top of page
  • Alex McCord

This is why your headlines are flopping

Writing a fantastic piece of content can induce untold stress. You tinker with sentence structure and flow for hours, only to find no one clicks on your masterpiece because the headline is letting you down.

The headline of your article is like a first impression – you only get one chance, so it needs to turn heads.

But there are plenty of things at play to confuse matters. What's the ideal length? Just how important is search engine optimisation (SEO)? Where's the line between clickable and clickbait?

As former multimedia journalists, we’ve had rather a long time to think about this, and to experiment with what works and what doesn't. Check out these tips so everyone gets to appreciate your content as much as you do.

1. Are you trying to reinvent the wheel? A fascinating Buzzsumo analysis of Facebook engagement of 100 million articles found the most powerful phrase you can have in your headline is "will make you". In second place is "this is why".

For example:

  • 33 log cabins that will make you quit your job and become a hermit

  • This is why Mary Berry wants you to make a Christmas cake now

"Will make you" explains the direct impact this content will have on the reader and "this is why" leaves little room for confusion regarding what they'll be looking at. It tells us that readers like headlines that answer questions, offer clarity and bear relevance to the reader.

In B2B articles, Buzzsumo says the most powerful headline phrases are "the future of", "X ways to", and "need to know". Remember, a headline doesn’t exist to explore the nuances of the article, it is there to grab attention.

2. Are you 'front loading' keywords?

This doesn’t mean start every headline with ‘Trump Brexit Ronaldo’, but it does mean you need to try and position the key words towards the beginning of headlines, and make sure these same words appear high up in your article. This helps search engines figure out what your article is about, and drive relevant traffic your way. In short, help Google help you.

Think carefully about what your audience could be searching for, whether that's ‘insurance automation’ or ‘graduate jobs’.

But, a word of warning, do not compromise your headline just to front load keywords. The aforementioned Buzzsumo research tells us phrasing is a powerful driver of engagement on social media, which is also important.

You also risk making your headline too long if you try to cram in keywords. Most sources suggest keeping it to between 60-100 characters.

3. Are you being a let down?

Clickbait is littering the internet, and I don't use the term 'littering' lightly. It's junk content that overpromises and underdelivers with one goal: to get traffic. The headline is enticing, but the content delivers next to nothing, often spread out across several pages to boost clicks.

Make sure your headline delivers what it promises. After all, content marketing is a trust building exercise as much as an exposure building one.

4. Are you following the four U's?

Attributed to entrepreneur Mark Ford, the four U's can help us stress test our headlines. They are:

Unique: What is special about this article that means people should read it? Perhaps it is a piece of information or angle that makes it special.

Useful: What is the point of reading this piece? What will people get if they click on this blog post?

Urgent: Is there any reason people need to read this now? This one isn't needed for all pieces, but certainly applies for any bit of copy tied to the news or some form of exciting new development

Ultra-specific: Does your headline do all of the above in a concise way that still reflects the content of your article?

If your headline ticks all these boxes, you can rest easy that your content is being given the best possible chance.


Over the course of a few days, keep a list of headlines you clicked on and dissect how they're written. What keywords lured you in? How were they phrased? How did the headlines manage your expectations about the piece? Or did you feel deceived by what the article contained versus what the headline promised?

We are consumers of content more often than we are creators, but the minute we start looking with a more critical eye we can learn all kinds of things.

bottom of page