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Being a successful copywriter is a lot more than simply loving words, then writing them down. While every writer will have his or her own personal tastes, what matters most is what words really work.
Everything you write should be written to affect audiences. You need to make them feel, and as a content marketer, you need to make them act.
The first and most important act you need them to take is to read. Getting people to read your words means having good headlines, great headlines that can create catchy headlines. Making the best headlines of all time is all in your choice of words.
A headline is the introduction of your work to your audience. As we’ve previously pointed out how to write great headlines, today we’re going to get into the real granular detail of the most powerful words to use when composing yours.
The good news is, you now have more words to play with! Google has increased the length of titles and meta descriptions on the results page. The average length of a viral headline is 70-71 characters. You have more space than you used to.
All the way back in 1963, the granddaddy of advertising David Ogilvy published a list of 20 words that made the biggest difference to his work.
Today we’ll see how many of them have stood the test of time.
Your aim is to get people to click. So-called click-baiting has turned this into an art form by aggressively removing key information, and instead focusing on hyperbole. (Read why clickbait headline is bad for your website.) By now, I’m sure you’ve clicked on at least one article like:
Click-bait makes a promise of value to the reader – it infers that the answer is inside the body content. What most people don’t realize is that before they read the headline, there was no question to be answered. The headline gives enough of a context that you know the general area the content is talking about while creating a key gap in the story.
“You won’t believe” marks that content out as extraordinary, while “insulted” gives you a clear emotional arc to follow.
That said, click-bait fatigue is now a thing, and people are actively campaigning against the practice. The main criticism is that creating a ‘curiosity gap’ obligates you to click through manipulation, instead of making you want to.
Ultimately, it’s a negative motivation that creates a sense of lack, instead of one of fulfillment. In the long term, this often means disappointment and negative reinforcement.
What we can take away, however, is everything that works. For blog headlines, that boils down to an identifiable series of power words that create predictable effects in audiences.
Together, these words help make headlines punchier and more emotive. Combined with timing, engagement and the pop-cultural capital of your content, you can maximize your chances of making that content go viral.
As such, I’ve delved deep into the places that do it best. BuzzFeed, ViralNova, UpWorthy, and Wimp all attract more than four million unique monthly visitors, and this traffic is fuelled by headline-motivated clicks and shares, primarily through social media.
These are the top 10 words that help to create powerful motivations in readers.
We live in a time of greater immediacy than ever before. Science fiction writers talked about future-shock in the 1970s when the pace of new inventions was considered dizzying. There was even talk of a technological singularity when our pace of invention exponentially outstripped our own human ability to keep pace with it.
Now, development is accelerating faster than ever, but our appetite for new things still hasn’t diminished.
The power of new comes from three key elements:
A product is either new or it isn’t. In that way, it’s an easy claim that cannot be challenged. If you say ‘better’ or ‘cheaper’, people will need more information to believe the claim.
Our whole society is built on progress. As such, it’s unlikely the new iPhone will be worse than its predecessor. As such, we associate new with better.
If something is new to us, we didn’t know about it before. As such, it creates the ‘curiosity gap’ of click bait without withholding information.
New is powerful. It will capture the attention of an audience for free, but to make the most of its power you need to associate it with something compelling. A new article doesn’t automatically matter to anyone but fans of the writer. A new treatment for cancer matters to everyone.
The internet is full of vague concepts and broad, sweeping statements. In a time that is more uncertain than ever, and a content landscape that offers more variety than ever, people want something concrete to focus on and invest their energy in. This offers you a way to create catchy headlines with little effort.
We’ve come to think of “the” as the definite article. But this is even more definite.
It isn’t a car, it isn’t the car, it’s this car.
When you know you’re reading about something singular, you’re more willing to invest more energy to get high-quality content from it.
Like ‘new’ and ‘now’, ‘this’ is a thing that demands your immediate attention.
That power comes from a hidden antithesis: don’t look at that, looks at this!
There are degrees in everything. Good, better, best. Fast, faster, fastest. If I asked you whether you wanted a fast bike or the fastest bike, what would your answer be? Exactly.
As such, giving people the most powerful, the most effective, the most controversial content will give people the most compelling reason to read. It is the first superlative in this list because it is the most flexible and adaptive. Here’s why:
If something is the most impressive, there is nothing more impressive. It is quintessential, which means it’s five times as essential! You have to read it.
When people are looking for information online, they want crystalline, perfect examples that are easy to grasp. ‘Most’ makes sure all your content is considered an ultimate exemplar, increasing its value and relevance.
If people know your niche and you use the word most, it can also create an ‘impress me’ instinct in experts. If they disagree with your assessment, they are almost bound to comment. As such, ‘most’ will easily help generate more discussion.
Almost any topic can benefit from the power that most can add to good title for a blog.
In The Social Network, the first scene establishes what the whole movie is about. Exclusivity. The sense of exclusivity is what helped Facebook generate its first million users.
Exclusivity is what can bring you one million readers. In writing, we often say ‘show, don’t tell’, but the use of the word exclusive is an exception to that rule. If you have an exclusive, you better make sure everybody knows.
If you have an exclusive, it means no one else does. People can’t find out what you’re about to tell them from other people, so they have to come to you.
Diamonds and gold are expensive because they’re rare. Exclusivity immediately creates a big impact on value.
People respect the fact that you’re sweating to bring them best-quality work. If you’ve driven yourself hard enough to root out an exclusive, people will be grateful to you for it, and it will build massive loyalty among fans. It might seem a weird example, but Perez Hilton became a millionaire off the back of exclusives, even if they weren’t always verified.
The difficulty with exclusive is that you have to match your content to the offer. If you don’t deliver after using the word, you’ll burn your audience and a lot of bridges in the process.
There is always a piece of hyperbole that becomes commonplace in everyday conversation. A few years ago, that was ‘awesome’. Right now, it’s amazing.
To me, that’s no surprise. When we’re amazed, we feel a sense of revelation that the definition of what’s possible has just changed. We live in a truly amazing time when that seems to happen every day. As such, if you can provide amazing content, you’re guaranteeing your audience they’ll feel better after reading than they did before.
Unlike the ‘awe’ in awesome, which actually includes a connotation of fear and relative inadequacy for the person feeling it, ‘amazing’ is positively motivated, as amazement means we are surprised and entertained.
People use the word amazing in their own lives, and as such your language positively reinforces their own tastes and choices. This is what we learned from ‘awesome’, and it’s working here too.
Unlike ‘most’, which has a connotation of the absolute about it, amazing is a subjective term. Someone who has never been to a new country will be amazed by what the people there think of as everyday behavior. This means you technically can’t use it wrongly.
As such, amazing is a flexible and light-hearted superlative. Unfortunately, with all superlatives, they offer diminishing returns through overuse. Amazing is yet to peak, but keep an eye out for what might take its place.
How To articles are some of the most popular online, and that’s because they’re effective. They’re catchy blog post titles because they offer an immediate solution to a problem the reader has. They can also offer solutions to problems the reader might not realize they have.
People have a problem and you’re promising to fix it. This is the oldest form of marketing in the book. However, you’re also telling them how to do it themselves, so they save money by reading. A double win.
These articles can establish you as an authority in your field because you know something the reader doesn’t, but you’ve elected to share it with them. This will build loyalty.
You’re helping people take control of the challenges in their lives, and people will always be grateful to you for that.
Who is your content for? That’s right, the audience. Your audience needs to be addressed, and there’s no better way to do that than to make it personal.
Each reader feels like you’re speaking directly to them.
For you as a writer, using ‘you’ not only in your title but your content will make sure you don’t get self-indulgent.
“Your” is the equivalent for when you’re talking about people’s possessions, performance or problems. It makes it about the things people care about in their own lives, which means relevancy is guaranteed.
Journalists know that the curiosity that drives us all is based on several fundamentals. What, which, and when are three of those most powerful fundamentals. As such, they address the foundations of what drive people to discover more.
Whether a question ‘what can you do?’ or a statement ‘what you can do’ it tells you that the content offers something useful.
Choice paralysis is increasingly common in modern times, and ‘which’ can allow you to offer your readers a solution to that paralysis, by comparing and ranking possible solutions.
Articles with ‘when’ in the title aim to offer specific solutions to situations people find themselves in, whether using third party examples or offering advice in hypothetical circumstances.
Every one of these offers a significant answer to a common question or problem.
“Why?” is the crown jewel of questions. When children first understand the concept behind why, and how to say it, it can be all they ask their parents for months on end. While children might broaden their vocabulary, that same passion for why never leaves us. Why?
‘Why’ looks beyond the obvious into the underlying mechanisms that drive everything in the world. Those can be mechanical questions like in physics and products or behavioral questions like in psychology and marketing.
We often ask ‘why’ when we’re frustrated, and helping people relieve that frustration will make you a bringer of joy to your readers. Framing things clearly and helping people understand what is really going on is invaluable.
If you combine why with ‘really’, even people who already know something will read it as a challenge to their preconceptions and come running to find out what it is you know that they don’t.
You might feel like this is a bit of a cheat. This is all about words, and I’ve given the number one spot to numbers?! Well, all I can tell you is, they earned it. Every single one of the most dominant websites in terms of traffic, every single one uses numbers in the best headlines they publish. That’s deliberate.
This is obvious, but numbers allow people to understand exactly what quantity of content they’re going to be exposed to.
Numbers automatically help people understand they will get more than one piece of information from your content.
They establish value in the same way as currency does. Too few and it won’t feel valuable enough, too many and it will either overwhelm or feel too unfocused. 10 isn’t always the magic number, but you rarely want to go more than 12 for quality based content.
It’s as simple as this: people love lists. Most of the highest ranking headlines on Google have included numbers.
Using these words together with numbers will amplify their power.
Touching on those journalists’ questions I included, this article is a ‘what’ article. I want to leave you with some ideas about the ‘how to’ too.
What I just said about numbers is true of all these words, they’re amplifiers. But all amplifiers need something to amplify, and that more than anything is your keyword. You need to get your keyword in the title, and what’s more, as close to the beginning of the title as possible. It’s that simple.
What’s more, our very own free Blog Title Generator by SEOPressor can help you create traffic-optimized blog title ideas for your product, service, brand or industry.
We’ve also created a briefing on the best ranking strategy we’ve found for getting your articles ranked highly on Google.
That’s what we’ve done, but what can you do?
There’s an adorable comment from Reddit that has gone viral talking about the Mars Curiosity rover, talking about how curiosity is in our very nature. It’s what you need to befriend.
In our case, we know that some are confused whether to use long-form or short-form content for their readers. So we write a blog post about it to answer the question that people have been wondering for so long.
Emotions are just as powerful as curiosity but come from a more primal place. Stirring them will pay dividends.
This also leads to the reason why marketers are starting with emoji marketing campaigns nowadays.
Shy kids don’t get sweets. You need to set out your stall strongly in order stand out from the crowd, and bold claims will attract clicks.
Tell people what you want them to do. There’s nothing more simple, or more difficult. But do it well, and your conversions will soar.
It’s easy to get tangled up in the stats of SEO and “write by numbers” when using articles like these to help inform your strategy. But you can’t just do that. You need to pour yourself into your content too. That means passion and personality. People respond to people.
You can find out how to write in conversational tone to increase readership from our blog post.
If you have an exclusive get it out there as soon as possible. If you don’t, don’t just sit there! Piggyback big brands, comment on hot topics. (Read our blog post on how you can use Pokemon GO for your local business.)
Never underestimate the flexibility of metaphor: you can make a comparison with anything if you find the right perspective.
These are your golden rules. I’ve put them last because if you only remember one thing from this article, it’s this: focus on keywords that you know your audience is already searching for. Look into the search volume on those keywords and choose accordingly.
Keyword Planner is a good tool for keyword research.
Now, it’s time to play.
Mess around with new combinations of the words above, your keywords, and the suggestions from our blog title generator and see what you can come up with. You’ll find this can map out your next month’s content for you in a matter of minutes, rather than days.
Words pack a punch, some more so than others. Writing catchy headlines and creative blog post titles can help you create more viral content and grow your readership.
What words stood out to you in this headline study? How do you plan to integrate this with your next headline? Shoot me some links to what you come up with.
Updated: 17 October 2018