Compelling, Attention Grabbing Headlines: The Definitive List of Psychology Tips!

The ‘Headlines First!’ approached has been used in the news industry since the 1880’s – and proposes an ‘inverted pyramid principle’ (as coined by a McKinsey Marketing Group Executive, Barbara Minto in the 60’s) which puts an Attention grabbing headline or punchline or ‘hook’ first, at the beginning of articles, blogs, advertisements, etc. It is also referred to as ‘front-loading’. There is no point in writing great content if it is not read because your title is not click-worthy.

Why do we read an article?

If you think about it, it is mostly because the headline caught your eye, promising.

  • An interesting article on a topic that interests you.
  • Something intriguing.
  • A solution to a problem.
  • An exciting story
  • Something scary, shocking or weird

Why did it captivate you? What is it that triggers attention to something specific, focusing on that particular item rather than anything else in this noisy world we live in?

Attention Psychology

Attention “is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what may seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. …It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others” as defined in psychology. A great explanation of attention is that it is like a highlighter that causes you to focus in that area.

Attention affects your experience of the world around you and is

  • Limited – Incapacity and duration.
  • Selective – Filter out most everything else.
  • A basic part of the cognitive system – orienting ourselves to our environment is a survival mechanism.

Of course, as much as we focus our attention on our specific needs, we also have the need for attention focused on ourselves. In Maslow’s hierarchy, once we have food and shelter, our primary need is for attention, recognition and praise. This principle accounts for the major reason for ‘sharing’ articles or blogs, as it reflects who we are:

  • Need for self-actualization – Something helpful, makes you feel as if you are contributing.
  • Need for self-esteem – Emotional and attention grabbing words, shows you care.
  • Need to belong – Opinions, it helps to show which ideology or group you identify with.

So how do we use psychology tricks to write better article titles? Remember that on average five times more people read the headline than the article – make sure yours get read!

‘HEADLINES are a million times easier to optimize than content, and JUST AS IMPORTANT to virality!’ Peter Koechly, Upworthy.

14 tips for writing compelling article headlines (both creative and intriguing)

  1. Keywords – It may sound redundant, but remember to front-load with keywords, people often forget to check that keywords are in the headlines because they are so busy trying to make it different. No keywords, not in the search engine results! Optimize for the audience, search and social. You must address the audience’s pain points, nail search with keywords, and be creative enough for social sharing. Keyword titles are educative and helpful and are mostly used by authority sites.
  2. Create a ‘curiosity gap’ – A psychological construct describing the gap between what you already know and what you want to know. You can prime the pump on curiosity by providing just enough information to make a person curious but not enough to make them move on.
  3. Create surprise – It turns on the pleasure centers in your brain for most people and is more intriguing than something they already know. For example: “TOP legal & illegal variations of steroids for sale in drug stores!
  4. Start with a working title – As your article takes shape, write as many possible titles as you can, then check them against your audience’s needs, and check with friends or colleagues for feedback.
  5. Be accurate – Set clear expectations as to what information they will find in the article, this builds trust, and interestingly research shows a clarification in brackets makes it 38% more likely to be read.
  6. Make it sexy – You want your headline to ‘pop’, so don’t be boring or too conservative (whilst keeping your audience in mind). Use techniques like
    1. Alliteration – It is playful and catches attention.
    2. Strong language – Can be powerful even if negative, may surprise the reader.
    3. Clear value – expectations must be met, however offering something specific for e.g.  (template) in the heading has shown to be very popular
    4. Visual – If your article has visuals mentioning it in the title leads to 37% more clicks
    5. Focus on who not how (22% higher CTR) as people like to identify with heroes
    6. Focus on why not how to allow people to understand better, touches the need for self-actualization.
  7. Keep it short – Titles must be catchy to get ‘attention’, shorter is always better. In addition
    1. less than 70 letters for search engines,
    2. 8-12 words for Twitter shares
    3. 12-14 for Facebook shares (according to Hubspot),
    4. 8 words provides a 22% higher click rate (Outbrain).
  8. Numbers – To give concrete takeaways, makes a clear expectation of what to expect.
  9. Emotional objectives – To describe your reader’s problem.
  10. Unique rationale – To demonstrate what the reader will get out of the article, ensuring clear expectations, fulfilling the need for security.
  11. What, why, how, or when – Fulfills the need for self-actualization, understanding better and being able to deliver more.
  12. Promises: even audacious – But be careful to deliver or you will break trust. A promise creates intrigue, the need to know more, the need to be wowed and surprised.
  13. Cheat – Take cues from sites with great headlines, build on what works for them.
  14. Check your analytics – Make sure you frequently check analytics on what gets your audience’s attention and adapt from there. You may be assuming a certain psychological profile and be way off.

Specific Title Formats that cash in on Psychological Needs:

Titles with the following catch phrases fulfill specific needs and perform the best.

  1. ‘The best’ – Need for self-actualization, know-how, and achievement.
  2. ‘Make my life easier’ – People don’t always want bigger or better, but they do want easier.
  3. ‘Increase your xx with yyy’ – How to improve, how to make it better.
  4. ‘A guide to’ – Implies that it contains all the information you need, and you no longer have to search any further. A bit more specific than just making life easier.
  5. ‘It’s a race’ – Will provide the fastest or quickest way to achievement.
  6. ‘Where what or how’– Need for self-actualization.
  7. ‘If I were you’ – Not how, but why we should do something.
  8. ‘What we do when’ – Transparency builds trust, touches the need for safety, used by e.g. Buffer.
  9. ‘Question’ – Posing any problem as a question – make them think immediately, creates intrigue and curiosity, the need for validation (i.e. they solved the problem the way I would, or I learnt something new today about an issue I care about).
  10. Backed by science – if you trust the source, it plays on your need to correct a learning bias.
  11. ‘Why x people do x’ or ‘here’s why’ – Citing the type of people that your audience looks up to is a powerful incentive to read the article. “The people you most admire and look up to have an inordinate amount of influence on how you think and feed about yourself, and the kind of decisions you make.”
  12. ‘Experience has taught well’ – what we have learned from a specific experience, that will help you not to make the same mistakes, or how to improve something after an experience.
  13. ‘Let me list them out for you’ – Listicles or number posts provides clear expectations and has proven to be very popular. It is commonly used to create viral posts e.g. Buzzfeed.
  14. ‘The simple …’ creates an impression of making life easy, a simple way of doing something appeals to the need for achievement without too much effort (similar to 2 but more specific).
  15. ‘Don’t be stupid’ or ‘mistakes to avoid’ – No one wants to be thought of as a fool, this touches on their desire to be accepted, and can be extremely compelling (e.g. using words like mistakes and avoid)
  16. ‘Don’t be ignorant’ – people want to be in the know and belong to their social groups and fit in, so ‘x things you need to know about x’ make for compelling hooks in titles.
  17. ‘Everyone loves competition’ – A very powerful headline format, it allows 3rd party reviews a vs b vs c, and provides again for the desire to be accepted, knowing the differences and benefits of important tools etc.
  18. ‘Infographic’ – If you have an infographic in your article state it in the title as it generates more clicks, people love visual content as it is fun, easy to read and remember, and generates more shares. Also linked to making life easier.
  19. ‘No one will ever tell you’ – FOMO (fear of missing out) is a powerful psychological need that is met by clicking on these types of titles, learning things that is presented as special.
  20. ‘Stop doing this’ is a very powerful headline type, people like reading about the benefits of not doing something wrong that they did not know was wrong or damaging.
  21. ‘Clickbait’ – Leaves you hanging until you click, for example, the ‘what happens next’ type of headline, used to a great extent by e.g. Upworthy.  It crashes in on curiosity but remembers you must deliver on content otherwise it can become very annoying and lose future readers.

If you want your content to be shared, you must write perfect, attention-grabbing headlines, that will stand out like ‘highlighted’ text. Use a mix of the ideas provided above. Understanding what drives your audience or potential customer’s needs from a psychological perspective is vital to hitting the sweet spot in writing compelling headlines – it will help you get noticed, get read, get shared!

Robin Khokhar

I do web development and SEO. But when I get time, I do write and share tips and tricks about marketing and technology.

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