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How to Write Clickbait Headlines — Without the Sleaze

It’s hard to really pinpoint when “clickbait” started, but you can safely say that over at least the last five years or so, it’s been rampant. The concept isn’t anything new, and it’s basically a 21st century continuation of the long history of yellow journalism.


But the problem with clickbait is that most of the time, it’s misleading. Plus, everything is always extreme — “You won’t BELIEVE number 6!” When everything’s a sensation, nothing’s a sensation. The actual content is almost always a letdown.

Most people dislike clickbait, and they’re often pretty vocal about it. But there’s one single reason clickbait headlines are so rampant on the internet: they’re effective. They get people to click. And with those clicks, come pageviews and advertising revenue.

Article writing services and content marketers have certainly taken notice of clickbait’s effectiveness. But here’s the problem: it doesn’t exactly ooze sophistication. It might bring in a few curious readers from Facebook, but it doesn’t exactly encourage people to respect your brand as an authority in your industry. For some brands, clickbait-style headlines could certainly be appropriate, and could end up attracting the right demographic. But clickbait headlines feel sleazy, and they’re not something, people associate with credibility. For some industries, they’re a terrible fit.

Obvious clickbait headlines might bring clicks, but there’s a chance that taking such a tabloid-esque approach could actually damage your brand. What works for Buzzfeed and Cosmo might not be an appropriate choice for an oncologist or a funeral home. Some brands can benefit from cultivating a certain level of respectability, professionalism, and gravitas. Clickbait is inimical to all of these things.

There are definitely ways, to craft compelling headlines that pique curiosity, but that don’t scream “cheap digital tabloid.” A great headline is essential if you want people to actually read your content, but it doesn’t have to be “5 Weird Whatevers that will SHOCK YOU — You Won’t BELIEVE Number 3!”

A Question Begs an Answer

Headlines written in the form of a question tend to attract views. When you ask a question in a headline, the unspoken implication is that the article contains the answer. Interestingly, when a headline is a question, the answer is usually “no.” But question-style headlines compel people to find the answer by reading, and although they exploit people’s curiosity, question headlines are perfectly capable of appealing to reason instead of knee-jerk emotional reactions.

Numbers & Concrete Data

The “listicles” are a common format online, for a variety of reasons. They’re skimmable, which accommodates the natural way that people skim online content on a horizontal screen. Listicles also offer something concrete. When you offer a certain number of items in the headline, it gives an idea of how the article is structured and what it’s going to contain.

List formats aren’t just for humor and fluff. For more serious topics like marketing and business, they’re also a useful way to structure information. Along with numbered list headlines like “5 Ways This Company Increased Their Conversion Rates,” statistics and percentages are also appealing. Again, you’re offering something concrete, which carries a certain appeal for those who lean toward empirical analysis.

Headlines that Offer Actionable Advice

There’s a reason why you often see headlines using terminology like “tips,” “ways to,” “ideas,” and “how to.” It’s compelling when a headline offers something concrete and actionable, like advice about how to do something.

Headlines that Use Power Words

“Power words” can be alluring, but they should be used carefully. Words like “essential,” “ultimate,” and “perfect” lose their punch when they’re overused. If everything’s “the ultimate X,” nothing is. With that said, headlines like “The Essential Guide to Marketing On Tumblr” perform well.

Headlines That You’ve Tested

All of the suggestions above can help give you some ideas for content headlines that compel and entice, without coming across as unsophisticated or emotionally exploitative. However, the very best headline structures will be those that your particular audience responds to. It’s always advisable to try A/B testing different headlines and headline structures, to figure out exactly what people are most likely to respond to. It’s possible that your target demographic just can’t resist titles with the word “shocking” in them. It’s also possible that your audience responds well to numbers and concrete statistics. You won’t know until you experiment with a few different headline styles to see what works the best.

Clickbait headlines are unavoidable on the internet, but for some brands, their widespread association with cheapness and sleaze can be damaging rather than helpful. Other, more subtle ways of creating compelling headlines can help you optimize your content marketing and reach your audience more effectively — without treating them like idiots.

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