Skip to content

How To Write Headlines That Hook: 8 Questions To Ask

Headlines matter.

One in five people who “read” an online news story stops after viewing the headline or a few lines, according to an often-mentioned study from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Following the 80-20 rule, Copyblogger’s Brian Clark says eight out of 10 people will read the headline, but only two will read the rest.

So, headlines don’t just matter. They act as the life or death determiner of your content. They are the only tools left to cut through the digital landscape’s noise and grab the user’s attention.

Headlines are the only tools you have to cut through the digital landscape, says @WritingBreeze via @CMIContent. #ContentCreation Share on X

By answering yes to these eight questions before publishing, you can ensure your high-quality, catchy headline will attract readers, viewers, and listeners. As a bibliophile, I use examples from bestselling books and some marketing-related content.

1. Does the headline promise a benefit to the audience?

The best headline solves problems or helps the audience achieve a desired goal. They convey the relevance and indicate the value the consumer will gain.

For example, this article from CMI advises on SEO-related content and design. It could have used a label headline: Graphic Design Tools and Techniques. That tells the reader what the content is about.

The better option describes what the reader will get after reading the article: 5 SEO Content and Design Tips To Improve Your Ranking in SERPs. It specifies ranking improvement as the benefit to the reader.

2. Is the headline specific?

Precise details like numbers or percentages in titles draw attention to your content. Numbers provide order to chaos, make content easier to digest, and signal value to the viewer’s brain. The neuro-writing tactic engages and motivates them to consume your content.

Stephen Covey masters it in his The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Imagine this cover without numbers: Habits of Highly Effective People. Is that sufficiently convincing and promising for potential readers?

Numbers also help readers “eat the elephant one bite at a time.” It indicates a logical, step-by-step approach to achieving the benefit, such as the title from Terri Orbuch: 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great.

Numbers also can frame the book’s effect by setting deadlines or timelines for achieving that goal. Jay Conrad Levinson and Al Lautenslager did that in Guerrilla Marketing in 30 Days.

Precise details like numbers or percentages in titles draw attention to your #content, says @WritingBreeze via @CMIContent. #ContentCreation Share on X

21 Pounds in 21 Days: The Martha’s Vineyard Diet Detox takes a step further. This title from Roni DeLUZ specifies the result (21 pounds) and the timeframe to accomplish it (21 days).  

The key to making numbers work is knowing which ones to use and how to make them work.

3. Does the headline identify the target audience?

Speaking to the audience in the title makes it personalized. You can name them directly or state their key characteristics. The more obvious, the better.

In Get Clients Now! A 28-day Marketing Program for Professionals, Consultants, and Coaches, author C.J. Hayden targets the audience by listing the occupations.

Heidi Murkoff’s What to Expect When You’re Expecting identifies the book’s target readers by describing the circumstances in which they find themselves.

The Belkins team does it with their title, How to Create a B2B Lead Generation Funnel:

You also can define the target audience by indicating who your content isn’t for. Robin Williams does this with The Non-Designer’s Design Book:

The Dummies series ranks among the most successful examples of content positioning through a headline. Wine for Dummies, for example, would hardly attract sommeliers or connoisseurs of this beverage. It would grab the interest of someone seeking basic knowledge about wine.

4. Does a headline evoke curiosity?

Titles that surprise and create pictures attract an audience. Several literary devices and other tactics can help your headlines stick in consumers’ minds. The key to making them work is ensuring they relate to the content. If you hook readers with a catchy title but cheat their expectations with unrelated content, they won’t trust you anymore.

If you hook readers with a catchy title but don’t deliver, they won’t trust you anymore, says @WritingBreeze via @CMIContent. #ContentCreation Share on X

Metaphors apply to words or phrases that are not literally applicable. They create images that linger in the reader’s mind. Some examples include Eat That Frog! by Brian Tracy, An Etiquette Guide to the End Times by Maia Sepp, and I Burn Paris by Bruno Jasienski.

Contradictions or unexpected expressions evoke curiosity and stand out from trivial headlines. Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek uses this technique. People don’t believe it’s possible, so they get curious about reading and learning how to do that.

A most eloquent example of the contradiction is The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton.

Using alliteration – starting all the words with the same letter or sound – is more peculiar to poetic speech, but it works well in most content forms. Alliteration also can help consumers better recall the title. Among the examples are Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Semi-alliteration also can work well in headlines, such as this one from SmartBlogger: 10+ Best Book Marketing Strategies to Boost Your Sales in 2023

5. Does it speak the audience’s language?

Often, the best headlines sound like everyday conversations with good friends in a cafe. Consider these titles: Getting Things Done by David Allen, Easy Way to Stop Smoking by Allen Carr, and Before Your Kids Drive You Crazy, Read This by Nigel Latta.

Сhoose active verbs for your headlines. Incentive verbs are an especially effective form. They encourage readers to do a desired action, such as Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.

6. Is your headline brief?

Short titles can capture more attention. The human brain is lazy. It processes short, clear messages better. Malcolm Gladwell is a master of short titles. The Outliers, for example, is concise and straightforward.

Short headlines also work better to attract readers of search engine results pages. They should fit within 60 characters for optimal results. (Note: SEO headlines are different than the H1 headlines on your site.)

The headline for my GetResponse article – The Psychology Behind Email Language – nails it:

7. Does it have a subhead?

Combining short headlines with longer subheads reveals more details about the content. Non-fiction writers often use this trick for their titles, such as:

Managing Content Marketing: The Real-World Guide for Creating Passionate Subscribers to Your Brand by Robert Rose and Joe Pulizzi

Launch: How to Quickly Propel Your Business Beyond the Competition by Michael A. Stelzner

Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery by Garr Reynolds

This technique serves this blog article well: This is AI Powered SEO: 7 Ways To Use ChatGPT for Higher Rankings by Andy Crestodina.

8. Is the headline SEO friendly?

If you want your headlines to rank in search engines and bring traffic, make them attractive for both Google and searchers. As I mentioned earlier, write an SEO headline in 60 characters or less. You also should mention a target keyword in your title. The closer it is to the beginning, the better. Ensure the title relates to the content. Finally, don’t try to game SEO titles to fit what you think the algorithm likes. Write the headline for readers who may see them in their search results and would be motivated to click on yours.

Say yes to effective headlines

If you can answer “yes” to several or all of these questions, you likely have crafted a headline that will get your content noticed and read. And isn’t it better to be among the 20% in the 80-20 reader rule for you and your brand?

The answer is yes.

Want more content marketing tips, insights, and examples? Subscribe to workday or weekly emails from CMI.


Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute