Every second of every day, thousands of new headlines are published on the internet. Some are great; most are not. Some get clicks, lots don’t.
But a tiny fraction of these are killer headlines that get a lot of clicks. We’re talking hundreds of thousands, millions of clicks. This kind of traffic can lead to extraordinary influence and authority, not to mention eye-popping revenue.
Why is this? Why do some headlines from some publishers just get a massive amount of traffic? What are they doing that others aren’t?
That’s what we’re going to cover today: how to write killer headlines that get clicks.
I’ve been a publisher for over 10 years, and I’ve written literally thousands of headlines at this point. Each year, I published hundreds and hundreds of blog posts, guest posts, sales pages, header titles, email headlines — not to mention the thousands more sub headers, bylines, snippets, social media posts, and emails to promote these articles (not to mention all the headlines drafts I didn’t end up posting!).
After three years, I passed the 7 million click mark (not to mention the countless other clicks I couldn’t track, like on industry publications or guest posts, even uncredited plagiarism of my work). I was consistently seeing email open rates between 35–40%, almost double the industry average. Better yet, readers who clicked my headlines were actually reading the articles (around a 40–50% read ratio over several years), vastly increasing not just my income and revenue, my credibility and authority in my field.
I’ve seen what works, and I’ve noticed some trends. Let’s talk about how to write killer headlines that get clicks.
Honest Clickbait That Delivers Results
There’s a popular YouTuber (almost #1 most-followed channel on the platform) named Jimmy Donaldson with a channel called “MrBeast.” If you look at his videos, you can begin to see why some reviewers have dubbed his channel “honest clickbait.”
Look at some of his recent video headlines:
- “I Gave My 1,000,000th Subscriber an Island”
- “I Spent 50 Hours Buried Alive”
- “I Ate $100,000 Golden Rice Ice Cream”
At first glance, these titles border on sensationalist, empty-calorie clickbait. They’re designed to turn heads and stop people scrolling through their feed through sheer shock and disbelief.
But upon closer look, these videos are real — Donaldson actually gives someone a literal island. He really does spend days underwater, or buried alive, or in solitary confinement. He does spend tens of thousands of dollars on a burger, a cake, or an ice cream. Sure, the headlines have a definite clickbait sheen, but they’re honest.
Now, you don’t have to bury yourself alive or donate an island to get clicks.
But you do have to be honest.
If your articles don’t deliver their promised headline, you’ll instantly lose credibility in your audience’s eyes. Sports and political newsfeeds are notoriously guilty at committing this error: for every 100 headlines using the phrase “breaking news” or “shocking update” or “new development”, only a handful actually mean it.
The key here is to balance a big-enough promise (essentially, a big-enough reason for someone to click your headline) with an actual result that you’re qualified to deliver.
Here are headlines that deliver too-big of a promise that simply can’t deliver:
- “How to Make a Million Dollars By Tomorrow”
- “Lose 50 Pounds This Month Using This Simple Diet Plan”
- “If You Read This Article It Will Change Your Life Forever”
These are lazy, empty attempts at genuine clickbait — over-promised, severely under-delivered articles that make the readers feel robbed of their time and attention. Clickbait might get you some initial clicks, but it will destroy your credibility.
Instead, you have to balance a big promise with a realistic way of achieving that goal. These headlines work far better:
- “How to Make a Million Dollars By Age 40″
- “These 5 Nutritionists Proved They Could Lose 50 Pounds in 12 Months. Here’s How They Did It.”
- “This Article Will Make You 1% More Intelligent, and I Can Prove It.”
The promises are interesting, yet not unbelievable. If you can consistently find the right balance between extraordinary and achievable, you’ll be able to start crafting truly killer headlines.
The Headline Exercise I Used To Write 1,000 High-Quality Headlines
As a writer/publisher for over ten years, I’ve written thousands of headlines. After you understand the nature of crafting great headlines, it’s far easier to come up with a massive supply of them. You begin thinking in headlines. And every time a new one popped in my head, I’d whip my phone out and type it in.
A lot of them were bad — but some of them were good, or good enough to inspire a truly great headline. After a year or so, my phone was full of these headlines, article ideas, or just stray thoughts about my topic that ultimately helped me never run out of ideas, despite writing for years in my field (here’s a screen shot from one of my Notes apps):
I’m going to show you my process for coming up with hundreds of great headlines. Here’s how it works. You can use this Google Sheet to create your own database.
Step 1: List Positive Results Your Audience Wants to Achieve
What does your audience want to achieve within your field? You can poll them, survey them, use past feedback/comments/emails/market research to get this information.
I was publishing in the personal growth field, so some of my audience’s biggest goals included things like focusing more, sleeping better, losing weight, earning more income, and being more confident.
Write as many as you can. Shoot for at least 40–50 ideas.
Step 2: List Negative Results Your Audiences Wants to Avoid
What are your audience’s biggest fears about your topic? What do they desperately want to avoid? What end-scenario makes them cringe and motivate them to work hard to avoid such a fate?
For me, my audience wanted to avoid things like having a life with no meaning, getting overweight, succumbing to addiction, losing to their competitors, and being in toxic relationships.
Again, shoot for 40–50 ideas.
Step 3: Write Out As Many Positive “Power Words” As You Can Think Of
Power Words were a simple phrase I used for descriptive words that elicited strong feelings, both good and bad. These words help spice up headlines, ideas, and thoughts in your work.
Some positive power words might include increase, boost, activate, elevate, empower, focus, gain, and restore.
Step 4: Write Out As Many Negative “Power Words” As You Can Think Of
The same goes for negative Power Words. This could include words like destroy, eliminate, shatter, escape, unlearn, forget, dump, and remove.
Step 5: Combine Your Ingredients Into Killer Headline Outlines
Once you have your list of results and Power Words, you can begin crafting dozens, even hundreds of basic headline outlines.
Here are some of the best outlines I found were most effective for me as a publisher:
Headline #1: How to (Positive Word) + (Positive Results) and (Positive Word) + (Positive Results)
- How to Activate Self-Confidence and Destroy Your Anxiety
- How to Be an Irresistible Conversationalist and Make People Laugh More
Headline #2: How to (Negative Word) + (Negative Results) and (Positive Word) + (Positive Results)
- How to Completely Ignore Distractions and Consistently Enter Flow States
- How to Unlearn Limiting Mindsets and Become More Productive
Headline #3: How to (Negative Word) + (Negative Results) and (Negative Word) + (Negative Results)
- How to Stop Being a People-Pleaser and Avoid Getting Manipulated
- How to Get Rid of a Bad Attitude and Shed Your Insecurities
Headline #4: If You (Positive Word) + (Positive Results) Then You Can (Positive Word) + (Positive Results)
- If You Can Be Enormously Consistent, You’ll Gain Much More Success
- If You Learn These New Finance Habits, Then You Can Increase Your Income
Of course, these are just starter headlines — they’re designed to give you a huge list of possible headlines you can edit, tweak, and change into something that fits your style. In my experience, this exercise is honestly, truly one of the simplest ways to come up with hundreds of possible headlines for your site.
“Be so good they can’t ignore you,” world-famous comedian Steve Martin famously said. If you want to be a truly prolific and influential publisher in your field, you need to start crafting headlines that your readers can’t not click on.
It can be difficult to write headlines, which is unfortunate because they’re often the only chance you give new readers to see your work. But the exercise above will help you tremendously, giving you market research data you can combine with your real-world experience to create content your audience will truly love.
Pretty soon, you’ll start “thinking” in headlines too.