Why Bad Headlines Can Kill Good Content

I was at #SMAZ (Social Media for Business) event recently for several reasons – networking, moderating a panel on ROI and Social Media Measurement, and listening to some of the best speakers this valley has to offer – including C. Edward Brice (my boss on Top 10 Social Media Trends for 2010), Jay Baer, Evo Terra, and Jeff Moriarty.  Thanks to Founder (and organizer) Fred Von Graf for putting this event together.

In between my regularly scheduled conference calls, I got a chance to listen in on some of the best presentations that this event had to offer – thus, my inspiration for this blog. Listening to Jay Baer on 11 Must Dos for the Serious Blogger, he touched on something very near and dear to my heart – “To be a good blogger, you must be a GREAT headline writer”.

I say near and dear to my heart because as a former writer for TV news, the art of headline writing was crucial to our news program because what you wrote in that 15 second slot was a make or break opportunity for our audience to tune in to get the rest of the story. Don’t get me wrong – content is still king but what draws people to tune in to your content is the headline – for every piece of content you build for your marketing efforts. This has proven vital to my function today as Director of Corporate Communications at Lumension – from media pitches, blog topics, ebooks, whitepapers, to email campaigns and newsletters.

Brian Clark of Copyblogger put it in these simple terms: “Your headline is the first, and perhaps only, impression you make on a prospective reader. Without a headline or post title that turns a browser into a reader, the rest of your words may as well not even exist.” Just like going for your first job interview or on your first date, your first impression lasts forever. For example, when you’re browsing a blog, news site, or newspaper, your eyes will skim through a lot of the content and what catches your eye? The headline. Here are four steps to sharpen your headline writing skills.

1. Keep it short and sweet

Long winded headlines can quickly lose focus and attention. Traditional marketers tend to say a lot of blah blah blah. They also regurgitate the same content in the headline. With so much information out there, you want to tell the Who, What, When, Where, and How in that headline without spewing the entire content right at the top. Keep it short and make it simple.

2. Make it newsworthy

This is where I stress “think like a journalist”. Do your research and Google the topic to see what’s out there. If the headline you’re trying to use comes up often by other vendors or competitors, then change it. Being like everyone else is b-o-r-i-n-g.  Challenge the convention of headline writing. Make it different and unique while still telling the story up front. Read some of the headlines that other bloggers and journalists are using on that topic to see how they are messaging and positioning the story. As a former journalist, I do this quite frequently. I always think: “How would a journalist write the headline and what would capture their attention for media interview or coverage?” Our success in terms of blogs, ebooks and media pitches has a lot to do with how we position the headline followed by strong content to support it.

3. Tell the story in less than 5-7 words

I don’t know about you but I learned one key lesson in writing: K.I.S.S. – Keep it Simple Stupid. What Twitter has taught us is to tell your story in less than 140 characters. Apply the same rule to your headline. Keep it simple and tell the story in less than 5-7 words using your headline. A good example of a headline from Jay Baer’s presentation: Thief takes off with Lucky Charms cereal. He also mentioned one of his more successful headlines for his blog: Why Twitter needs its bottom spanked. He said he could’ve used some boring headline but instead opted for this which got tremendous readership.

4. Think SEO

Whether it’s for your blog, marketing campaign email, case study, newsletter, etc., think of ways to optimize your SEO in the headline. Tie it back to your most popular SEO terms that are being used to find you, your product, company, etc. This is important, especially with SEO driving the searchability of your brand. BTW – you should have an index of your SEO terms for each category – company/brand, products, services, etc. This should be shared across everyone and anyone who creates content for your company to maintain accuracy and consistency.

There are different types of headlines that you can lead with in your marketing, social media, and PR endeavors – and Copyblogger gives a great roundup of some good examples – from How to Headline, Command Headline, Reason Why Headline, and Testimonial Headline.

I’ve heard a lot of marketers say that they’re not good at headline writing. My suggestion to you is challenge yourself constantly, especially in this area as this will help drive readership, traffic, and open rates for everything you do. Always ask yourself this? Is the headline enticing enough for me to open it if you were the reader? How is it newsworthy and interesting? Is it sexy?  People will ask me whether their headlines make sense? I always asks them “would you want to read it?” If the answer is no, then you should probably think of a new headline that you would want to read.  Put yourself in your readers’ shoes and that is how you will get the answer. If even you wouldn’t want to read it, why would they?


Good blogging tips, ROI, social media, and SEO http://bit.ly/9c5p3R

How to write headlines that work http://www.copyblogger.com/how-to-write-headlines-that-work/

Top 10 Social Media Trends for 2010 http://marketinggimbal.typepad.com/marketinggimbal/2010/01/marketinggimbal.html

11 Must Dos for the Serious Blogger http://www.slideshare.net/jaybaer



  1. Thanks Cindy. I appreciate the kind words. Excellent advice here. So glad I got to see you again at SMAZ.

    • Jay,
      Thank you for your kind words. Your preso was very valuable indeed and I am going to apply your recommendations for my blog as well as our corporate blog. Keep up the great work. It’s great to have such a brilliant mind here in PHX. Sorry we didn’t get to chat longer at SMAZ. Looking forward to seeing more of your speaking presos in the near future.

  2. First of all, thanks for mentioning my recap of SMAZ post!

    I find it hard to balance the telling the story in 5 – 7 words with getting the SEO / keyword value in. Like I could have done my post as Best of #SMAZ, but anyone who didn’t go wouldn’t really “get it” or be attracted to the post, whereas adding in the Social Media, Blogging Tips, and SEO draws in people interested in those topics regardless.

    Headlines / titles are everything though. Ari at ariwriter.com wrote about hacking Facebook Bejeweled Blitz in a post and gets a ton of traffic now because it is a popular search and his post ranks well for it. I’m sure the SEO factor is about the title and the way you market it (promotion, link backs, etc.)

    Great post on headlines! Hopefully more bloggers will take note on making better ones.

    • Krisit,
      I thought that was the best recap of the event. Wow, what a way to capture the tone and pull key messages from some of the best speakers at the show. The 5-7 words comment is really meant for the headline where it can capture the story without spewing too much information. I’m glad that you found the blog to be valuable and I look forward to more of your blogs.

  3. Cindy, These are good tips and they work for bloggers, anyone in social media and of course, in PR. The headline or email subject line is what will get the article or pitch read, so it has to grab readers and make them want to keep reading. Thanks for sharing. Now to put more thought into my next headlines.

    • Hi Davina,
      Thank you so much for your comment. I agree – the art of headline writing is something that we need to take seriously, especially with content driving a lot of our marketing and social media strategy. Glad we’re connected on Twitter as well.

  4. Great post. I just finished classes for my public relations post-grad program and I start interning Monday, so this advice is helpful! Thanks

  5. hmmm . Dear Cindy Kim, many many thaks for your valuable words…..keep it up…. Its your very Kind.


  1. […] Tell the Story – Reporters have a responsibility to tell a story through an objective lens, while making it compelling. While marketers today want to push products, marketing jargons, services, and promos down your throat, they’re missing an opportunity to tell their story in an interesting fashion. There are many ways to tell your story – through your customers and experts. Customer war stories are great examples of getting your story out there.Even your press announcements should tell a story even if it’s about the product. Make it compelling enough that a journalist can grasp the story by writing a great headline […]

  2. […] perversely, been raised to an even more important level in an SEO world. See Cindy Kim’s post Why Bad Healines Can Kill Good Content, for tips to improve your story’s ability to break […]

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