The difference between being noticed online and remaining under the shrouds of darkness are headlines.

The sad truth about publishing on the web is that people won’t bother to read the rest of the piece if the headline isn’t interesting enough. Claude C Hopkins in his book on Scientific Advertising said that curiosity is the strongest human incentive.

Jon Morrow penned a post on Problogger, which attracted 70,000 visitors in the first 24 hours, and is now close to a million visits. When he was asked on how he writes headlines he said that he puts in the time to create them. For most bloggers – headlines are after thoughts, for him, they are something that could take hours to come up with.

John Caples is considered to be one of the most effective copywriters ever. He once famously said, “If the headline of an advertisement is poor, the best copywriters in the world can’t write copy that will sell the goods.”

When Jon Wisely changed the headline of his blog post from “The Two types of Cognition” to “Learn to understand your own intelligence”, he went from a mere 100 visits to 4930 unique visits.

Great Headlines

Elements of a great headline

As per John Caples, there are three things that determine the success of your headline.

  • Self interest
  • News
  • Curiosity

At the age of 12, Dale Carnegie’s book “How to win friends and influence people” had become my Bible. There’s one takeaway from that book for you: “It’s about them”.

Now, read it slowly, one more time.

Yes, you’ve got it. A woman would be more concerned about her toothache than about a million people malnourished in Syria. Nay I’d rather be more concerned about a flat tire in the morning than pay attention to the yelling in my neighbor’s house.

The first element of a successful headline is in telling right at the outset about what’s in it for them. How does it help them? What does it do for them? What difference would it make in their lives if they read what you wrote?

There’s an enlightening article about this on – 6 Harsh Truths that will make you a better person (It has gathered 12 million page views since being published in December 2012). What it asks you to do is pretty simple.

Take a paper and a pen and write down 5 things about yourself. You cannot write about the qualities that you have, like you’re good, funny, honest, none of that. Instead write about what you achieved something like being an ace at school or winning some competition about something that most people won’t be able to spell (ok just kidding) but you get the drift.

If you are having a hard time coming up with something then that article is for you.

Think of the headline as you. Does it reflect the good it will do to the person reading it? Does it stand out?
If you are having a hard time coming up with something decent, that means something to people in your headline – it won’t SELL period

The society is full of people who need something and your headline has to serve that self interest. It also serves you a self interest, in getting the right people paying attention to what you’re saying.


In the list of 15 of the most famous headlines in the world, 10 of them are about someone’s death, one about man landing on the moon. Headlines that convey strong emotion stick with us.

I have noticed that anything that says ‘new study’ even if it’s “New study says that reports on new studies are mostly baseless” would get read. Seth Godin explains something similar here.

Even a bland article on curing writer’s block will be received well if goes around with the name “Writer’s block is a myth, says new study”.

We may not be always able to convey the strongest emotion with news like items but we can mend that by offering something for free. “New technique to cure insomnia without spending a penny”.


In this age of information overload where we are bombarded with advertisements, offers and a perennial shower of instant messages and notifications. The question is how to spark that curiosity in a person with a single line?
Do headlines like “A dog walks into a hotel lobby: The Greatest Hospitality story ever told” incite you to click on the link.


The first thing that comes in your mind is rejection, a dog can never walk into a hotel lobby, no it’s not a man to be making such decisions, or is it. What you will be thinking next is dogs are faithful and lovely maybe this is something interesting and boom click.

The article will interest some of you and will not interest others when you finally read it but then you got the inspiration to click.

I will be talking more about curiosity and how one site exploited it to a level which caused it to grow without a single piece of original content from zero to 8.7 million monthly unique visitors within 8 months.

Now, have I generated some curiosity?

How does Upworthy create headlines?

If you haven’t heard of Upworthy yet, it’s the world’s most controversial viral site. It drives a great deal of traffic from Facebook where it has a healthy audience of 1 million fans, so I guess that they are doing something right about their headlines.

If we have a look at the most shared headlines by Upworthy they go something like this

  • Bullies Called Him Pork Chop. He Took That Pain With Him And Then Cooked It Into This. 3.44 M views
  • 9 Out Of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About this Mind-Blowing Fact 1.57 views
  • Some Strange Things Are Happening To Astronauts Returning To Earth 1.13 M views

The first one tells about an evil that we witness every day. But it’s not the story of a dog biting a man, that’s not Upworthy kind of content and people don’t have time for that. It’s the story of a man biting a dog. It sparks your interest. It gives you a vindication maybe against your own boss, or any moment in life where you had to cow down.

That’s why we watch movies right? They are all the stories of people, of underdogs, who rose up.

The second hurts your pride. It wants you to take up the challenge of proving that they are wrong about what is stated.
Alien invasion, ET, come on, what could it be? Did they find life outside? Are they transformed to something else? Did they get super power, when they got too close to the sun like in Fantastic Four?

I can bet my dollar on the second and third news story on not being something extremely exciting but then there’s an incentive, a cover that begs to be torn apart and you can’t resist that.

Let me tell you a story. There was once a stone cutter who was hammering away in the heat of the sun at a piece of rock that seemed immovable. It looked as if the Almighty Himself had stationed it there. He hammered on, first ten then 20, 30, 40 and so, the rock didn’t bulge. He hammered till he was exhausted, he hammered even though all his muscles told him to stop, people were counting, 98, 99 but no, the rock wouldn’t bulge. But at the 100th blow it split open.

Did the 100th blow do the magic? The magic was in everything that went before.

For every post at Upworthy, they write 25 headlines. Because people do ok till the 20th headline but the 21st blow snaps them, they go beyond what that has already been done. They come up with something that wouldn’t have existed had they not ventured beyond the 20th headline.

For them writing a headline is an exact science and every discipline of science has principles:

  • Tell a story in your headline.
  • Play villains and heroes, if you have them.
  • Make it comfortable for people to be able to share it – No adult words, swear words.
  • Don’t polarize people by sharing your political ideas.
  • Don’t oversell (Because Upworthy gets traffic because of shares, you oversell once, you’re that bloody shepherd who fooled the villagers forever).
  • Always Test.
  • Always write 25 headlines.

Read the whole article here.

The scientific guide to writing headlines

Adam Rifkin’s guide on writing great headlines on Twitter, Facebook and your blog has some very neatly researched facts that came after analyzing over 2,00,000 tweets containing links, numerous Facebook posts and many many hours of testing.

  • Use action words, verbs in your headlines
  • Photos get double the comments and 84% click through rates than for posts without a picture, maybe they pique interest or curiosity
  • For retail brands shorter posts seem to be 66% more engaging
  • Self reference posts, the ones that use I seem to be more trustworthy
  • Here are 20 words that get more Retweets.
  • In blog post titles list posts tend to be clicked through more, the reason may be that it spells out exactly the use of the article, serving self interest
  • In list posts use numbers, they stand out, instead of writing Ten new ways to get this done… write 10 new ways…
  • DIY posts, educational posts are more engaging, well there’s something in it for them right
  • Always test, share the same post with different headlines on Twitter during the same time at different days. See what clicks

And I forgot to tell you about one rule that they always follow at Upworthy – Have fun.


Ankit is a co-founder @ AdPushup (a tool which helps online publishers optimize ad revenues) and loves online marketing & growth hacking.

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