Headlines That Make Blog Posts Go Viral

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August 2015
by Jon Morrow
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If you write for any serious purpose, you learn very quickly that you can’t afford to spend months or years dreaming up a daring new approach for everything you write. No one has that kind of discipline. The only way to survive is to write quickly, and the only way to do that is to take a page from the playbook of guys like Shakespeare, Jefferson, and Wilde—copying from others not because you lack genius, but because true genius is clothed in the ideas of others.

Headlines are no exception.

I’ve received a lot of complaint letters about the content of the articles I’ve written, but no one has criticized me for failing to develop an original headline. On the contrary, I’ve received hundreds of compliments on my headlines from people who thought I created them from scratch. But I didn’t. I “stole” them, just like every other popular writer.

If you look carefully at any great headline, you can distill it down to a fill-in-the-blank “template” that works for almost every topic in any niche. The best writers I know have thousands of them either saved to a file on their computers or floating around in their heads, where they can reference them at a moment’s notice to develop a winning headline of their own.

I see these templates as a simple shortcut you can apply immediately, and I call them headline hacks. Just as “life hacks” are shortcuts for dealing with the complexity of life, headline hacks will allow you to bypass the years of study and failure required to write great headlines.

My particular headline hacks are arranged in six categories:

  •  Threat Headlines: What Keeps Your Readers Up at Night?
  • Zen Headlines – Promising Your Readers a Simpler Life
  • Piggyback Headlines: Riding on the Back of a Famous Brand
  • Mistake Headlines: Irresistible Teasers from the Masters
  • How-to Headlines: The Oldie but Goodie That Never Fails
  • List Headlines: Bite-Sized Content That Readers Adore

For a riff on Zen headlines, read on. For information about and examples of headlines in the other categories, you can get the full Headline Hacks PDF at boostblogtraffic.com.

Of all the ways you can improve your blog, using headline hacks is by far the easiest. I mean, what could possibly be easier than filling in the blank?

No, it won’t put you in the Technorati 100 (at least, not by itself), but you will see an increase in traffic. More important, you’ll be learning one of the most important skills any blogger can master: making your readership curious.

The more curious your headlines make people, the more they’ll read your posts. The more they read your posts, the better your chance of building a relationship with them. The more relationships you have, the more influential you become in your niche.

It’s the same process, regardless of whether you have 100,000 subscribers or you started your blog yesterday. And it all begins with the headline.

Zen Headlines: Promising Your Readers a Simpler Life

These days, most people are in a tough spot.

They have too many responsibilities, but they can’t do anything about it. No matter how much they would like to, they can’t stop being a parent or quit their job or refuse to pay the bills. That would be unconscionable.

So, the only solution is to simplify. They search for ways to get the same results in less time. Granted, it’s not a very methodical search—they tend to look for answers one day, and then forget about it the next—but that sense of being overwhelmed stays with them.

It’s a powerful emotion, and these headlines tap into it.

The Zen of [Blank]

On the surface, this is just another “how to” headline, but there’s one important difference.

With this headline hack, you’re showing them how to do it in a Zen-like way. Given the increasing popularity of Buddhist teachings, most people automatically think of anything with the word “Zen” as easy, masterful, and calming—all things overwhelmed people are desperate to experience.

Of course, the headline works best when you pair Zen teachings with something your audience would normally consider hectic. Writing a post with the headline “The Zen of Meditation” wouldn’t get much attention because people expect meditation to be Zen-like. There’s not enough contrast.

Also, feel free to follow this headline with a how-to or list-style headline.

Examples:

  • The Zen of Rush-Hour Traffic
  • The Zen of Writing with Kids Around: 11 Ways to Quiet Your Mind
  • The Zen of Team Meetings: How to Never Lose Control Again

Can’t Keep Up? 11 Ways to Simplify Your [Blank]

Once upon a time, everyone wanted to “get ahead.” They worked as quickly and efficiently as possible, so they could finish early and still have time or money left over to do extra. They wanted to do more at work, enjoy more time with their family, and have more time to relax.

Not anymore.

Now, all we can focus on is “keeping up.” We have more to do than we could possibly accomplish, and we are terrified of one day running out of energy and falling behind. We worry that, if that happens, we might never catch up again.

It’s a common thought process, and this headline jumps directly into it by using the phrase (“Can’t Keep Up?”) that’s already going through their heads. It then promises multiple strategies for simplifying the problem.

Examples:

  • Can’t Keep Up? 11 Ways to Simplify Your Gmail Inbox
  • Can’t Keep Up? 21 Ways to Simplify Your Search for New Clients
  • Can’t Keep Up? 7 Ways to Simplify Your Wardrobe for Tonight’s Date

How to Take Charge of Your [Unruly Problem]

Mental rehearsal is a great technique for improving your performance in sports, giving speeches, or just about anything else, but it can also backfire.

Sometimes, we rehearse bad things happening in the future, not just positive ones. We imagine little problems growing into big problems, and we worry about whether or not we’ll be able to handle them. Some psychologists even say that much of our anxiety centers around problems that don’t even exist yet.

So why not write a post targeting those worries? Figure out what problem your audience is worried about spinning out of control, and then tell them how to take charge of it.

Examples:

  • How to Take Charge of Your Husband’s Gambling Problem
  • How to Take Charge of Your Junk Mail Folder in Microsoft Outlook
  • How to Take Charge of Your Blog’s Comment Section

The Minimalist Guide to [Aggravation]

This headline is similar to the previous ones, with one small but important difference: it focuses on topics your audience perceives as unimportant or annoying.

People who enjoy minimalist decor usually feel that extravagant interior design is a waste, just as those who want a minimalist website design feel like most flashy designs get in the way of usability. It’s all about minimizing something they dislike.

It’s usually not a good idea to use this headline for topics your audience finds important. Focus on a topic your audience wants to avoid.

Examples:

  • The Minimalist Guide to Twitter
  • The Minimalist Guide to Cooking a Nutritious Dinner
  • The Minimalist Guide to Homework (Keep Your Good Grades!)

10 Shortcuts for [Completing Tedious Process] in Record Time

Who isn’t interested in a shortcut these days?
Not only does this headline hack promise to make our lives simpler; it implies you’ll have an unfair advantage. While your competitors are working blithely along, doing things the old-fashioned way, you’ll take a shortcut and skip ahead, achieving the same results in a fraction of the time. All the while giggling gleefully, of course.

Examples:

  • 10 Shortcuts for Becoming an Authority in Your Field in Record Time
  • 7 Shortcuts for Building a Company Website in Record Time
  • 21 Perfectly Legal Shortcuts for Finishing Your Taxes in Record Time

Get Rid of [Recurring Problem] Once and for All

Simplifying or taking charge of a problem is great, but what if you can get rid of it once and for all? Wouldn’t that be better?

This headline hack promises to show your readers how. You can use it for almost any nuisance, but it works best if the problem is recurring. Find a problem where your reader is thinking, “I’m so tired of dealing with this! I wish I could handle it once and for all!”

Also, it’s best if your audience believes a permanent solution is possible, but they don’t know what the solution is. You’re telling them something they wish they knew, not trying to convince them to believe in a miracle.

Examples:

  • Get Rid of Your Yellow Toenails Once and for All
  • Get Rid of That Squirrel in Your Attic Once and for All
  • Get Rid of Comment Spammers Once and for All

How to End [Problem]

This headline hack is just a slight variation on the previous one.

The main difference is it works for problems that are not necessarily recurring. It’s also more conducive to subheadlines, allowing you to add more benefits, overcome objections, and so forth.

Examples:

  • How to End Your Fight with the IRS
  • How to End Writer’s Block Forever (And Make Readers Fall in Love with You)
  • How to End a Dating Disaster Without Being Rude or Losing Your Cool

How to [Blank] in 5 Minutes

When I first started writing, I thought this headline hack was sleazy.

Five minutes? You can’t do hardly anything worthwhile in five minutes. By making that promise, I felt writers were lying to their readers.

Then I realized something. Most people are totally overwhelmed with the complicated, long-term advice that writers like to dispense, and they are looking for simple little tips they can implement in just a few minutes. They’re not looking to change their lives, just make a small improvement.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. For the most part, change is a combination of hundreds of little actions, made five minutes at a time. If you can help your readers take just one of those actions, you’ve achieved a huge victory. Instead of overwhelming them, you’ll give them the confidence to come back to you again, and take the next action.

That’s what this headline hack is all about.

Some writers also use it to create curiosity, with headlines such as “How to Make $1,000 in 5 Minutes.” And while I understand the allure, I don’t recommend it, unless it’s actually something 90 percent of your readers can do in five minutes. If it’s not, they’re going to realize that as soon as they read it, and you’re going to lose a small amount of trust.

It’s far better to give them real advice they can implement in five minutes (or whatever length of time). That way, you’re delivering on your promise.

Examples:

  • How to Reduce Your Junk Mail in 5 Minutes
  • How to Write an Article in 20 Minutes
  • How to Knock $127 Off Your Phone Bill in 15 Minutes or Less

101 [Blank] Hacks: A Cheat Sheet for [Blank]

Hmmmm. Sounds familiar.

A somewhat nefarious member of the Zen family, the “hacks” headline is nevertheless increasingly popular. One of the most popular blogs in the world, Lifehacker.com, is based on it. You’re also starting to see it grace the cover of national magazines. And why not? All of us have a diabolical side, and the idea of discovering “hacks” that allow us to “cheat” and get the same results with less effort is irresistible.

Note: The “cheat sheet” subheadline works well with the hacks theme, but it’s optional. If you find another subheadline works better, by all means use it.

Examples:

  • 101 Headline Hacks: A Cheat Sheet for Writing Headlines That Explode Traffic
  • 21 Homework Hacks: A Cheat Sheet for Doing Your Homework in One Hour or Less
  • 37 Income Tax Hacks: An Insider’s Guide to Beating the IRS at Their Own Game

About the Author:

Jon Morrow HeadshotJon Morrow, who runs Boost Blog Traffic, was formerly an associate editor of Copyblogger. To learn more and/or to get the full free Headline Hacks “Cheat Sheet for Writing Headlines That Go Viral”: boostblogtraffic.com.

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