Jack Bauer’s Secrets to Headline Writing

If you’ve ever watched an episode of 24 you may have noticed that when Jack Bauer isn’t torturing someone for information that he relies on his team of data analysts to “mine” data to build profiles and source leads.jack-bauer-photo-pin As bloggers we know that the headline is 5 times more likely to be seen than the content and that means we need to be able to get them right so that our ideal readers click through.

In this article we are going to look at data mining  secrets for headlines. We might also torture, I mean shake down… a few bloggers on how they get headline ideas further on in the post.

What do I mean by mining headlines?

First if all I don’t  mean “steal other peoples’ headlines”. Just because you see a great one it doesn’t mean it will work for you and your content.  When you mine headlines you are  looking at headline types to trigger better ideas for your existing headlines, and working out which headline formulae was used, which benefits mentioned and then adapting them to get great results.

When it comes to headlines Google is your friend.

Bloggers love lists. So use what data is out there already, that’s exactly what the team in 24 do. Find lists of headlines by inserting search terms like “top 100 headlines” or “best headlines” in the Google search bar.

top 100 headlines

As you can see as well as predicting what you are looking for, Google is also serving you up some post ideas.

If you click through on the results you’ll start to see a pattern emerge – the types of headlines that get results. There’s no torture needed to work out how to pick out winning headline  formulae you can finish: E.G. “The Secret of ______________________”; “A Little Mistake that ____________________”.

If we continue with our mining activity and dig a little deeper we will see this post gives us a little history on why a specific headline worked.


Almost $500,000 was spent profitably to run keyed ads displaying this headline. It drew many hundreds of thousands of readers into the body matter of a “people-mover” advertisement — one which, by itself, built a big business. Pretty irresistible, isn’t it?


A sizable appropriation was spent successfully in farm magazines on this ad. Sometimes the negative idea of offsetting, reducing, or eliminating the “risk of loss” is even more attractive to the reader than the “prospect of gain.”

As the great business executive Chauncey Depew once said, “I would not stay up all of one night to make $100; but I would stay up all of seven nights to keep from losing it.” As Walter Norvath says in Six Successful Selling Techniques, “People will fight much harder to avoid losing something they already own than to gain something of greater value that they do not own.” It is also true that they have the feeling that losses and waste can often be more easily retrieved than new profits can be gained.

What farmer could pass up reading the copy under such a headline — to find out: “What was the mistake? Why was it ‘little’? Am I making it? If it cost a farmer a loss of $3,000 a year, maybe it’s costing me a lot more? Perhaps the copy will also tell me about other mistakes I might be making.”

The article has another 98 headlines and explanations for you to mine, so I suggest you check it out.

The first headline, the secret to making people like you, taps into an emotional need. We all seek social acceptance.  So let’s take it one step further:

If we write about social media would “How to get Facebook to like you” work? Would it need a little tweaking to “How to make your Facebook fans like you”? As we all have the desire to be liked and some people don’t feel liked at all, should we flip it around to “Why your Facebook fans don’t like you”?

What if we are appealing to people who want search engine traffic? How about “How to make Google love you and want to have your babies”, okay, I guess that headline will appeal to a few people in a certain niche and not everyone. And that’s the key to using headlines to attract in your ideal reader – it speaks and it speaks solely to them.

If we put our ideal reader into the headline how would that look?

  • “Women: How to get men to like you”
  • “Women: How to get rich men to like you”
  • “Women: How to get a start-up founder to like you”

By putting the ideal reader in the headline we do two things – we push away the people the post is not intended for. Then we attract in the people it was written expressly for.

What about if we blog in a tight niche? Can headlines still be mined and adapted?

Yes and that works even better!

  • Women: How to get his pet dog to like you
  • Women: The effortless way to making his parents like you
  • Women: How to get him to like the clothes you’ve bought

From that one headline “The secret to making people like you” we’ve created 8 more, and we haven’t even added the word secret in yet.

People like secrets, they are inclusive to the right people. The key to writing a good secret post is to blend little known facts with mainstream ones. There is a reason for this – with the mainstream ones you are making your reader feel smart for already “knowing” some of them, and making them more likely to appreciate the ones they didn’t know.

Sometimes a secret doesn’t have to be a secret at all to work, it can be something that’s hardly ever discussed. If you work that angle into your headline you also get the expose/shock factor come into play.

The second headline can be mined just as easily for great results

A little mistake that cost a farmer $3,000 a year: Farmer can be swapped out for pretty much any industry or niche and the amount can be varied. For sensationalism then the higher the number the more likely the headline is to be clicked.

That doesn’t mean that you can invent a number like I did in 97% of bloggers increase their readership this way post. Using real data that can be shown will always help you establish your credibility better.

  • A tiny mistake that cost a blogger $10,000 a year
  • A little mistake that cost a parent $30,000 a year
  • A small mistake that cost a forklift driver $17,000 a year
  • A common mistake that cost a truck driver $23,000 a year

As you can see the industry or niche that replaces farmer is our target audience. This headline speaks directly to them.

Walter Norvath says in Six Successful Selling Techniques, “People will fight much harder to avoid losing something they already own than to gain something of greater value that they do not own.” It is also true that they have the feeling that losses and waste can often be more easily retrieved than new profits can be gained.

Tapping into the fear of loss means you are making an emotional connection in the headline one that’s hard to fight – loss hurts and we’d rather avoid it  at every opportunity.

The ideal prospect when clicking this headline has questions they need answering and if your post addresses them then the headline that you’ve mined will yield up all the gold that you need to make them become a subscriber and eventually a customer.

But Jack Bauer wouldn’t just act upon one piece of data unless he was desperate and someone had his family held hostage, so let’s take a look at what other bloggers have to say about headlines:

#Tip: Study finds headlines with 60 to 100 characters perform best

Research from Outbrain finds 16 to 18 word headlines perform best.

The Man Knows How To Write A Catchy Headline 

Even though Adaptistration is coming up on its ten year anniversary, one of the more vexing tasks is writing concise headlines that are both catchy and descriptive; oh, to be as clever as the Daily Show writers. But one man

10 bitchin’ tips for writing irresistible headlines 

Can you see what I did there? A headline needs to grab the reader’s attention and make it impossible for them to resist finding out more.

A scientific guide to writing great headlines on Twitter, Facebook

What does it take to write great headlines for your blog, Twitter, Facebook and more? We’ve dug into the science behind writing great headlines

How Do You Write the Perfect Headline

Perfect? Wouldn’t it be subjective to say what’s perfect? Nah. From the point of view of a marketing writer of 25 years (yeah, that’d be me), a headline has one objective: inspire the reader to read the next line.

Over to you. Share your headline tips in a comment or if you just agree with everything then share this post somewhere that another 24 fan will enjoy it.

photo credit: Michali_

Sarah Arrow
Blogging an issue for you? Bah! You can do it, after all I'm an award winning blogger, and if I can do it, you can too. I've created of Birds on the Blog (listed 3 times by Forbes as a top 100 website for women) and I'm the creator of a results getting 30 day blogging challenge You want your blog to make a difference, so join my challenge and get great results from your blog. Did I mention it was free?
Sarah Arrow
Sarah Arrow

Latest posts by Sarah Arrow (see all)

There are 4 comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *