I’ve seen a lot of headlines. For articles and blog posts. Email subject lines and Facebook campaigns. More important, I’ve seen the data behind those headlines, and I’m going to share with you what works, and why.
The same principles work across every channel. A great headline—one that intrigues your audience and compels them to take action—is a great headline. Period.
It’s not that hard to write a great headline … if you know your audience. And if you’re willing to put some work into it. Like everything else in your career, you’ll get better with practice.
I know because, in close to two decades in fitness publishing, I’ve had a lot of opportunities. I’ve seen a great email subject line triple the conversion rate. Same email, same sales page, same customer list. The only difference was that we made the subject line more compelling to our customers.
And I can’t count the number of times we brought stories and products back from the dead by changing the display copy.
Why the right blog title makes all the difference
I’ll give you an example.
A few years ago, we had Alwyn Cosgrove, one of the most popular coaches at Men’s Health, create a 28-day workout plan. It called for you to rotate between three different workouts each week. One of the workouts was a countdown routine where you alternated between kettlebell swings and burpees. You’d start with 15 reps of each, then 14, then 13, and so on.
I knew when readers saw it, they’d likely say, “Hey, how can you lose weight with just two exercises?” When I asked Alwyn for his response, he said, “Running is just one exercise, but no one questions that when it comes to burning fat.”
It was such a great answer that I created a story around it for menshealth.com, with the countdown routine as a sample workout. I initially called it “The Ultimate Two-Exercise Workout,” and it did okay. Basically, a run-of-the-mill fitness story for us.
But when Yahoo asked to syndicate it, we tried a different headline: “Lose Your Spare Tire with Just Two Exercises.”
The story ended up in the number-one slot on Yahoo’s homepage slider. For three days.
I should explain that Yahoo doesn’t choose which stories move up or down. An algorithm ranks each one by reader engagement. Three days at number one was akin to winning the Yahoo lottery.
Seven rules for effective fitness blog titles and email subject lines
Now, before I share my rules for writing headlines that work, I want to emphasize how much the quality of your content matters. The most compelling headline in the world will only erode trust in your brand if the content doesn’t pay off and people feel disappointed or tricked when they open your email or click through to your site. That’s bad for business.
But once you’ve done the work to create that high-quality content, you owe it to yourself to come up with a kickass headline. These seven rules will help:
Rule #1: Make it imperative
An imperative is a verb used to give orders, commands, warnings, or instructions. It tells readers what to do. So instead of “How to Sculpt Your Abs in 30 seconds,” you’d write “Sculpt Your Abs in 30 seconds.”
It’s the default approach on magazine covers, and we used it successfully in every channel, from newsletter subject lines to online stories to direct mail promotions.
Rule #2: Use “you” or “your”
Speak directly to the reader. From the example above, it’s the difference between “Sculpt Abs in 30 Seconds” and “Sculpt Your Abs in 30 Seconds.”
This rule applies equally to the stories and sales pages below the headlines. You’ll get more engagement with your readers when you make it clear that you’re addressing their needs and concerns.
Rule #3: Give a benefit
“Sculpt Your Abs,” obviously, tells readers exactly what they can expect. (It also shows how to use the first three rules with just three words.) Same with “Lose Your Spare Tire,” “Flatten Your Belly,” and “Burn Stubborn Fat.”
But the benefit can also be implied. Exhibit A: “Six Normal-Sized Guys Who Are Freakishly Strong Tell You How They Did It.” It didn’t come out and say, “Get Freakishly Strong,” but it certainly implied it. More important, it signaled to normal-sized guys—like you, presumably, and like most of our readers—that it’s an achievable goal, because someone like them has already done it.
Rule #4: Be specific
The classic example is “Five Ways to Do [insert goal],” using numbers or some other feature of the story. Unfortunately, this is also an example of a technique working too well. It’s now so familiar that readers are wary of it. Your challenge is to add words that give readers a taste of what you offer, but don’t make it look like something they’ve seen a thousand times before.
Consider our previous example: “The Ultimate Two-Exercise Workout” offers a specific process, but no specific benefit. “Lose Your Spare Tire” has the opposite problem: a specific benefit, but no hint of how you’ll do it. More to the point, it’s a benefit that readers have been promised in countless stories. Not one of them has delivered, which is why they still have excess fat they want to lose.
“Lose Your Spare Tire with Just Two Exercises” solves both problems. It sounds fresh and surprising, and it gives readers specifics without ruining the mystery. They have to know what those two exercises are, and how to use them for fat loss.
Rule #5: Use hyperbole—within reason
Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement that’s not meant to be taken literally. “Sculpt Your Abs in 30 Seconds” is an obvious example. Anyone who’s held a plank for 30 seconds understands it’s not enough time or effort to take their abs from soft to sculpted. They’ll assume you’re offering an exercise they can do in 30 seconds, and if your story or product meets this basic expectation, they won’t feel tricked.
The risk with hyperbole is going so far over the top you can’t possibly deliver. So if you’re selling your customers “The World’s Greatest Workout,” it’d better be a really good workout.
Rule #6: Appeal to their fears or desires
“The Junk Food that Flattens Your Belly” matches two desires that seem incompatible to most people. It can be very compelling … as long as the content is plausible enough to justify the headline.
“The Most Dangerous Exercise Trends of 2019,” conversely, tells readers they need to read the story immediately because they may already be doing something they shouldn’t. (A cynic would note that the danger probably comes from something you recommended a few months ago.)
Rule #7: Appeal to 80 percent of your audience
If your specialty is bodybuilding for vegans, your content needs to appeal to as many of them as possible. I’m sure there are nuances and controversies you have to account for within that audience, but at least you don’t have to worry about reaching anyone who isn’t both a vegan and a bodybuilder.
But let’s say you’re targeting busy moms over 40, a much more diverse audience. You probably aren’t going to get very far with a vegan diet plan or a hardcore bodybuilding routine. Those things may work for you and for some of your friends and clients, but they aren’t going to appeal to the majority of your target audience.
Mixing and matching the rules
“Lose Your Spare Tire with Just Two Exercises” uses all seven rules in a single headline. It offers an imperative; “your”; reasonable hyperbole; and promises a specific benefit that appeals to a desire shared by 80 percent of the audience.
But you don’t have to swing for the fences every time out. Try to use at least two or three in each headline, and to mix and match techniques and word choices to keep your content fresh and surprising to your audience.
Final thought: Sometimes you need to break the rules
The problem with great headlines is that success breeds imitation. Once editors and brands find something that works, they use it until it doesn’t. Your challenge is to develop fresh ways to promise the benefits you know your audience wants.
That’s why, every now and then, you need to try something completely different and unexpected.
Back in 1966, Esquire published what’s often ranked as the greatest magazine article ever. The headline: “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” The number of my rules it follows: zero.
Similar to the Code in Pirates of the Caribbean, the rules I’ve just described are really more like guidelines. They’ll help your stories, posts, and products achieve the success they deserve. But they aren’t the only ways to achieve those goals.
Just know what the rules are before you break them, and make sure you have a good reason.
A version of this article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of Fitness Marketing Monthly.