The Scientific Guide to Creating Sticky Headlines

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origin_121656244You’re in a fight.

You know that, right?

No, you won’t be throwing punches and trying to knock someone out.   But you are in a fight to capture the hearts and minds of readers.

Every day, thousands of new posts are published to the blogosphere all competing for the attention of their readers.

Being the smart blogger that you are, you know that the absolute best way to capture that attention is to create a throat grabbing headline.

Immediately, your mind races to the various headline formulas that have worked for you:

  1. “List” headlines
  2. “How to” headlines
  3. “Step-by-step” headlines

There are a lot of effective headline hacks that you can employ to get the attention of your readers?

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • Why most headline formulas fail
  • How to create a “sticky headline”
  • 3 headlines that you can steal today

The Psychology behind Why Headline Formulas Increase Traffic

According to Social Triggers and Wired Magazine, George Lowenstien, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University developed a theory called “the information gap theory of curiosity.”

Lowenstein says “curiosity is rather simple: It comes when we feel a gap ‘between what we know and what we want to know.’” (source)

He goes on to say “This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain. We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.”

That’s why these headline formulas increase traffic.

They create a sense of curiosity that almost forces your readers to open the post and scratch that itch.

Imagine for a second that you’re a blogger looking to leverage Facebook as a way to get more readers and you come across a post titled “How to get more readers to your blog from Facebook.”

It’d be extremely hard for you not to click on that post.  You would need to scratch that itch.

The Problem with Current Headline Formulas…

Is that you aren’t looking to just get readers to your blog, are you?

If you were, you wouldn’t be scouring the web to improve your writing and create compelling content that will give you that edge.

Instead, you would continue to do what works and continue to gain more readers.

But let’s face it.  You’re looking to make a dent in the universe.

Imagine again that you’re a blogger looking to leverage Facebook.  You begin to click on multiple posts titled “How to get more traffic using Facebook” and bunch of other variations.

What happens?  All of the posts begin to run together becoming indecipherable to your brain.  Psychologists call this cognitive overload and you passively read post after post after post.  You never truly connect with the blogger or the message.

You simply read the post and forget about it five minutes later.

Three Reasons Why Headlines are Forgotten

1. The Headline is Too Vague

Human beings are extremely good at relating to specifics.  Specific details enable your readers to create pictures in their heads that make your content resonate with your audience.  (Richard Nordquist PhD, English)

Unfortunately most headlines use vague words like “more” as in “get more readers with Facebook” or “how to increase Facebook traffic”.  These headlines will draw some curiosity, but a person can’t create a clear picture in their head what more readers is.

Ultimately, these kinds of headlines will tickle your reader’s curiosity for a short amount of time, but in the end, they’ll fade into obscurity.

2. The Headline is “Me too”

Let’s keep with the Facebook traffic theme.  In 2014, if you write a headline titled “10 Ways to Get More Traffic with Facebook”, chances are your reader is going believe they can guess most of them.

Instead of reading the post to learn something new, they’re going to read the post to confirm what you’re already saying.

These posts have been written hundreds, if not thousands of times in the past.

Unless your target audience is completely new to the blogosphere and yours is one of the first blogs they read, this type of headline is going to inspire a passive reader, regardless if your content is new and exciting.

3. The Headline is Over-Hyped

On the flips side, the over-hyped headline is where the blogger tries too hard to stand out.  If you write a headline that over promises, you will generate readers, but they will discredit and eventually ignore you.

The Cure for Headlines that Fade into Obscurity

The absolute best way to create a headline that will be remembered is to create a “sticky” headline.

Unfortunately, most bloggers don’t know how to create them, which is why most blog posts are skimmed or overlooked completely.

A sticky headline, however, pops out in a sea of homogenous titles inside your readers’ inbox or RSS feed.

The sticky headline fastens itself to your readers’ memory banks like Velcro.

And it forces your readers to take action, so they can tell you how brilliant you are.

How to Create a Sticky Headline

In their book “Made to Stick” Chip and Dan Heath argue that ideas become sticky when they become concrete.

From their book:  A concrete idea is one that can be experienced with the senses.  For instance a V8 Engine is a concrete idea.  Shut your eyes and you can hear it growl, see the shiny chrome, and touch the steal.

On the other hand, the phrase “more power” is an abstract idea.  We can’t experience “more power” with our senses.

To get a feel for just how powerful creating a concrete idea can be, take the story of The Fox and the Grapes:

One hot summer day a Fox was strolling through an orchard.  He saw a bunch of Grapes ripening high on a grape vine.  “Just the thing to quench my thirst,” he said.  Backing up a few paces, he took a run and jumped at the grapes, just missing.  Turning around again, he ran faster and jumped again.  Still a miss.  Again and again he jumped until at last he gave up out of exhaustion.  Walking away with his nose in the air, he said: “I am sure they are sour.”  It is easy to despise what you can’t get.

“This story was written by a slave named Aesop over 2500 years ago.  You may not remember all of the details, but certainly you remember the profound truths encoded in the fable.

The concrete images evoked by the fable- the grapes, the fox, the dismissive comment about sour grapes – allowed its message to persist.” (source “Made to Stick”)

By adding concrete ideas to your headline, you’ll create a post that will be easier for your readers to remember and pass along to their friends.

3 Ways to Make Your Headline More Concrete

I have a confession to make.  Initially, I was going to call this post “The Ultimate Guide to Creating a More Powerful Headline.”

But then I wouldn’t have been following my own advice.  I used the phrase “sticky headlines” for two reasons.

First, for the folks who have read the book “Made to Stick” there is a good chance that you saw this headline and were able to see the correlation I was trying to make.  My hope is these readers would naturally gravitate toward the post.

Second, for the people who have never read the book, the word “sticky” is something you can easily imagine.  Perhaps you’re imagining duct tape, or the way a child’s hand feels after they’ve eaten dessert.

This extra dimension will make a deeper impression in your brain.

Creating a sticky headline doesn’t have to be that complicated though.  Let me show you three easy strategies you can implement right now.

1. A Quantifiable Benefit

The first way to create a concrete headline is to have a quantifiable benefit.

For instance, “Get More Traffic from Facebook” is kind of boring and what you’d typically see in the blogosphere.  We can do a lot better!

Instead, we can say “Get your first 1,000 Facebook Fans.”  A person can shut their eyes and easily envision the impact 1,000 Facebook fans would have on their blog.

There would be more readers.  There would be more social medial shares and more comments.  There would be the beginning of a community.  Every new bloggers dream.

By adding a quantifiable benefit, you’re accomplishing two things.  First you’re laser targeting the type of reader you want to see the post.  And second, you’re giving them a realistic goal to strive for.

2. A Specific Time Frame

The second way to create a concrete headline is to have a specific time frame.

An example would be “5 Days to More Facebook Traffic”.

When a person can see the finish line, they’re far more likely to start.

The key here is to make sure the finish line is not too far away, nor are you promising an overnight result.

Both will lead the reader to skip the post.  Make sure to find that sweet spot.

3. Combine the Two

If you’re looking to create an unforgettable headline that will be devoured by your readers, combine the quantifiable benefit with the specific time frame.

For instance:  “Get your first 1,000 Facebook Fans in 60 Days”

If you saw this headline and you were looking to get more traffic from Facebook, you would be forced to open the post and take action.

After all, you want your readers to take action, right?  That’s how you make your dent in the universe.

Steal these Headline Examples

All of this may sound great in theory, but let’s take a look to see how it works in the real world.  When I was looking for headlines to show you, finding those that were concrete AND sparked curiosity wasn’t easy.

This is good news for you.  It’s your opportunity to stand out.

Mixergy

Imagine for a second that you’re just starting a business.  You’re looking for those first few customers who are going to help you get your fledgling company off the ground.

Then you stumble on this headline:

Mixergy Image

You’d probably think to yourself “I don’t know who the heck Amber Maids is, but I want to know how they got their first $10K in 3 months.”

Not only that, after you watch the interview, you’re going to be compelled to put the advice into action.  Or you’d be stupid not to.

This headline could’ve read “How Amber Maids Successfully Launched Their Business.”  But that headline falls kind of flat.

The audience on Mixergy would probably assume they know what the advice would be and either listen passively or not watch the interview at all.

Appliances Online via CrazyEgg

The next headline was so memorable, and spread so fast, that I couldn’t even find the original source.  It was created from this Facebook Case Study about a company called Appliances Online.

Appliances Online

Take a look at what happens when you google “From 2,500 to 1 million fans in 2 years”.

Appliances online 2

There are dozens of articles and mentions about this blog post and story.

When you read this article, you can’t help but pay careful attention, take notes, and take action.  You know it’s not going to contain the same drivel that all of the other Facebook marketing and traffic posts contain.

The title is extremely memorable.  In six months from now, you probably won’t remember the name of the company, but you will recall the story of a Facebook page that got 1 million fans in 2 years.

If the article had been called “How to get more Facebook fans” or “7 Steps to More Facebook Fans”, do you really think it would’ve become the sensation it did?

QuickSprout

This next headline will resonate with all of us trying to grow our blog.  Neil Patel of Quicksprout never set out to write another “How to get more traffic” post.  It’s been done.  There was nothing new he could say.

Instead, he wanted to create a post that will leave his readers with real advice that they could implement right away.

Quicksprout

As a blogger, when you think of what 100,000 visitors a month would mean to your blog, you can’t help but get excited.  Your heart pumps a little faster and you refocus your mind to filter out the sea of boring headlines and zooms in on this one.

Where is your blog going to be 18 months from now?  Will you be approaching 100,000 visits a month or are you going to read the myriad of other “me too” posts.

You can’t help but click, right?

How do Your Headlines Compare?

Do yourself a favor.  Read the headlines of the last 10-15 posts you’ve written.  Take some time and evaluate them as objectively as possible.

Are they concrete headlines that will be remembered by your readers?  Or do they contain some vague promise that you added to a headline formula?

Does the headline make your post irresistible to read?  Or do they conform to a sea of mediocrity, blending in with the thousands of other “me-too” headlines?

3 Steps to Create a Memorable Headline

The truth is, if you implement this headline strategy, it will change the way you write your next post.  You’re not going to be able to open up your word processor and begin writing.

Here’s what to do instead:

Step 1:  Choose a topic just like you normally would that is related to your niche.

Step 2:  Ask yourself if you can add either a quantifiable benefit or a specific time frame to your post.  Can you tell the story about how you got more readers to your blog in 30 days?  Or can you tell the story about how you helped a friend drop 15 pounds without starving herself?

Think about how you can integrate these stories into your blog post to make them more personal, inspiring, and most of all, memorable.

Step 3:  Now you’re ready to take the story you’re going to tell and frame it into a traditional headline formula.

This will generate the curiosity you need to get someone to read your post and combine it with the concrete attributes that will make it stick like Velcro in their brain.

Are You ready to Make a Dent in the Universe?

After all, that is the only question left to as.

You have two choices.

You can close this post, write it off as “interesting” and completely forget that you ever read it.

Or you can take this new found knowledge to create sticky headlines.  You’ll leave an indelible impression on the minds of your readers forcing them to remember you and compelling them to take action.

Then you can sit back and smile as everyone tells you what a genius you are.

To help make this choice a no-brainer, I’ll make you a deal.

Write your best “sticky headline” in the comments section below and I’ll give you my honest too goodness feedback so you can take full advantage of this tool.

So stop reading and start writing.

I’ll see you in the comments!

photo credit: iphegenia1 via photopin cc

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Greg Digneo
Greg Digneo is the founder of Cloud Marketing Labs, where he is about to launch a new blog where he shares his journey to go from 140 to 10,000 email subscribers..
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