Marketing Best Practices

How to Write Content Titles that Get Attention (Without Becoming Link Bait)

Robert Hoekman Jr. By Robert Hoekman Jr. September 29, 2015

Web content is all about conversion, and conversion is all about killer titles. According to web convention, anyway.

Of course, this idea is riddled with problems.

It’s true that no one will click unless readers believe there’s something great to see after the jump. But lately, it seems like everyone believes the title of a piece is the only chance they have to show they’re worth paying attention to. So they notch up their craftiness more and move over time until every headline turns into something more akin to a circus yeller than a journalist. At some point, every headline turns into link bait.

Trouble is, while such titles certainly tap readers’ dopamine centers, they can make your content look cheap and desperate over time.

Yummy, Yummy Bait

Link bait, if you don’t know, is a headline designed to get other people to link back to it. It does this job by being blatant and self-descriptive. It does this by being loud. It’s a no-brainer headline that tells readers exactly what they’ll get by clicking.

It comes in many forms, but generally involves deviously-compelling words like “secret” and “lessons” to promise takeaways, and hold no shame in their attempts to grab attention. This comes in a few forms:

  • Hyperbolic how-to headlines, like “How to Drop 20 Pounds in One Month,” or the title of the article you’re reading now, “How to Write Content Titles that Get Attention.”
  • Listicles, which promise enumerated takeaways on a specific subject but typically lack any real meat, like “5 Ways To Change Your Life This Weekend.”
  • Knowledge gap headlines designed to make you desperately want to know something you don’t already by pitting it against something else, like “The Real Difference Between Apples and Oranges.”

Know where you’ll never find titles like these? In a respected journal or magazine or newspaper. The New Yorker doesn’t get subscriptions or earn its reputation with article like “5 Lessons I Learned While Winning the Pulitzer Prize.”

By comparison, link bait headlines are tabloid headlines. Yes, they do get attention. Write them well and on a subject a lot of people want to know about, and you’ll get a ton of traffic from it.

There’s just one problem.

Crash, Bang, Boom

As blogger and speaker Paul Boag points out, people grow numb to these tactics in short order. You may see an initial spike in traffic, but over time, you can find yourself losing readers. And when loyalty goes down the trash chute, you’re left in a position of having to constantly re-up your tricks to draw new readers. Link bait simply isn’t sustainable.

Using such tricks also puts you in competition with everyone out there. Every blog, every content farm, every entertainment site — they’re all trying to build audiences, and most of them are using the same tricks. Think you can write better link bait headlines than they can? Have at it.

Or you can try something else.

Changing for the Better

If you have any confidence at all in what you’re selling through your content (and you’re always sellingsomething), err on the side of keeping your dignity. Choose quality over zing. Trust reputation over pizazz. Think long-term instead.

  • Use link bait sparingly: The less you use it, the more of an effect it can have.
  • Rely on stellar writing, not trashy titles: Rather than try to hack your way into audience attention, build your reputation over time through quality content. The more you earn your readers’ respect through good, worthwhile writing, the more likely they are to return to read more of it. Long-term readers sustain you over time. Forget about the drive-by visitors who will never come back.
  • Stay on point: Make no attempt to deceive with your headlines, else you’ll lose your reputation rather than build it.
  • Be concise: Keep your titles short. Use fewer words to say more.
  • Support the headline: Alongside your short headlines, use annotated headlines in your social media posts, blog summaries, ads, and everywhere else to describe your content. This respects your readers, and lets you write headlines that contribute meaning rather than making a blatant pitch.

The trick to drool-worthy headlines, in other words, is not to write them at all. Instead, write drool-worthy content. Then add an appropriate title and a compelling annotation. Like, say, this:

“The Dying Art of Titles: When zing is all you’ve got, a flash is all you’ll get.”

Back that up with a great article, and over time, you’ll have the best headline you can get: one with a stellar reputation behind it.

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