How To Write Headlines That Don't Suck

Every headline is clickbait.
Is that controversial?

Perhaps. A headline’s integral purpose is to bait a click, or provoke a reader's interest and curiosity. The controversy in “clickbaiting” rises from low-quality content that doesn’t fulfill the promise in the headline — but I’m going to assume your content is amazing, brilliant, flawless, timeless, a modern masterpiece. (If not, get it sorted!)

The web is dominated by content kings such as Buzzfeed, Huffington Post and Wired. Positively saturated. All over the ethersphere, their posts and articles are viewed, shared, liked, upvoted, tweeted and spread by you.

In the first half of 2021, Buzzfeed pulled in 110,000,000 visits. As I said, dominated.

I’m going to tell you the story of how one tiny little company squeezed their way in and threatened them all.

Part 1: How Upworthy Took the Industry by the Balls

In 2012, Upworthy was created. The website features meaningful news stories that are designed to go viral. Sounds pretty standard, right?

You won’t believe the next thing I’m about to say! Okay, you probably will. Damn…now the dramatic effect has worn off.

Upworthy is one of the most rapidly growing content producers on the web. One article nets an estimated 75,000 Facebook likes, 12x those of Buzzfeed’s, who still gets significantly more website visits.

We’re living in an online world dominated by Facebook and, 3 years after being founded, Upworthy proved themselves king of that realm.

Upworthy claims that their content is ‘meaningful’ and awesome. I could argue that my high school journal entries are meaningful and awesome, too, but there’s a reason no one has bothered to read them!

Content matters, of course. But there’s definitely more to it than that.

Upworthy’s Secret Weapon – Influential Headlines

Simply put, their headlines drive the website’s booming success.

While their style might seriously irritate some readers, when it comes to conversion, their headlines work. They work fantastically. Here’s why:

They trigger curiosity

Like hunger, or sex, or some other primal instinct, curiosity is a powerful motivator. It creates an information gap, where the curiosity trigger (the headline) alerts us of a gap in our knowledge (the content).

In fact, scientists are extremely curious about the phenomenon of curiosity. Another study concluded:

“…a small amount of knowledge can pique curiosity and prime the hunger for knowledge, much as an olfactory or visual stimulus can prime a hunger for food.” –Source

Upworthy uses curiosity as a tool to build your anticipation to their content, much like food adverts might build your desire for your favorite treat.

Phrases that withhold knowledge — like “you won’t believe what happened next” — literally make you hungry to read more. It is this simple, primal technique that has driven much of Upworthy’s success.

They’re ‘social media compatible’

Upworthy’s headlines provoke your curiosity, all the while being informal, almost conversational. Their headlines almost read like a conversation between teenage friends.

“Dude, you won’t believe what happens to this kid when he tries a quadruple backflip from his roof! Check this out.”

Besting Buzzfeed’s Facebook likes conversion by 12x (or, 1200%) proves the effectiveness of this conversational approach.

Upworthy understands the power of social media and creates content that will benefit from the shareability of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

Each headline is rigorously tested

I’m sure most of you have heard of A/B testing. Simply put, it’s a marketing analysis technique that tests the success of two variations of content.

In Upworthy’s case, they test the success of headline variants, e.g. version A — “This kid does a quadruple backflip from his roof. You won’t believe what happens next!” — against version B — “Watch this kid perform the most amazing quadruple backflip I’ve ever seen.”

Each variant is tested using software that sends a portion of visitors to each. It can then measure the most successful variant of the two.

Upworthy do this…boy, do they do this. In fact, they test 25 headline variations, or A/B/C/D/E/F/G/H...(etc) testing.

Their headlines might be annoying. Some derisively call their curiosity-gap method clickbaiting.

But each apparently mindless headline is finely crafted and tested, and their results comes from a great deal of effort and consideration.

Despite their reputation, Upworthy’s headlines are designed to get the maximum possible clicks and traffic, and they certainly achieve that goal.

Note: Learn from Upworthy’s Success, but don’t copy! There’s a whole slew of Upworthy copycats. Learn from Upworthy’s successes, but don’t copy them. Unoriginality will only hurt your business.

Besides, Upworthy has a monopoly on their signature headline style to the point that people loathe them for it. Find your own signature style.

Part 2: Writing Influential Headlines (aka The Art of Seduction)

You’ve learned from Upworthy’s controversial success. It’s time to learn the skills and techniques that will do your grunt work. Marketing has a great deal in common with seduction, or, at least, that’s what marketers keep saying.

Pick-up artists and marketers alike are evil, manipulative masterminds. Ok, maybe not evil, but definitely masterminds.

Statistically, 80% of visitors read the headline, and 20% read the actual content. You have to be strategic to overcome those odds.

If a website’s landing page is — in seduction terms — the first date, the headline is, well, the first conversation. You want your headline to entice your reader to stick around and eventually commit (subscribing, following, or buying).

There are a variety of ways you can do that. I’ve shown you some of Upworthy’s tricks, but there are many others. Each of the following tips has one vital asset in mind: your reader’s attention and how to seize it.

Use numbers, facts and statistics

Yes, I know. Zzz … numbers, dull and dreary. Well, I beg to differ.

Conductor found that headlines including numbers were, by far, the most successful, at 36% of readers preference. In second place were headlines that address readers directly — at 21%.

That’s a huge gap. And the numbers don’t lie.

Numbers are tangible. People know a list of benefits, insights or ideas will be far more legible, understandable and require less time commitment than your 8,000-word novella about Jean-Luc Godard. (…and unlike your readers, I’d actually read that).

Facts and statistics also create the impression of authority.

Knowledge is power, folks. Ok, maybe not according to Cersei Lannister, who rather blatantly stated “power is power“ (and look where she ended up!).

People will assume that you either hold or have direct access to expertise when you state a fact in your headline.

For a seriously in-depth guide to writing with numbers, check out Printwand. Sheesh, talk about a niche article topic.

Be Direct — Your Readers Are Counting On You!

Nothing will grab your reader’s attention more than addressing them directly (besides using numbers, of course. Try using both!). Good old Lord Kitchener is probably the most famous examples:

The direct, second-person language is extremely powerful, and the British Army knew it. Contrast “Lord Kitchener Wants YOU” to “We Need Willing Recruits,” or some other weak garbage. The difference is stark, is it not?

Addressing your readers directly pulls them in. It takes your writing from a passive voice to an active one. It makes it personal.

In reality, your readers want personal content. There’s nothing more seductive than being direct and shifting the dialogue so your reader is the subject.

Use interesting, powerful word choice

Whip out that thesaurus, kid, you’re going to need it (just not like Joey from Friends). Word choice can do a few things for your headlines:

  • Stimulate Intrigue — adjectives such as “extraordinary,” “fascinating,” “amazing” and “awesome” will intrigue your readers, grab their attention, and make clicking or reading so much more tempting.
  • Create Drama — words such as “kill,” “fear,” “dark” or “death” create a sense of urgency and importance. Sure, it might be melodrama to talk about the death of “big data,” but for creating highly shareable, attention-grabbing headlines, this method works.
  • Raise Doubts — Following in a similar vein, use negative words such as “no,” “stop” and “without” to tap into people’s insecurities. “10 habits you should start” is weaker (see what I did there?) than “10 habits you should stop.”

Keep it short, stupid! Or, ramble on and lose your reader’s interest

It’s true, Upworthy is the exception with their 2- to 3-line headlines. However, you’ll generally want to keep your headlines shorter rather than longer, and there are a few reasons for this.

From an SEO (search engine optimization) point of view, only 65 characters of your headline are shown in search engines, and anything else is cut off.

You’ll want to keep your headlines at the length of half a tweet (140 characters).

10 Powerful, awesome ways that small business owners can unleash their full…” is far less effective than “10 Powerful Marketing Techniques that will double your revenue.”

Why? Simply because the latter is under 65 characters and browsers can actually understand what the content is about without committing.

If you’re uncertain about applying all of this (insanely) useful advice, try out this formula to craft an effective, influential headline:

Number or Trigger Word + Adjective + Keyword + Promise

Before Formula: Interesting Travel Secrets

After Formula: 8 Amazing Travel Secrets You Didn’t Know About

Part 3: Got a Headline? Good. Write 10 more, and Test ‘Em All

If there’s one thing to learn from Upworthy, it’s their admirably rigorous process of headline creation.

As I previously mentioned, they write 25 headline variations. In fact, Ginny Sorskey suggests that you spend 50% of your time on headline creation alone.

This might not be feasible depending on your content (I’m looking at you, 8,000-word French art film novella). However, the sentiment is the same; headlines are important, probably as important as your content. Treat them so.

Once you have these variations (be it 5, or 10, or 25), you’ll have a general idea of recurring themes and ideas that you can choose from.

Here’s an example of what your headline creation process might look like:

Headline 1: ‘The Ultimate Guide to Writing Headlines’

Not bad…’ultimate’ is pretty expressive. Bit bland, could do better.

Headline 2: ‘3 Headline Writing Tips to Make Your Content Go Viral’

Numbers are good, they indicate that there isn’t much of a time commitment. ‘Viral’ is a decent incentive. Still, a bit clunky.

Headline 3: ‘Your Headlines Suck – 3 Expert Insights to make them awesome’

Directness and ‘fear’ motivator of terrible headlines are good. Bit long!

Headline 4: ‘3 Expert Insights to Writing Awesome Headlines’

I like this, nice and short/punchy. It’s on the shortlist. Let’s play around.

Headline 5: ‘Bad Headlines Kill Your Stats – 3 ways to avoid this’

Not bad, definitely shorter and keeps the ‘fear’ factor.

Headline 6: ‘3 Amazing Tips to Avoid Terrible Headlines’

This is good, better than number 3 and 5. Shortlisted!

You can see how the process works. It is time-consuming, but certainly worth it. Once you have a shortlist of a few headlines, it’s time to hone it down to one option.

Testing Your Headlines — Time to Get Serious

Like Upworthy, I want you to rigorously test your headlines; there’s a very good chance that they, well… suck a little. At least from a conversion point of view.

Perhaps your second-choice headline outperforms your favorite. The thing is, your personal opinion probably doesn’t align 100% with your readers’. That’s why testing is so important.

To start with, I suggest using A/B testing. This simply compares two variants (Headline A and Headline B) and determines how successful they are with your audience.

Twitter is actually a decent platform to try it out. Give this a shot:

  1. Decide on two headline variations that you like.
  2. Create separate pages for these variations on your website (e.g.,, and
  3. Link each variation on Twitter at a similar time of the day (make sure to include the respective headlines in your tweet along with the link!)
  4. Check out your traffic statistics. You’ll be able to determine which headline variation was the most successful from visits, favorites and retweets.

More advanced programs can obviously produce far more valuable information and accurate insights.

FigPii is a low cost option to get you started. Convert is another alternative and has terrific guides on the process of A/B testing.

You’ll be addicted when you see the value of testing. When changing one word increases your site visits by, say, 20%, you’ll be dying to learn more.

Once you get a good grasp of the process of A/B testing, you can move on to a paid plan (if you require the features), and learn about more complex testing methods such as multivariate testing (similar to A/B testing, but tests different combinations of content).

The End of this Article (and the Start of Something Beautiful)

A headline might seem simple.

It’s true: Writing a decent headline is simple. However, writing a truly awesome headline, one that’s effective and optimized for maximum conversion … well, that’s a little trickier.

With the advice I’ve given, you’ll be able to seduce, intrigue and influence your readers, not only to click on your headline, but to keep reading, so they’ll see the flawless, brilliant content you’re investing so much energy into.

Give it a go. I know you have it in you!


© NerveCentral