6 Reasons Why Your Headline Is Doomed To Fail

Jay   38

You know those truly marvelous headlines that get thousands of shares on social media?

Those that make you stop and think "Wow! That's actually quite clever!"

Some blogs even seem to hit that magnificent note with every single headline they publish.

But when you try to create one... you always end up with something mediocre.

It's so frustrating! It's like you're missing some sort of magic spark to turn your decent headline into a fantastic one!

Perhaps you're just not cut out to write headlines. Maybe you should just move to a deserted island somewhere and focus on sending bottled messages.


... but bottled messages need a headline as well! Damn it.

Don’t give up just yet. Truth is, your headline might be just a tweak away from being brilliant, and right here, you'll discover what that tweak is...

The Big Deal With Headlines

You’ve probably seen statistics like “8 of 10 visitors will read your headline, but only 2 of 10 will go on to read your content.” Or platitudes like "Without a good headline, your content is irrelevant."

Ok, so it's obvious that you should put some effort into your headline. But what if you don't? Maybe you’ll miss a few shares. What’s the big deal?

It's not just about shares. Let me just illustrate a few of my favourite cases where a simple headline change made a MASSIVE difference to the end result.

Double Your Conversions With A Tiny Headline Tweak

Glen Allsop, our favourite genius from Viperchill, hardly needs an introduction when it comes to audience engagement. Here’s a headline he used on his landing page, promoting his free ebook.

Discover How You Can Grow Your Blog to Over 10,000 Subscribers in Just 12 Months

With this headline, the landing page had an opt-in conversion rate of 24%. Not bad by any measure, but Glen, being the scientific sort, wanted to test others to see if one would perform better.

And he found one.

Discover How This Very Blog Gained over 10,000 Subscribers In Just 12 Months

The simple focus shift from “you can grow your blog” to "this very blog" increased conversion from 24% to… wait for it… 54%. With one tiny tweak, the landing page more than doubled its subscription rate.


Imagine if you could double your sales with just a small tweak of your headline. Sound tempting?

Increase Your Email Opening Rate Using Magnetic Subject Lines

Sean Platt helps writers become self publishers at Sterling & Stone. With an engaging subject line, he managed to get an email opening rate of not just close to 100%, but OVER 100%. This means that his email was not only opened by his subscribers, but by others as well.

What do you think he used as an email subject line to achieve this? It was simple:

You Are Not Alone

One of the core fears we all share is the fear of being alone. This subject line is a reassurance to readers that someone out there is on their side. Someone understands.

Can you imagine how an opening rate of 100+% will help your sales?

Get 50x More Visits With A Provocative Headline!

Erin Falconer from Pick the Brain wrote a rather excellent article on understanding intelligence, but was disappointed by the amount of visitors it got.

Her original headline was okay, but not exactly a copywriting masterpiece. It was descriptive, but lacked a clear benefit:

The Two Types of Cognition

Using this headline, the article scored 100 visits per day. Curious if she could do better, she decided to promote the article again with a new headline:

Learn to Understand Your Own Intelligence

By changing the headline into a more provocative and challenging one, the visits per day shot up from 100 to 5000. That’s a 4900% increase for those counting.

If you could increase the daily visits to your articles by a factor of 50 with a simple headline-rewrite, would you?

A good headline makes a massive difference in building your email list, landing page conversions, and getting your article read. That’s the big deal.

The Six Cardinal Headline Sins

Most headlines get at least one of the following things wrong.

Keep reading to find out the six steps to fixing any headline.

Sin #1: Your Headline Promises No Tangible REWARD

Why should your visitor care about your content?

If your headline doesn’t provide a clear answer to this question, your visitor has no reason to assume your content will either.

A great headline offers an IRRESISTIBLE PROMISE to its TARGET AUDIENCE in exchange for their attention.

Let’s take a look at this dull and meaningless headline:

A Mistake

“A mistake.” The words hardly register in your mind as you switch browser tabs to read something else.

This headline is pretty much useless. It offers a subject with no defined audience or tangible benefits.

Let’s see if we can improve it a bit.

A Mistake That Cost $3,000 A Year

“Oh? $3,000 a year? That's not cheap,” you ponder, as you scroll down to find that other article you were looking for.

The headline now connects the mistake to a tangible benefit. But it still offers YOU nothing. A mistake somewhere has apparently cost $3,000. So what? There’s nothing for you to relate to.

What about adding a human element?

A Little Mistake That Cost A Farmer $3,000 A Year

(Ad headline from Victor Schwab’s book How to Write a Good Advertisement: A Short Course in Copywriting)“

"A little mistake cost a farmer $3,000?” you stop in your tracks.

You click the headline to find out what happened not to a farmer, but a fellow human being. What little mistake did they make to lose that money? If that can happen to them, surely it could also happen to you?

By making the headline focus on ‘‘a farmer’, you’ve fleshed out an empty shell. It’s becomes a story about the misfortune of someone specific. And we love to hear about the misfortunes (and fortunes) of someone specific.

The headline now offers an IRRESISTIBLE PROMISE “you can avoid losing $3,000” that resonates with its TARGET AUDIENCE in two ways.

  1. "A farmer" speaks to people interested in farming and agriculture.
  2. "This farmer made a mistake" speaks to all of us as empathetic humans.


Make sure your headline includes a distinct and IRRESISTIBLE PROMISE that’s meaningful to your TARGET AUDIENCE.

Sin #2: Your Headline is Too Artsy & Clever for its Own Good

Your social media feeds, email and instant messengers are constantly fighting for your attention with real time notifications. With a dozen attractive headlines flashing past every minute, do you think you'll bother to stop if one of them is some garbled metaphorical mess?

… Or do you think you'll just ignore it and move on?

Cleverness is something every new writer gets caught up in. When we find a clever pun, a funny turn of phrase, or flashy big word to outwit our readers with, it feels good.

But there’s a problem. Unless your audience is passionately engaged and familiar with your content, your wit might fly straight over their heads. Sure, if you can hide unexpected cleverness in your story and build it up to a surprise climax where it's all revealed, it's a great technique for some hilarious comedy.

When it comes to headlines and titles though, keep it simple. Swallow your pride.

A headline can easily be too clever for its own good... (+5 other mistakes to avoid).

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An overly witty headline just doesn't work. 

  • It's unshareable because it makes no sense to new fans.
  • It's bad for SEO, because Google has a hard time understanding metaphors.

You need to make your headline as descriptive and specific as possible. The decision to read needs to be easier than the decision to walk away!

Simplify Your Headline For Success:

Demystifying The Correspondence Phantasmagoria With Industry Tycoons

The overuse of flashy words and forced metaphor make this quite a handful. It's hard to take in and the offered benefit has been completely lost in translation.

Now let’s see what happens when we forget the flashy words and focus on clarity:

The Ultimate Guide to Writing Comments That Open Doors with Popular Bloggers

Presto! It turns into this great headline (by Kevin Duncan.)

What is it? -It’s an ultimate guide.

Guide to what? -Writing comments.

What kind of comments? -The kind that open doors with popular bloggers.

Simple. Straightforward. You know exactly what you’re getting into when you click it. A great headline dazzles you with its informative value, not its thesaurus.

When Your Headline Jumps The Shark

It Is Not In The Stars To Hold Our Destiny But In Ourselves

I used to do this a lot.

Showing off with quotes from Shakespeare might impress your buddies at art school, but it won’t get your headline shared. Don’t get me wrong - it’s a good quote! But as a headline it’s useless: You have no clue what the article might be about, what benefit it might offer you, or even who it’s for.

Can You Be Clever and Retain Clarity?

Failure Is An Option

This headline by Chase Reeves is a clever play on the old saying “Failure is NOT an option.” It speaks to entrepreneurs, writers, business owners and the like. The mere idea that failure might be an option has a whiff of rebellion to it, and is intriguing enough to warrant a click.

It works because it’s clear and direct, with a benefit that's useful and easy to understand. The cleverness here is not the core concept.

So can you be clever in your headline? Technically yes, but every time you sacrifice clarity for cleverness, you're turning away potential readers.

See how a subheading makes even this brilliantly clever headline more focused?

Failure Is An Option - What They Never Taught You In Business School


Forget writing witty headlines. Focus on being descriptive, specific and clear.

Sin #3: Your Headline Is Dry As Cardboard

Would you watch this movie from 1977?

There's this boy who leaves home, gets into some scuffles in the rough part of town, and in the end saves the day by sabotaging the villain’s ride.

Yeah you're right, it does sound a bit boring.

But what if the boy was from a galaxy far far away? His parents are murdered by the evil Empire for harbouring fugitive robots! He narrowly escapes his home planet in a starship of a smuggler to learn the ways of an ancient power, the Force. In the end, he and a ragtag group of fighter pilots evade turbolasers to finally DESTROY THE STARBASE of the evil Empire.


Apologies for butchering Star Wars, but wouldn’t you much rather watch a movie with this description?

It’s full of emotion. Intrigue. Shock and awe! It paints a picture and draws you in.

This is what you want your visitor to feel when they read your headline.

Take Your Readers For An Emotional Journey

How to Quit Your Job, Move to Paradise and Get Paid to Change the World

Jon Morrow’s headline makes three outrageous claims. Quit my job, move to paradise… get paid to change the world? If you’re like me, you’ll be sizzling with curiosity. What kind of nutter would make such bold claims? What if it’s true? What if you could really do it all? You’re compelled to click to find out.

This article is an epic growth story in itself and deserves every bit of that amazing headline, so it might be an unfair example. But can you turn an everyday headline from bland to colourful and shocking?

Find A Controversial Way To Express Your Topic

5 Leadership Qualities Only Women Have

This is not a bad headline. The topic is fresh and you might want to click just to see which qualities are highlighted here.

But it’s kind of bland. It’s just another topic. It does nothing emotionally, and you’ll feel all the same for not clicking it. So how can we make it better?

5 Ways Women Are Better Bosses Than Men

Can you hear the men in the back row gasping? Yes, the gender debate is a controversial one and this headline by Barry Moltz is certain to stir emotions in men and women alike.

Dancing skillfully between the thin lines of political correctness, and poking at the status quo, Barry really hits the nail on the head with this headline. In essence, it’s just a list of qualities, but making it a comparison between genders turns it into a click-magnet.

Express A Lifeless Topic In An Exciting Way

4 Tips to Edit Your Article For Easier Reading

This headline is short and to the point. It offers a benefit and is targeted to a certain audience. So what’s wrong?

It’s lifeless, and verging on BORING. "Editing tips" sounds so arduous. It’s like school all over again! And what about "For easier reading"? So “meh” even Lisa Simpson wouldn’t touch it.

So what can we do to spice things up a bit?

4 Delightful Editing Tips to Make Your Words Dazzle and Dance

Here's a headline by Henneke from Copyblogger. In essence, it’s still an article about editing tips, but she makes the benefit much more appealing. First of all, the tips are DELIGHTFUL. Doesn’t that just alleviate the schooling aspect and turn the whole experience into something light and cheerful?

More importantly, using these tips, you can make your words dazzle and dance. It’s easy to imagine colour and flair flowing into your article content.


After you’ve created your descriptive and specific headline, make it colourful. Make it dance. Go absolutely crazy with it if you must, but go only as far as you can back up with your article.

Your headline must never write bigger cheques than your article can cash.

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Sin #4: Your Headline Doesn't Use The Words of Your Audience

Have you ever listened to a pair of sports geeks and their jargon? Have you ever had the misfortune of hearing two lawyers argue about the finer points of tax law?

What about two teenagers talking about current events? Incomprehensible gibberish.

All of these focus groups have their own specific lingo and style of speaking that can sound like alien slang from the planet Betelgeuse to the untrained listener.

Now, imagine speaking to a teenager using a lawyer’s voice. Do you think they’ll be interested? Do you think they’ll even be capable of listening?

In the same way, your headline will be ignored if it doesn’t address your audience. You must write your headline with the phrasing and tone your audience would use. It might sound insignificant, but let’s see how a headline for a list-article changes between audiences:

Create your headline using the words of your audience, not yours.

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7 Cool Decentralized Apps Being Built on Ethereum

Coindesk.com writes for people who are interested in technology, finance, cryptocoins, and cutting edge development. Words like ‘decentralized’, ‘Ethereum’, or even ‘apps’ are part of everyday lingo for this audience.

4 Dividend Stocks Hedge Funds Love - And You Should Too

Forbes.com writes for people interested in business news, stocks, finance, and education from a more managerial viewpoint. Words like ‘dividend’, ‘hedge fund’, or ‘stocks’ are typical terms for the stock market expert, but throw off anyone else.

Many highly focused headlines are full of specialized jargon, but don't take that as a rule. Use jargon as sparingly as you can, and aim to use common words whenever possible.

More important than word choice is matching the vibe and tone of the message, like in these next headlines.

The 8 Guys You'll Find on Tinder (And the One You Won't)

Huffingtonpost.com writes for a wider audience. They target the everyday user, and as such, their topics are verging on sensational, avoiding specialized word choices. Anyone who uses the internet will understand what this headline is about.

8 Simple Ways to Brighten Someone’s Day

Tiny Buddha is a blog targeting people interested in self-improvement and generally looking to have a happier day. Their headlines have a positive vibe like in “brighten someone’s day” to resonate with this audience.

Neither message contains any insider jargon, but the way of speaking is still unique to each focus group.

Now imagine mixing these headlines up with the wrong audiences. Can you see why someone looking for self-improvement won’t necessarily understand the finer subtleties of dividend stocks?


Study your audience. Engage in conversation. Read forums. Listen to how they speak. Create your headline using their words, not yours.

Sin #5: Your Headline Lacks Intrigue and Drama

Here's an easy mistake to make. Can you guess what's wrong with this headline:

Are Your Readers Calling You a Liar?

Looks good, right? It's concise and clear, even slightly provocative.

But it hides a fatal flaw. Try reading it again.

Imagine running into this headline in your newsfeed or blog-reader. You think to yourself “My readers? No, they’re not calling me a liar.”

Without giving the headline a second thought, you move on.


So what happened?

This headline is built on the idea of intrigue. But an unfortunate choice of words ends up destroying all intrigue and turning it into a simple question with a no-answer. The matter is resolved and you have no reason to find out any more.

This headline was written by Sherice Jacob from Copyblogger. (Hey, even the best make mistakes.) Once she realized the low click-rate, she quickly made appropriate changes:

Do Your Readers Secretly Think You’re a Liar?

This seemingly minor change turns the whole headline around. By swapping "calling" to "secretly think", the headline regains all of its lost intrigue and some.

Your mind is flooded with questions: Why would your readers think you’re a liar? What are they secretly talking about that they’re not telling you? It’s a must click.

If your headline leaves your reader with no questions, it's dead.

This is not to say your headline should be answered by yes, or even be a question in the first place. When your reader sees your headline, you want their reaction to be one of the following:

They nod in agreement.

10 Ways to Learn About Your Target Audience

They're intrigued and don't know if they agree.

Being Poor Is Too Expensive

They're shocked and think “wait, hold on, what??”

Why Successful People Are Douchebags


Make sure your headline doesn’t evoke a direct no-response. Aim for intrigue, amazement, shock, or strong disagreement!

Sin #6: Your Headline Suffers From CLICKBAIT SYNDROME

Kim Takes Control! Kardashian Refusing To Let Kanye Style Her For Met Gala

Justin Bieber Found Naked With These Six Cute Cats!

Make Girls/Guys Fall In Love With This One Weird Trick

Admit it.

You’re 99% certain these headlines lead to complete garbage, or at most a complete waste of your time. Still, the thought of clicking entered your mind. That’s why it’s called clickbait - it plays on our innate sense of curiosity.

The classic clickbait headline promises an awesome new benefit, a sensational bit of gossip, cat pictures or something so incredible you need to see it.

So you click and end up looking at some underwhelmingly lazy garbage content.

Why avoid clickbait then if it’s a surefire way to get visitors? You want your headline to get clicks, right?

Well, yes and no. There’s three problems with clickbait:

  • Sensationalist claims. Your headline needs to attract with quality, not noise!
  • False promises - If your headline makes an outrageous claim that you can't deliver on, you lose credibility instantly!
  • High bounce rate - If the visitor doesn't find what the clickbait headline promised, they'll just leave.

As content marketers, our primary objective is to deliver value to our visitors in exchange for their time. This builds trust and is the best way to reach your ultimate goal of turning a visitor into a customer. Clickbait effectively achieves the opposite.

Always deliver value to your visitors in exchange for their time.

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Clickbait is a cheap tactic for getting lots of low-quality traffic. It will never result in engaged visitors. Make sure your headlines stay away from sensationalism or empty promises!

Write Your Own Magnificent Headline

Now you have all the tools to find your own magic headline spark.

The next time you're looking for a headline for your article or sales page, here's what you do: 

  1. Write at LEAST 25 headlines. Use our headline swipe file for inspiration and you'll get there in no time!
  2. When you find a good headline, make sure it doesn’t fail in any of the six ways.
  3. Insert your best headlines into the Thrive Headline Optimizer and find out which headline performs best with your audience!

A killer recipe for creating headlines with maximal shareability and potential to hit that viral glass ceiling is at your fingertips. It's literally a mouseclick away.

Now forget about deserted islands and start publishing your own ultra-shareable magnificent headlines!

by Jay  March 18, 2016


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Leave a Comment

  • Great article. I struggle with SEO and intriguing headline. Should I try and incorporate key search terms within headline or go for a clever headline void of search terms?

    • Hey Bob!

      Always go for clarity. If your headline is specific about the benefit your article/content will provide, it will naturally include all the relative keyterms. Don’t sweat about SEO so much. I suggest reviewing SIN #2. =)


  • This is a really meaty article on a topic that I already thought I understood, offering a lot of insights. I will bookmark this for quick reference!

    Plus…this post shows how to promote extra engagement through multiple calls to action (to opt-in and download the Headline Swipe File, or to tweet an interesting quote and a link to the article) in a way that feels natural and compelling.

    Well done – and thanks again to Thrive for creating valuable resources for everyone who creates content and wants it to be seen and bring in business!

    • Hey Eric

      I’m so glad to hear that. It makes these articles worth writing when people like yourself get new value from them. =)

      That’s a good point about the multiple calls to action. Keep the reader engaged and get more shares for your article – always a good idea.


  • Now, in a sea of articles just on this one subject of headlines, I find yours to be very inspiring and funny. And that sir, is a great feat. Happy to have invested my precious time 🙂

  • Woah! Gonna try out these tips as soon as I can. Thanks! 🙂

    But here is a question:

    Are there any wordpress based plugin (or any method whatsoever) to test out different headlines? Especially different headlines on facebook shares?

    Because it would be nice to have actual A/B test data, not just guesses that something was “better”.

    • I’m using “Title Experiments Free” as a plugin to test headlines. It’s not perfect, but it does help with testing headlines for posts.

      Not sure if it’s useful for facebook shares though.. But it probably won’t work if you use custom social meta data, because that fb would automatically use that, instead of the post title.

      • Hi Nick

        I’m not familiar with that plugin. But hang in there, what you’ll see this week might just blow your mind about what Headline plugins are capable of. =)


    • Hey Danielius!

      You’re welcome. =)

      About the plugin though. I suggest you keep an eye on Thrive Themes this week. Perhaps more accurately this coming Thursday (24th). You just might get the answer you’re looking for. =)


  • Jay, this article is a big deal man. Thanks you for the content. I’ll be using it soon as I continue to build up my fitness blog.

    • Hi Mike!

      Thank you so much. I’m so glad it’s useful for you. Stay tuned for more headline related content, I hope your fitness site will be booming with awesome headlines soon. =)


    • Hey Susan!

      You’re very welcome! I’m so glad it’s useful. =) It’s funny how learning headlines is useful for every part of your article writing.


  • Great post, great freebie and great advise. I´m going to start reading this again and make notes of essentially every part of it needs to be applied to my own blog posts and email marketing campaigns.

    I do have an additional question: Ok, so Thrive Themes, content builder, landing pages, widgets and Thrive Leads are all great…I mean, they are fantastic. Do you have any plans of completing this WP & Internet Marketing Tools with a Membership Site Plugin…I think this could complete the product offers you have and integrate it all under one simple, great all in one solution for marketers.
    I´m already using the the Thrive Leads and the Thrive Content Builder…so if you build a membership site plugin, I´m all for it.
    Thank you,
    Luis Carlos Eskay

    • Hi Luis!

      Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you found it useful!

      As for the Membership plugin, it’s a great idea, and it’s been tossed around the idea table more than once. We always try to create products that serve the majority of our customers, so we’ll see when it’s time for the Membership plugin. =)


  • Awesome article!

    As a big side note: You guys need to create a survey funnel plugin (that integrates with AC) I can’t find a good one, and you guys always make the best stuff 🙂

  • I loved this article! It was a long read, but well worth it. I downloaded the swipe file, and that’s excellent too. Now I just need to apply all that I have learned. Thanks so much!

  • I have a question/comment that’s only a side note here, but since opt-ins are your thing, it seems like a good place to ask. 😉

    Your opt-in box here behaves like many I’ve seen, and it drives me nuts. It’s partway down the content. I’m READING this post. But I get to the opt-in, I submit my information, and I’M TAKEN AWAY FROM THE PAGE. (Worse, I have to click on that page to get to the actual download, so it takes me two clicks to get back here so I can finish reading the article. WHY does the confirmation page not open in a new tab?!

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