Live or die by the first 5 words of your headlines.

writing headlinesI have written before about the importance of writing strong headlines for your web pages and posts, here and here.

Content headlines have always been important, but with the rise of social media, they are now more important than ever before.

Why? Because when people tweet or retweet your content, or share it through Facebook and Google+, it’s your headline that will either hook them or not.

When people come to your site or blog, you already have their attention or interest. Those readers are yours to lose. And your headline can work in conjunction with images and the rest of the text alone.

But when those headlines are simply one of many within a fast-moving flow of tweets, or on a social bookmarking site like Reddit, they stand alone. Headlines are important, not just on your sales pages, but on all your content pages.

But why am I putting so much emphasis on the first 5 words?

Because busy people scan before they read.

This is particularly true when your headlines appear on social media pages or dashboards. When you look at your Twitter page, do you read every tweet, word for word? Or do you scan the page, looking for something interesting, new or intriguing?

You scan.

This scanning behavior has been confirmed by numerous eye-tracking studies and heatmaps. As a result, you want to frontload your headline with the most interesting words. You want to hook the reader BEFORE they get to the second half of your headline.

To show you what I mean, here are some of the headlines I wrote for this post:

– Spend more time working on the first 5 words of your headlines.

– Why you should work harder on the first 5 words of your headline

– Why the first 5 words can make or break your headline

– Why the first 5 words are the most important part of any headline you write.

– Why people read only the first 5 words of your headlines

– Why your headline will live or die by its first 5 words

– Live or die by the first 5 words of your headlines.

As you read through them you’ll see they are all trying to communicate the same point, but some are more successful than others at grabbing your attention. And when it comes to making that grab within the first half of the headline, only a few even come close.

Here is a particularly weak one:

– Why you should work harder on the first 5 words of your headline

Using the word “why” is not such a bad idea. That can be a strong way to open. But if I break this headline in half, here is what I get first:

– Why you should work harder on the…

OK, now imagine you were scanning your Twitter stream. And when you scan, you really do take in just the first few words. Would you find this line compelling? Would you be intrigued or interested in a headline that says you should work harder?

Probably not.

Now let’s look at the first half of the headline I finally used for this post:

– Live or die by the first…

I think you’ll agree that this first half is a little more dramatic and compelling.

I’m going to add to that line just a touch now:

– Live or die by the first 5 words…

Now I have the drama of “live or die” plus the specificity of “the first 5 words”.

I have some drama and curiosity working for me now. This should be enough to get people to read the balance of the headline. And if writing content headlines is a part of my audience’s work, they will probably click through to my post and keep reading.

The bottom line is that when writing content headlines you have to frontload the line with the most interesting words and ideas within the first few words.

That’s how you grab attention and drive your readers forward.

If you leave the good stuff to the second half of the headline, many of your readers will never read that far, and you’ll have lost them.

BTW – I wrote 7 headlines for this post before finding one I was happy with. How many different headline versions do you write for your content? Please don’t tell me the answer is just one.

Note: Check out my new course on how to write better headlines for web content…

Course on headline writing

11 thoughts on “Live or die by the first 5 words of your headlines.”

  1. I scan, there I am.

    6 pages of tested headlines for an original headline consisting of 15 words in the main portion and 10 in the sub-heads, and I’m stil not satisfied with it.

    Your “live or die” caught me right away. Thank you for sharing your creative process of pulling out the nuggets.

  2. Misty, hi. Good to see that you try many different headline approaches! I think most copywriters work this way, but I don’t think many people writing articles or posts work so hard on their headlines. Good for you!


  3. Nick, thanks for the “look over your shoulder” on the headline.

    The one you ultimately selected is also the shortest. There’s evidence of a sweet spot between 30 and 50 characters with open rate falling sharply after that, no?

    • Bob, hi. I know of data that shows a shorter headline results in higher open rates in email, and clickthrough rates for social media, like Twitter. I’m not familiar with data on the length of headlines for articles and blogs, but suspect the same is true there too.

  4. Hey Nick, this post inspired my own on the same topic.

    Looking through my history, the top 5 posts on my blog all communicate their main idea in the first 6 words (which is fairly close to 5).

    Btw, I think the best headline is the one you ended up using for your newsletter (in 4 words).

    • Robert, hi. Interesting that you have the same experience. And, for those who don’t receive my newsletter, the headline version I used in my subject line was: Why Short Headlines Win.

  5. Thanks Nick, this post got my thinking (and working harder on my headlines!)

    I wonder if there’s a correlation between whether peoplea are reading emails on big PC screens or their phones? And whether this affects what works best for different audiences?

    And I agree with Robert above – the shortest headline (Why Short Headlines Win) was the best. Is it me or do headlines that start with “Why…” seem to work well – they make me curious, and that’s a great motivator to open an email.

    • I keep waiting for some freelancer to pick this up as a niche – just writing and improving headlines. It’s probably the fastest way to improve the performance of any web page, Facebook update etc.

      • Back in 2000 I asked the radio show hosts to a new weekly advertising show in Houston: “How/where could I get a job just writing (or mostly writing) headlines?” They thought it was a crazy idea (read: stoopid – oh, they’re former big ad men – or maybe they’re still in advertising and hosting the show).

        Although copywriting was a gleam in my eye at the time (and I wasn’t a complete newbie ~ I’d been around ad agencies, tv commercial production and I was a broadcast journalism major in college) – I thought, well, gee – what about billboards?

        I love writing headlines and would do this all night and all day long.

        I’m crasy for headlines . . . and yes, I also see it as a great SM Gig and advocate that principle.

        ~ Tia D.

        P.S. Bob Bly was once a guest on that show… the hosts asked him to listen to the 6 spots being run during the break. When they came back on, they asked him, “Which of those was a good ad?” and he said, “None.”


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