Persuasive headline writing: What I discovered blew my mind!

persuasive headline writing with clickbait tactics

Do you have a hot button?

Of course you do.

My wife revealed one of mine the other day when she challenged me on the cabinet where I keep our countertop oven broiling rack! I went on a (good natured) rant about why I was keeping it in the upper corner kitchen cabinet rather than down below.

She knew it was a sensitive topic with me because it’s something we never agree on. I think most married couples will understand this – it’s like the great Should bowls go on the top or bottom rack of the dishwasher? debate. If you’re a top rack person, invariably your spouse will be bottom rack, and vice versa.

But the important thing to understand about hot buttons is that they exist so people can push them! Knowingly push them in your headline writing.[bctt tweet=”The important thing to understand about hot buttons is that they exist so people can push them. Push them in your headline writing!” username=”rbmanley”]

Clickbait headlines push these hot buttons. They don’t necessarily push “personal” hot buttons – like my stance on proper broiling rack storage – they instead push “human nature” hot buttons. They typically push our hot button desires to:

  • Get something for nothing,
  • Experience fright without putting ourselves in any danger, and
  • Feel better about ourselves.

They are the print versions of get-rich-quick schemes, carnival side shows, and roller coasters.

I’ve written on this topic before and I’m still not advocating the use of clickbait headlines to trick people into looking at a piece of low-value content. What I want you to do is understand the “emotional mechanics” of why they are so persuasive (they make you click) so you can write better performing headlines. Also, in learning what works, I think we also learn what doesn’t work so we can eliminate fruitless practices.

Get something for nothing

With this label, I’m not really talking about money. I’m talking about the relationship between effort spent and payoff. Usually one or the other is overblown in clickbait headlines. You’ll see phrases like this often used:

  • The end result? Genius!
  • This one simple trick
  • My jaw dropped
  • …ordinary kitchen items
  • …then…OMG!

Look at the adjectives used and the mental pictures painted: Genius, jaw dropping, simple, ordinary, OMG. While Olympic athletes must train their entire lives to enjoy a huge payoff, these headline writing words and phrases promise a big payoff at a cost of nothing more than clicking a link and scanning a piece of Internet content.

Are you giving your readers some tips that are easy to do or simple to understand? If so, use those or similar adjectives to express that in your headline. Will your advice or information greatly improve the reader’s ability to succeed? If so, stress that in your headline.

Experience fright

Ever since we were running back to the shelters of our caves while chased by sabretooth tigers, fear has been the primary human motivator. And, few things are as exciting as escaping danger safely. We like safe, neatly packaged fear.

This hot button is probably more difficult to use in good business writing, but I’m sure you’ll occasionally find the opportunity. Check out how the headline writing clickbaiters use it:

  • …shocking fact, you’ll never want to eat again
  • What they found is chilling
  • …didn’t expect this terrifying thing to happen

Adjectives like shocking, chilling, and terrifying are always used in these kinds of headlines. It’s like someone has told you, “No matter what you do, don’t look behind the red door!” That makes you want to look behind the red door all the more. Hence, we click on these kinds of headlines.

Can you occasionally strike fear in the hearts of your prospective readers in your headline writing? Probably. But don’t overplay this card if you want to maintain long-term relationships.

Feel better about ourselves

Let’s be honest. We all want to feel superior. We’re seeing this fact of human nature played out today in headlines like You won’t believe what they look like now! accompanied by an unattractive photo.

In business writing, you can often use some variation of this because business is by nature a competitive venture. To be successful, companies and their leaders need to see themselves as superior to their competition. You can point out the mistakes of others in your headline writing to promote an article that helps others avoid those mistakes.

The grammar and style of clickbait headline writing

Let me make a few quick observations and recommendations regarding the structure of these strongly persuasive headlines.

They use first or second person. Many clickbait headlines are written as “I” or “you.” Examples:

  • Can you believe what they do?
  • What happened next blew my mind

Using first and second person in your headlines and your articles is a good idea. After all, the relationship you’re trying to establish is between you and your reader. Talking to or about some anonymous third party depersonalizes your writing.

Ask questions. A great copywriter once wrote that the object of the first sentence is to get the reader to read the second sentence. Asking a question immediately makes the reader continue.

Capitalize THIS! Clickbait headline writers often capitalize the word this. Example:

  • …but when he hears here sing it like THIS, he cries.

Want to know why this trick works? Think about it for a moment, what does the pronoun this represent here? It represents the content that is revealed after you click the link. Writing this all in capital letters imbues the content with power or authority, making it more desirable to read.

If you’re like me, you mentally kick yourself in the rear end every time you fall for the clickbait ploy. The payoff seldom measures up to the promise of the headline. But at the same time, I have a lot of respect for the editors who write these. They often come up with some real gems and in the final analysis, many of their headlines perform like gangbusters.


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