Copywriters Use These 4 Psychological Tactics to Write Attention-Grabbing Headlines

Leverage psychology in your copywriting to increase your powers of persuasion.

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By Nick Wolny

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Many content marketers feel a headline can be as important, if not more important, than the content itself. In fact, a study found that 59 percent of articles shared on social media weren't even clicked on by the user in the first place.

Whether your end goal is to educate, pitch, or sell, headlines are a critical component in your online marketing efforts, and readers use headlines to make a snap judgment about your content.

And the notion that people don't have time to read is a fallacy. Research has shown that when we're curious, we're more likely to expend precious resources such as time to find out the answer.

The good news is that you don't have to be a wordsmith or a literary genius to write great headlines. An effective headline isn't about the words, but rather the brain science in play when someone pauses to read.

Related: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Writing a Book

When zinged by a great headline, readers will drop everything to consume. The job of a headline, and your overall copy, is to deliver an emotional charge that suspends logic and creates psychological tension that can only be relieved with a click.

As a content writer and copywriter pitching editors and driving web traffic day in and day out, I see firsthand what works and what doesn't. I can say with confidence that when you improve content headlines in your online business, the needle will move.

Here are four techniques that will make your next headline more persuasive.

1. Leverage urgency and scarcity

To win the click or the sale, you must not only answer the reader's question of "Why this?", but also "Why this now?". Copywriters thread urgency and scarcity into a headline to elicit fast action.

Urgency creates a psychological experience in which we feel we must consume the information or product now, not later. The secret sauce of urgency is that it causes the emotional part of your brain, the amygdala, to activate and temporarily outrun your systems of information processing, housed in your frontal lobe.

Related: The 5 Skills You Need to Become a Successful Content Writer

Psychologist Daniel Goleman coined the term "amygdala hijack" to describe this sometimes-irrational fear response; we want this in copy because it means emotion has taken over.

Reader validation is one common way to achieve this emotion. In this technique, we tap into the reader's fear of being an impostor or not belonging. The example headline "9 Truths About Morning Productivity Only Successful People Know" encourages you to click and read if you perceive yourself as a successful person and crave validation of that self-perception.

Passage of time is another effective urgency trigger that preys on the pain of being held back. Will the prospective reader fall behind in their career or life if they don't click? "Last workshop of 2019 closes this Friday" elicits pain if the reader could benefit from attending the workshop now rather than later.

Scarcity refers to the number that are still available. It creates speed in a different way — in this case, your thought process gets disrupted by the realization that what you want is almost gone.

Scarcity technically falls under the umbrella of urgency. A good way to delineate the two is that scarcity usually highlights limited supply; even if you were to act within the given time window, you may still miss out.

"7 spots left and they're going fast - you in?" is a dead-simple email newsletter subject line packed with scarcity and speed. If you don't act right now, you risk missing out on the opportunity.

Scarcity doesn't always have to be supply-related. Last-chance language can stir up similar emotions — "Last day for purchases to arrive by Christmas" is an effective headline for product-backed businesses or disappearing bonuses.

Be cautious about using fake urgency and scarcity. If you say the added bonus expires on Friday, then continue to promote it again and again, you risk eroding confidence and trust in your brand.

2. Get specific

Specificity creates a more vivid experience in the brain. The more real a headline feels to someone, the more likely they are to engage with your content.

Related: Balancing Creativity and SEO in Content Writing

Numbers create specificity and engage the brain, especially when represented as a digit rather than a word ("5" instead of "five").

Numbers also help to outline the upcoming content, which saves your brain from having to enlist the logical part of your mind; as a result, your emotional brain continues to run the show.

Research from Conductor also found that 36 percent of respondents prefer a number in the headline; numbers provide more detail in a compact way.

Descriptive adjectives also light up the reader's brain and increasing the overall synaptic activity happening in the reader's mind.

Adjectives can help to assert the desired end result. The headline I used for this article described "attention-grabbing headlines" to draw in the entrepreneur who has conversion marketing, clicks, and transactions on their mind.

3. Drum up curiosity

An analysis by BuzzSumo of 100 million headlines showed that, when it comes to traffic and click-through, curiosity is king.

In our brains, curiosity is part of a reward pathway. We seek new ideas or information because it sometimes leads to a reward. (This is why reader validation works; even when the information ends up not being new, self-validation ignites our brain's reward systems.)

Research also implies that our brains assign more dopamine to the learning of information we didn't previously know.

Dr. Todd Kashdan, a lifelong researcher on curiosity, notes in a study that there are different flavors of curiosity and different sensitivities to each from person to person.

For some readers, dangling a puzzle to solve will get the click, while for others a more effective trigger to pull back the curtain and reveal how a certain group of people approach a topic.

Related: 5 Ways Your Business Will Benefit From You Writing a Book

The latter approach was leveraged in the headline of this article--you want to know what copywriters take into consideration when crafting headlines.

4. Be clear and concise

The optimal subject line and headline length is a hot topic, and three conflicting reports are often cited.

Outbrain researched that headlines that are 16-18 words in length tend to outperform ones that are shorter or longer.

Social media company Buffer, however, says an ideal headline is six words, and also backs up their claim with research.

And an analysis done by Mailchimp of their millions of users found that headline length didn't impact the open rate at all.

Which is correct? A good exercise for any entrepreneur is to practice getting the point across in as few words as possible to start. For experts or seasoned professionals, this brevity can be a workout.

When you develop this skeletal headline style, you learn to pack more punch into each word. Explore 3-5 headlines that get the point across quickly, then go back over your headline options and add detail or adjectives only if they elicit more emotion from the reader.

Helping your audience

Even as honest, hard-working entrepreneurs, we must stir up emotion in our headlines if we want to help our audience.

When your copy leverages our hard-wired emotional response, objections go the wayside. Use these tactics to inform and inspire your audience to take the next step now and not someday.

Nick Wolny

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Writer, Speaker, and Consultant

Named a "40 Under 40" by Houston Business Journal, Nick Wolny is the founder of Camp Wordsmith, a business and writing membership for entrepreneurs. His weekly longform newsletter on online business, "The Slide Grease," goes out on Sundays. Wolny currently resides in Los Angeles.

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