Headlines can make or break the success of a single piece of content, or even an entire content marketing campaign. They're probably the shortest component of your entire piece, yet they're the most important element. Accordingly, even good content with a bad headline will underperform.

The obvious solution is to write a killer headline for every piece of content--easy, right? With so many different types of content in circulation, and ever-increasing competition for users' preciously short attention spans, accomplishing this is harder than ever. Fortunately, there's a process that can steer you in the right direction.

Step 1: Add an Emotional Element

Basic article titles are functional, but they aren't exactly compelling. Your goal is to inspire an otherwise apathetic user to take a positive action in clicking your link. For that, you'll need some kind of emotional resonance; the specific type of resonance is up to you. You might include a hint of fear or excitement, such as by adding in "Don't get shocked! How to replace an electrical outlet." Or you might appeal to a user's comfort with "How to replace an electrical outlet the hassle-free way." You could even evoke a sense of nostalgia or familiarity with something like "How to replace an electrical outlet the way Dad used to" (I know this sounds strange here, but I want to run with the same core example throughout).

Step 2: Add a Practical Element

Now, add something more practical and logical to appeal to the logical side of your readers' minds. You've got the emotionally compelling portion down, so now it's time to add something that suggests your content is valuable. This can be as simple as adding a number (to show that the article is easily skimmable) or indicating some level of necessity. For example, you might come up with "How to replace an electrical outlet the hassle-free way in 6 steps" or "Don't get shocked! The how-to guide you need for replacing an electrical outlet."

Step 3: Trim, Trim, Trim

By now, you have a pretty bulky headline--but this is actually a good thing. It means you have ample material to work with. Your job in this step is that of a sculptor; whittle away at the material until it starts to look the way you want it to. First, shorten any words or phrases you can, and eliminate any fluff words. From there, pick out the phrases that seem to resonate best with you--and don't be afraid to trust your instincts (they're often right).

Step 4: Come Up With Variants

Now for the fun part. Repeat steps one through three at least twice more, coming up with a couple of variants for your headline. Try to make these different without straying too far from your original point. By the end of this process, you should have two or more dynamic, distinct headlines that fit your piece perfectly. Choose one of them to accompany your article, and set the others aside for now. It's time to get publishing.

Step 5: Test and Learn

With your article published, it's time to put your headline to the test. Run and syndicate the article for a few days, and measure your engagement rates (traffic, comments, shares, likes, etc.). Then, wait a few days and push the article out again--only this time, use one of your headline variants. Try to replicate the initial conditions as closely as possible (time of day, platform of choice, etc.), and compare your new results to your old ones. This should give you an indication of which headline is more powerful at attracting your particular audience, and give you knowledge you can use for future headlines--for example, does your audience respond better to practical headlines or emotional ones?

Put these six steps into place for your ongoing content marketing strategy, and execute them in repetition. You'll quickly learn more about who your users are, what types of content they want to read, and what kind of appeals work best for them. It will take some time, but eventually you'll become more comfortable with the headline writing process, to the point you might even be able to come up with them naturally (combining the first four steps here into one intuitive process). Even so, never neglect the data; your performance metrics are your best tool to write ever-more-compelling headlines.

Published on: Apr 4, 2016