The argument against blog post headline formulas

By Brittany Taylor

Blogging

The argument against using blog post headline templates 24/7

How to write a headline that will stand out among your competition's blog posts


by Brittany Taylor

published August 10, 2016

updated May 30, 2018


Let's start with the truth: blog post headline formulas work. Those templates we pass around on Pinterest? They're traffic gold.

They are. It's why we use them. But they're also a little...boring. Generic. Been there, done that, right? If you've seen the template five times before, you can guess where just about any cookie-cutter piece of content is going.

Sometimes, generic is OK. Sometimes, cookie cutter is actually a good thing. Sometimes, you want your audience to be able to forecast what they're getting from a piece of content.

But every so often, you need to mix it up. Why? Because if you don't, you'll start blending in to the background. Your content will become indistinguishable from the content your competition creates.

And becoming a stand-out starts with your blog post headline.

We're going to take a look at why going against the grain can be a good thing—and what it takes to make an unusual blog post headline work for your blog.

“Is your summer too busy…or will you be bored to tears?”

But first, a story about the weirdest headline ever

My first job out of college was as the online editor at The Magazine, a tween publication for girls that I'd grown up reading. It was awesome, mostly because I was constantly writing.

But I didn't just write stuff. As the online editor, I also dug through a lot of numbers. One of my stranger findings was how kick-ass one of our site’s quizzes was.

It was a run-of-the-mill, “we need to post a new quiz today” type thing. Nothing about it was different except for the headline. There were no keywords, no numbers, no signs that this would be the knock-out that it was—and is—it still ranks high in popularity, 5 years after it was created. The only thing unique about this headline was how long, weird, and rambling it was.

The title of the quiz is:

It shot to the top of our analytics sheets week after week. We joked in meetings that it was the quiz that couldn’t be beat. It was the Simone Biles of quizzes.

And there’s a reason for that.

Every content strategy best practice (and every single headline template ever) says this headline is a stinker)

If you take current headline-writing advice into consideration, there is no way this quiz’s headline should ever have made it a knock-out. It has nothing the prototypical strong headline should have.

No numbers (usually, the bigger and less common, the better).

No keywords or keyword strings.

No urgency, no promises of quick or easy or free solutions.

It even has an ellipsis, for Chrissakes!

So, why did this weird headline work anyway?

For all the strikes against it, this headline’s success wasn’t actually as far-fetched as it seemed at the time.

The biggest thing it had going for it, actually, was its uniqueness.

In an internet full of “6 easy ways to get beach-ready biceps before Memorial Day,” the so obviously not clickbait headline of “Is your summer too busy…or will you be bored to tears?” is refreshing. Nothing about that headline is formulaic. It’s well and truly odd in the same way that our speech patterns are odd.

That’s another plus for this weirdo: It sounds like something a real person would actually say. It’s conversational.

Why this headline was set up to succeed

What does that mean, exactly? Here's how the website was primed to make this particular headline and the content it was attached to a success:

  • 1
    A loyal audience of return visitors. Direct site visits—that’s visits that are coming to your homepage or another landing page without being linked through social media, another website (or email), or a search engine—are ones you want to cultivate. They mean that people are seeking you out. They remember you. They return to you. You can’t buy that.
  • 2
    An engaged group of social media followers. Likes are good. Comments are great. And click-throughs are gold. Experiment with images and captions and calls-to-action (or CTAs) until you find that sweet spot that your followers respond to.
  • 3
    A design that encouraged visitors to keep clicking. This site was tricked out with pre- and post-content related links, in-text links to similar on-site posts and quizzes, strategic tagging, menus that showed post previews, slideshows—lots of stuff to look at while tamping down on distractions as much as possible so that visitors lingered on each page for a few minutes, minimum.

These three elements are ones you should be working to build with your content and social media marketing, and with every single website tweak, not just because they’re good practice, like the much-extolled recommended headline formats, but because they offer major dividends.

Build it now, enjoy the compounding benefits later.

Why you should try a weird blog post headline instead of a headline template

I’ve joked about this particular quiz headline a lot, but I’m still a believer. These sorts of headlines make regular appearances here, and they perform well—especially on social media.

Give them a try because:
  • They add variety to your blog. Diverging from the norm makes visitors pause to re-read and click through instead of scrolling quickly past your best content.
  • They stand out from everyone else’s blog post headlines, too. People consume more information than ever right now. To make your stuff read-worthy and memorable, you need to be a little bit different. This is an easy way to do that.
  • They speak to your audience human-to-human. (If pulling the robo-speak out of your content is on your to-do list, give this a read.)
  • SEO is different than it used to be. Thanks to Google’s incorporation of long-tail keywords into its algorithm and the rise of voice search, conversational language is quickly becoming more frequently searched than traditional keywords.

Not sure how to start brainstorming black sheep blog post headlines? Just do it, y’all. Think weird thoughts. Think human thoughts. And try these tips.

Tip #1: Hedge your bets with the Yoast SEO plugin

The basic Yoast SEO plugin is free for WordPress users, and it allows you to designate a headline for use by search engines only. That means that you can craft two headlines that suit two different purposes.

They are:
  • A default headline that you will use on your website
  • A keyword-optimized headline that will be crawled by Google and other search engines

If you’re worried that your website doesn't currently take advantage of SEO, this is a great tool to use.

Tip #2: Think of alternate headlines or subheadlines for your blog posts

If your website theme allows you to include subheadlines on your blog posts, use those subheadlines! If you’re handy with coding, there are plugins you can use to alter your theme to include subheads, as well.

If neither of those are an option, try brainstorming alternate blog post headlines anyway. Think of them as taglines for your posts, and include them on pin-able images or in social media promo copy, instead, to warm up this part of your brain.

Tip #3: Give daily brainstorming a try

Your brain isn't a muscle, but it works like one, sometimes. The more you use different parts of it to complete specific gets, the more natural those tasks become and the better you get at them.

The same is true with brainstorming, which is why I do it every day. I want to keep myself sharp, and I invite you to join me in that.

related

Follow me on Instagram @seebrittwrite to get brainstorming prompts in your feed every single day.

About me

Brittany Taylor

My name is Brittany, but my friends and clients call me "Britt." Online small business owners hire me to create content strategies and write their blog posts, email newsletters, and social media updates. I work with bosses around the world from the marshes of Charleston, S.C.


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Forget the numbers and the keywords. Rules are meant to be broken—and rules for blog post headlines are no different. This is one really good reason not to use formulas or templates when you write headlines for your blog posts.
Forget the numbers and the keywords. Rules are meant to be broken—and rules for blog post headlines are no different. This is one really good reason not to use formulas or templates when you write headlines for your blog posts.
Forget the numbers and the keywords. Rules are meant to be broken—and rules for blog post headlines are no different. This is one really good reason not to use formulas or templates when you write headlines for your blog posts.
Forget the numbers and the keywords. Rules are meant to be broken—and rules for blog post headlines are no different. This is one really good reason not to use formulas or templates when you write headlines for your blog posts.
Forget the numbers and the keywords. Rules are meant to be broken—and rules for blog post headlines are no different. This is one really good reason not to use formulas or templates when you write headlines for your blog posts.
Forget the numbers and the keywords. Rules are meant to be broken—and rules for blog post headlines are no different. This is one really good reason not to use formulas or templates when you write headlines for your blog posts.
Forget the numbers and the keywords. Rules are meant to be broken—and rules for blog post headlines are no different. This is one really good reason not to use formulas or templates when you write headlines for your blog posts.