How to craft compelling headlines that capture clicks

You could be the smartest person in the room, but if you show up wearing a tacky sweater and parachute pants, nobody will care what you have to say.

The same goes for headlines: spending hours researching and formatting your blog posts is useless if nobody reads them. At Ghost Works, we often say that creation is only 50% of the content game: without distribution, the content doesn’t play. Engagement is the lubrication of distribution: posts that engage organically get more shares and capture more attention.

Writing the perfect headline requires a delicate balance of art and science. But if it’s done correctly, you can surge past the competition — and there’s data to show how. Here are five evidence-based strategies for writing clickable headlines.

1. Ask questions?

In an analysis of over a million blog posts,  TrackMaven discovered that nearly 95% of the headlines did not contain a question mark. However, the 5% of blog posts that did ask a question accounted for 46% of the total social shares.

Question-based headlines are far more engaging than simply shoving information at readers. Questions trigger curiosity and a desire to know the answer. That being said, slapping a question mark at the end of a headline won’t cut it (see this subheader as an example!)

Question-based headlines must deliver a real and thorough answer to the question posed. And be warned: many readers are skeptical of these types of headlines.

Consider Betterridge’s Law of Headlines:

“Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”

Although this adage is humorous, it proves itself true more often than not.

Bottom line: Inspire curiosity, but if the automatic response to a headline is “no,” go back to the drawing board.

2. Optimize for keywords and length

Optimizing your blog posts for SEO is smart. But when 59% of people are sharing headlines without even reading the article, that’s a sign you should channel your creativity towards better headlines.

There are two key elements of the search-friendly headline: relevant keywords and a reasonable length.

1. Keywords: Descriptive language isn’t just better for search engines, it’s appealing to readers too. Consider these two headlines:

“You’ll love our new delicious ice cream flavor”

“Looking for treats in Cincinnati? This Maple-Bacon Ice Cream Will Make Your Jaw Drop”

You can guess which one will be on top of the reader’s mind (and on top of the Google results).

Just be sure that these SEO keywords are relevant to the article and not just to the search engine. Think of the reader first, and then the search algorithm.

2. Length: Keep the length reasonable. According to Outbrain, 16 to 18 words is the ideal headline length. This keeps a headline shareable on social media while also ensuring the headline isn’t cut off in search results.

3. Use numb3rs

The human brain craves clarity. And like it or not, lists and numbers are the simplest way to break down complexity. As you can see from this study by Conductor, that preference is no different when it comes to headlines.

Numbers are easier to understand for most people.

But numbered headlines are more than just a preference. In addition to how straightforward numbered headlines are for writers, Hubspot identifies other advantages of list posts for publishers, including:

  • More clicks
  • More engagement
  • More social sharing
  • More time on page
  • More organic traffic
  • More conversions
  • More comments
  • Lower bounce rate

Readers associate long lists with greater value. It’s not uncommon to see lists of 25 or even 100 things go viral. This relates to numerosity, or our unconscious preference for large numbers.

While the brain is wired to see larger quantities as more favorable, the quantity also matters: An odd number stands out even more.

Headlines with odd numbers generate 20% more clicks than headlines with even numbers. -Hubspot

Bottom line: Get specific. The more details the better. Telling the reader exactly what they’ll learn can entice them to click, not to mention those keywords are good for SEO.

4. Use cliffhangers

If you thought cliffhangers were reserved for TV shows, think again. A cliffhanger is one of the most powerful (and profitable) tools for capturing a reader’s attention.

Not long ago, Moz conducted an overhaul of its landing page that resulted in over $1 million in revenue. The strategy? Remove phrases like “buy now” or “check out…” from headlines and use headlines like this instead: “When eBay and Disney need SEO help, here’s what they do…”

Just like an addicting Netflix series, a cliffhanger headline creates an open loop in the back of the reader’s mind that can only be closed by reading the article. For example:

Instead of…

“Try These Social Media Tips to Optimize Your Conversion Rate”


“These 5 Silly Mistakes Are Costing You Thousands of Clicks – Even Though You Don’t Know It”

Bottom line: Just like with questions, make the reader want to find out the answer. Just be sure to deliver on the cliffhanger surprise. If it’s a let down, the reader could feel ripped off. This diminishes the positive brand building aspects of content marketing.

5. Make it about your reader, not your brand

Buffer analyzed the word choice in 3,016 headlines from 24 of the most popular websites on the web. These are the results:

Notice that (other than neutral words like “the” and “this”) “you” was the among the most popular words. “Your” in the top 20 as well. Combined, these two pronouns appeared in 16% of all the headlines in the study.

Bottom line: Content that addresses the reader, and add value to his or her life, generally performs well. Talking too much about your brand is tantamount to being a boring dinner party guest. A great conversationalist asks questions, listens, and makes it about the other person. Provide value and watch your shares go up!

Putting it all together

Now that we broke down the formula for irresistible headlines, here’s an example of all five components tied together:

Do You Eat These 3 Superfoods After High-Intensity Cardio? The Results Are Life-Changing.

Question? ✅

Number? ✅

Keywords? ✅

Cliffhanger? ✅

Reader-oriented? ✅

Now that you have a compelling headline, just be sure to craft compelling content to match!

Why I started Ghost Works

As often happens when starting a new venture, the most common question from my network was around why I started Ghost Works. This makes sense, as we all love a good founder story.

So, as I write from the office in my converted garage in California, indulge me as I channel my best garage narrative and share the reasons why I started this business with you! It’s definitely not a Jobs/Wozniak kind of story, but at least I’m championing the faded art of the garage startup.

Writers and journalists aren’t paid enough — if at all

Throughout my life as a freelancer, the fear of not getting paid for work done has been a constant. Even with clients that had previously been reliable, there have been situations where I couldn’t even pay the rent because I had so many invoices outstanding.

In effect, I was extending credit with no interest to companies much larger than me. Having emergency funds is feasible, but once that’s depleted, all it takes is one unpaid invoice to cause financial stress.

It almost amounts to post-traumatic stress disorder, a feeling that you’ve contributed and provided value and yet are not being compensated for it as agreed.  You start getting nervous as the date an invoice is due approaches, wondering if you’ll get paid.

The resulting chaos — moving bills from one card to another, surfing the waves of due dates and the kindness of landlords — is something that you never want to go through once you’ve done it once. Yet, despite the desire to avoid the corrosive uncertainty, it’s massively complicated to budget with unpredictable cash flow.

This isn’t just an isolated problem: The most recent study of freelancer wage nonpayment found a pervasive issue that amounted to around 10% of the average freelancer’s wage. A count of outstanding invoices as reported by freelancers on the World’s Longest Invoice sits at over $4 million! And that’s just self-reported. The true scope of this issue is much larger. And as the freelance economy grows, the challenges to getting paid for work delivered will too. So for brands who employ freelancers, it’s more important than ever to mitigate risk in the freelance economy!

Ghost Works looks at the costs of non-payment in the freelance economy

Key insight: By deploying a business model with more revenue consistency, Ghost Works will attract better writers. This creates a virtuous cycle: better writers create better content, which keeps clients loyal and attracts new clients through word-of-mouth. Risk is mitigated on both sides, resulting in happier writers and clients.

Freelancer management is tedious

Given that most freelancers often struggle to get paid, they prioritize companies that pay quickly per the agreed-upon terms. This actually leads to a reputation of flakiness, as freelancers flock to clients they know will pay. This can lead to missed deadlines, and certain clients feeling like they’re not as high of a priority as others (even if they pay on time.)

Freelancers are also generally creators, not administrators. This can lead to hassles when it comes to billing, invoicing, and other questions clients might have.

Freelancer marketplaces have sprung up to help with this issue. But now these marketplaces have become unwieldy, requiring lots of effort on the client side to find the right writer. And then, of course, the platform that facilitates the relationship takes a large cut. The middleman’s cut then increases prices for everyone. To justify their cut, these platforms build bells and whistle, such as Freelancer Management Systems, which creates huge development overhead and higher costs for all customers.

An industry survey found two key hurdles when vetting freelancers: 44 percent of companies want help pre-screening talent, as they usually take days screening talent; and 47 percent struggle to evaluate talent to see if freelancers are accurately representing their expertise.

Another aspect of freelancer management, especially for B2B, is finding writers that are experts in a company’s given industry. When one reliable expert writer is not available, it can be difficult to find another with similar expertise. This means the company blog might miss the scheduled weekly entry. And we all know that once momentum fades, it’s hard to bring it back! This causes frustration and leads to the blog falling further down the priority list.

Key insight: By eliminating this time suck of managing the freelancer/client relationship, and by focusing on the content (rather than the platform), we’re able to offer our services at a highly competitive rate. We also increase the quality and consistency of the content, as brands don’t need to constantly search for writers that are experts in their industries.

‘The guilt quotient:’ Most brands want to blog better

Most corporate communicators, executives, and other communications professionals have some level of guilt about not publishing quality content more often.

Whether its the company blog, an internal department blog, or LinkedIn, there’s an understanding that publishing high-quality content matters. It can build trust in a company and expand the reach of a brand. It can increase sales and accelerate growth. It can also amplify authority and enhance the reputation of a company’s leadership in the marketplace. All worthwhile things, especially given the cost of a content marketing investment.

[Blogging better] is high on my priority list, but it’s never number one. It’s just not on the list of things that can kill my business tomorrow. But it’s something that I know we should do, and always feel like we need to do, but can never seem to find the time.

-Potential client, sharing her challenges with the company blog

But with the proliferation of channels, publishing great content on a consistent basis is overwhelming for most. I heard that time and time again with prospects. And the more I had these conversations, the more I realized that this was a massive painpoint across industries. There hasn’t been a silver bullet solution. Unprompted, colleagues shared this simple issue of prioritization when it came to the company blog or thought leadership: “We know we should do it but we don’t have the time.”

Key insight: Like many things in our lives, guilt can be a great motivator — most especially when a service or product presents itself that can eliminate the guilt by providing an affordable and reliable solution to the nagging problem. If Ghost Works can solve this problem reliably, at an affordable rate, we could have very long-term clients.

The solution: Ghost Works

When crafting our core value proposition, I was careful to balance what is essentially a two-sided marketplace.

I need the writers to be happy by both paying well and providing purpose. We need top writers working for us — after all, Ghost Works is ultimately a content play. I also need to make the price point attractive so that our clients can get started quickly, and stay with us for the long-term. Make it easy to get started and give no reasons to leave.

As a career freelancer myself, I felt that it was consistency that unites both sides of this equation.

While clients benefit from both the consistency of writing and the consistency of cost, writers benefit from both the consistency of pay and the consistency of work. Clients save time vetting and managing freelancers, and our writers save time vetting and managing clients. Both sides are relieved from the headaches of invoicing, billing by the hour, scope creep, and unexpected cost overages.

In order to make this work, I chose a new business model as the engine of our success. We offer blog management as a subscription service, giving everyone the clarity of financial consistency. Brands can budget effectively, and company cash flow is stable so our writers know that they are getting paid each month.

It’s this business model innovation that will either float this entire vision or sink it. And a business model isn’t always a sustainable competitive advantage. So we put the client at the center of everything we do, and then we move out from there. That’s why we offer our service without contracts and a ‘cancel anytime’ guarantee. Simple to start, easy to use, and effective long-term.

We’re on a mission to help brands blog better, and we can only do that if we are unabashedly client-centric. As long as our writing team is aligned and orbiting around each of our clients, we will most certainly achieve our mission!

What is brand journalism? 4 approaches to creating content like a journalist

In 2012, the Public Relations Society of America named brand journalism one of its top trends for the year. In 2018, brand journalism is at the heart of how brands create content for consumers. But what exactly is brand journalism? And how do companies apply this approach to their content?

Defining ‘brand journalism’

The core of the concept is to create content from an editorial approach that puts the audience, not the company, first. What the audience wants to hear from a company might not match what a company wants to write; brand journalism aims to bridge that gap.

A brand journalist is a unique blend of journalist and marketer, using a brand’s own ecosystem as fodder for interesting stories the people actually want to read. This increases a brand’s profile and influence across its ecosystem.

A graphical interpretation of how a brand journalism can work (source)

By creating compelling content, rather than generic ‘brand-speak,’ companies are more likely to benefit from the increased trust fostered by being authentic. Brands can also drive down inbound marketing costs because readers choose to organically engage and share the brand’s original content. There’s no paying a middleman like Facebook or Google.

Within this rubric, there are different ways that brands can approach brand journalism. Here are four approaches to creating content like a journalist within any organization, ordered from easy to most committed.

Train employees to write better

The reality for most companies is that employees are not trained writers. Outside of emails, many employees won’t have written much since perhaps writing longer papers in college. Even with  daily projects like creating presentation decks, most employees have had little-to-no formal trading in writing or communications.

While this may not seem like too much of an issue, think about the last time you received a poorly worded email For a potential vendor. Either a specific example comes to mind, or you might not have even paid attention because the messaging was so impersonal.

Each and every communication that the brand has with a prospect or current client reflects back upon that brand. Improving employee communications, both internal and external, creates opportunities to be more clear and concise. This trickles down into content created across the company, fostering stronger bonds through stronger communication.

Reshape company culture towards curiosity

Beyond giving employees the tools in training they need to write and communicate effectively, a company can also infuse a brand journalism approach into their hiring process. Starting with job descriptions, a company should emphasize the desire for candidates who have the qualities journalists are trained to exhibit.

The most valuable quality a journalist possesses is a deep curiosity that fuels a pursuit of knowledge.

Generally, a curious person will just figure it out. This makes for an employee that is both self-sufficient and able to play well with others. After all, curiosity requires inputs from others as answers can’t be found alone.

Another useful skill combo that journalists have is the ability to craft questions that deliver informative, insightful answers — and the interview technique to move through the questions at a pace that delivers the best results from subjects. This includes a streak of improvisation, as interviews don’t often go as planned. A journalist is a skilled conversationalist, able to pull through threads and tie them together.

Once employees exhibit these qualities, the idea is that this approach then informs all content created throughout the sales, onboarding, client satisfaction, and brand marketing processes. Hiring former journalists could be the thing that most impacts on your company culture!

Hire a brand journalist

The shortcut to all this is to simply hire a journalist! Generally, this person is put in charge of certain brand marketing activities, like owned media channels such as the company blog. Often, this person has also empowered and encouraged to train their fellow employees on the best ways to create content.

Often, companies think that they have no stories to tell. But the truth that most journalists see is that any organization filled with people is also filled with stories. 

Sometimes it just takes a trained journalist to surface the most compelling bits and pieces from a company’s ecosystem. And once these are surfaced, the company has a very affordable inbound marketing goldmine. This story-focused content then humanizes the brand, building an authenticity that fosters trust with both prospects and current clients. There’s also a great benefit for potential employees as well!

According to the 2017 Stackla Consumer Content report, authenticity is elusive. The majority of consumers are underwhelmed by the content currently being created by brands.

And as the volume of content increases, it’s harder than ever for brands to resonate authentically. With a brand journalist on staff, a company gains a sensitivity to creating content for a specific audience and not necessarily about a specific brand. The company gains a storyteller familiar with leveraging limited resources to discover and package a compelling narrative — and then distribute it to the target audience in new and innovative ways.

“Brand as publisher”

The most well-documented example of this approach is Red Bull. Over the years, this company has used content as its primary marketing vehicle. Basically became a media company that also happens to sell energy drinks. Whether dropping a human from space (and broadcasting live on YouTube) to publishing its own magazine, the brand created multiple content touch points for consumers to engage with its brand. These expensive original content efforts kept the brand at the forefront of consumers minds and reinforced its edgy reputation.

“Creating great content is difficult, and delivering great content consistently through established processes is complex. However, this is what is required if you want to take your brand from good to great in today’s communication environment.”

-James Keady, digital marketing manager for McLaren Automotive

This is the most full-throated commitment to brand journalism: It costs the most and requires an organization to structure itself around this priority. It’s also something as old as capitalism: Soap operas were originally created to sell…soap!

And it’s not only consumer brands finding success here. There are many technology vendors and suppliers are becoming the go-to resource and their industry through an editorial approach to content. In fact, there are 851,000 search results for “b2b blogs examples,” showing just how many companies are getting coverage for their blogging efforts. One of the most effective, as far as using minimal resources to deliver outsized impact for a specific target is First Round Review, the blog of VC firm First Round Capital.

It comes down to relationships

Ultimately, the goal is to foster stronger, more meaningful relationships with your customers. Generic corporate content alienates people more than ever before. No one wants to feel like a number on the spreadsheet. By creating insightful content that shows that you understand their problems, preferences, and aspirations, your brand can more easily punch through the noise of today’s digital world.

“It doesn’t matter if a company makes diapers or steel girders, it must also be a media company and know how to use all the media technologies at its disposal.

While this has always been true to some extent, it is even more important today, because our media technologies have become so much more powerful.”

-Tech journalist Tom Foremski