEO: Does your title include the keywords readers use searching for information online?

In today’s internet-dominated world, it’s essential that your publication’s title and subtitle contains the keywords and phrases readers are likely to use when searching for relevant information.

Using the right keywords in your title also pays big dividends in attracting organic search engine traffic to the landing page on your blog or website — where visitors can learn more and either purchase, or download, a copy.

As you view books on Amazon, note how often subtitles and series titles are used to add additional keywords to a title and attract more search engine traffic.

10. Combine the techniques: Did you use more than one of the above techniques in your title?

Few titles use just a single approach. The best books combine two, or more, of the techniques above, for maximum impact. Often alliterative or metaphor-based titles are combined with subtitles that provide specificity.

Putting the Title Evaluation Scorecard to work

Use the Title Evaluation Scorecard above to analyze proposed titles for articles, blog posts, books, and other content marketing projects. For example, when preparing for a meeting where you will be discussing potential content titles, you can hand out copies to coworkers and ask them to create a filled-in version for each proposed content title. This will encourage discussion on practical, rather than subjective, title characteristics.

More importantly, you can take copies of the Title Evaluation Scorecard with you as you visit bookstores or libraries, and have copies available as you visit your favorite blogs. The more time you spend analyzing titles, the better you’ll be at creating you own!

Share a couple of your favorite titles, and what you like about them, as comments below! Find out if others share your opinions.

For more starter tips for content marketing, read CMI’s eGuide, Getting Started in Content Marketing.

Author: Roger C. Parker

A lifelong content marketer, copywriter, and author, Roger enjoys helping clients write books and simplify their content marketing. Follow @RogercParker on LinkedIn at ContentMarketingHelp. Download a free copy of his 4-page 8 Commitments of Content Marketing Success.

Other posts by Roger C. Parker