How Psychology Can Help You Write Effective Headlines

Many moons ago, when I was in journalism school, my professors were former newspaper and magazine editors. They were kind, but no-nonsense people who wouldn’t hesitate to give you a failing grade if Microsoft Word automatically changed the spelling of the company name Mobil to “Mobile” and you didn’t catch it (a true story) and were ruthless with a red pen. Don’t even get me started on what would happen if they found a factual error in something you submitted for class (I have stress-nightmares about it to this day).

You can imagine, then, what their philosophy was for headlines. They hammered home that we should be concise and practical when writing those all-important one-liners – but equally emphasised that we needed to identify what makes for a good “hook” without leaning too hard on scandal, and never on hyperbole. Yellow journalism, this was not.

However, I was a bright-eyed reporter-in-training right at the moment traditional print publications were shifting online, suddenly gating digital content, and paying more attention to what made people click a link. Suddenly, newsrooms the world over began wondering how, exactly, they could entice people to give their valuable clicks to hard news outlets rather than sensational tabloids or savvy blogs adept in “clickbait,” that yellow journalism scourge of the digital realm.

And well…I don’t have to tell you what happened next.

Today, clickbait has evolved, and most (okay, maybe not most, but many) people have learned how to identify what’s legitimate from what is deeply not when it comes to digital news outlets. But the reality is that a tawdry headline is always going to be enticing and is always surprisingly effective – after all, we’ve all been the person who clicks through on something we know is engineered to do just that.

And there’s something that can be learned from that, right? A lesson in how to capture attention, how to motivate someone to click on your link, to visit your site, to give your brand a chance. Really, it all comes down to applying psychology to the written word – and that’s the thing that clickbait does shockingly well. So, here are a few psychology-based, tried-and-true tricks for writing headlines that get results…without necessarily resorting to clickbait.

Never underestimate a “personal” touch

In the era of data-driven personalisation, making your headlines speak “directly” to people can go a long way – and you can do this without the use of Big Data by addressing your readers as “you” and “your.” (See what I did there?). By using this tactic, the headline seems less like news and more like a conversation that conveys a sense of closeness, while also making the reader feel as if your content, service, or product is for them, specifically. Which is never a bad thing.

Rely on the power of numbers

If there’s one thing most people dislike, it’s uncertainty. Whether it’s not knowing how long you have to wait in a line, being unsure of the weather forecast for the day, or not feeling clued in to why changes around the office are happening, uncertainty makes us uncomfortable and untrusting. It’s because of this that including numbers or stats in a headline can give people a reason to click – to put it simply, our brains love information, and data makes it easy for our brains to trust new information.

Embrace negativity

This might seem counterintuitive to some, but the reality is that positive headlines simply don’t perform as well as negative ones. We’re somehow wired to have a strong emotional response to negative words rather than to positive ones, so headlines that use negativity are often more appealing. In psychology, this tendency to be attracted to and remember negative things is called negativity bias – for good or for ill, we’re just more interested in and curious about negativity than positivity. And because of that, headlines that sound negative are more effective at capturing attention.

Count on the curiosity gap

When people believe there’s something they don’t know, they immediately want to fill in that hole in their knowledge. This is the psychological phenomenon called the curiosity gap: the need to know what you don’t know once it’s pointed out to you. Often, headlines that exploit the curiosity gap to the extreme are what we think of as classic clickbait: You’ll NEVER BELIEVE what Harry Styles did on stage last night!!! or You’ve probably been brushing your teeth wrong your entire life.

These types of headlines make us feel as if there’s something we should know, but that we don’t know – and psychologically, we want to change that as soon as possible. Thus, we click. The rub here is that our curiosity really does need to be sated – so if your content doesn’t give people what they’re so desperate for, you’ll just end up angering your audience rather than reeling them in.

Ask a question

It’s a classic for a reason – asking a question is how we break the ice, network when we’re nervous, and save sinking meetings. When you ask a question in a headline, you’re priming your reader’s brain to feel curiosity and to seek out the answer by clicking on your link. But again: you need to provide the answer to keep people interested and engaged. 

So there you have it! Five ways into headline writing that can help you boost your click-through rate, whether it’s for a thought leadership blog, a lead generation project, or a sales campaign – and anything in between. Just keep in mind that readers are savvy, and anything too clickbait-y might do more harm than good. Well, depending on your brand, that is.

Need help coming up with headlines that’ll capture your audience’s attention? Our content team can help! Drop us a line at [email protected]

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