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One of the first lessons that newspaper journalists are taught is to structure their content so that the most important information is first, with the importance decreasing as you read through the piece. Pick up any newspaper around you and you’ll see that the first few sentences contain the most crucial elements of the event.
This not only creates impact, but also allows editors to simply snip off the bottom paragraph of a story if they need space for other articles. As the final paragraph is the least important, their editing does not affect the article too much. I’ve already shared how I personally became a much better writer (though I don’t rate myself that highly) and now I want to get into the specifics of how to create compelling content.
Your headline, in my opinion, is by far the most important element of your article or blog post. It of course matters what you say after the headline, but only if you can actually get people to read your article. The job of your headline is simply to get people to read the first sentence of your post.
Your headline doesn’t just need to be attractive to people who stop by your blog regularly. If you use Google Reader in a list format for example – like I do – then your headline determines whether myself or anyone else using the service will click on your listing to read the post. Similarly, if I see content posted on Facebook or retweeted on Twitter, that same headline will determine whether I click through to your website.
The following advice is my take on how to create a headline that draws your readers in and helps your content go viral.
Don’t tell me something I know: If your headline says something like “Why exercise is good for you” or “How to increase your feed subscribers” then I probably won’t read it. It gives me nothing but the expectation that I already know most of what the article is going to share. If you want someone to keep reading, you need them to feel like they’ll actually get value out of the time they’re going to spend doing so.
Headline example: Printer Cartridges Are Expensive
Challenge someones beliefs: One of my most popular posts on PluginID bore the title ‘Smoking is Good for you’. As everyone knows, there are many reasons why smoking is detrimental to your health, so this caused quite a stir and invoked the desire for people to continue reading. I followed up the title with a good twist in the article, which is important if you’re going to write your headline with such an angle.
If you write an article – with the content to back it up – which tells me why “running is bad for you”, “people don’t read blogs anymore” or “[common tactic] no longer works”, I’m going to read the post. Humans love taking in new information, but we hate holding on to information which is incorrect, so challenging beliefs can be a very powerful to get eyeballs on your content.
Headline example: Why Buying Another Printer is Cheaper Than Buying Ink
Offer a hidden insight: This one is very common in the internet marketing space, with titles offering ‘keys’, ‘secrets’ and ‘crucial aspects’ about different topics. I’ve used them myself in posts like this one and my article on ‘The Secret to Growing Your Blog Twice as Fast with Half the Effort‘.
This works so well because the title suggests that by reading the article, we’ll learn something we wouldn’t have known otherwise. A year or two ago I did this for a popular topic – how to increase feed subscribers – but in a way that was new and promised value. The title was ‘How to Increase RSS Subscribers (One Method You Probably Don’t Know About)’. Are you more likely to read that article than an article with the same title, but without the brackets?
Headline example: The Real Reason Behind the High-Cost of Printer Cartridges
Ask a question: If the question you ask is relevant and intriguing, people are going to read your post to see why you feel a certain way about something. Headlines with questions are also one of the best ways to get people to leave comments on your posts. The question automatically gives them something to say in response.
Discussions start from questions, and this is a great way to get a conversation going in your community, especially if you make bold statements on a hot topic. There’s a great example of this kind of post at Copyblogger, where the author asks: Is Commenting on Blogs a Smart Traffic Strategy? [Link]
Headline example: Do You Know Why Printer Ink is so Expensive? We Reveal the Truth
I’ve received a lot of praise for the headlines I use in posts and I’ve been asked numerous times whether headline writing comes naturally to me. The answer is no, it doesn’t. I find inspiration from magazine covers, books, and other bloggers along with my own imagination. I also spend quite a lot of time on each title and it’s never something I just “throw out there.”
Keep these ideas in mind, and you’ll soon be writing headlines which capture the attention of your audience and help your content go viral.
If the job of your headline is to get people to read your introduction, then the job of your introduction is to get people to read further into the post. I believe that if your introduction is interesting and compelling enough, there’s a better chance that people will read your entire post, rather than just skimming through or ignoring it all together.
I definitely have a lot of work to do on my own introductions, but do have some advice to share which I think can help you.
List some interesting facts: I think the introduction for this post, regarding newspaper journalists, would have been interesting for most people. The information it shares must have some value, simply because I was able to remember this myself and then pass it on to you all. If you’ve naturally remembered a small nugget of information about a topic, there’s a good chance it’s interesting.
If your facts are both interesting and relevant then it’s a great way to keep people hooked on what you’re saying.
Offer a teaser for later in the post: If you could easily work out who the killer was at the start of an episode of CSI or figure out the plot of a movie after the first 5 minutes, we just wouldn’t watch them. Smart television and movie producers “sprinkle” teasers throughout the length of the production to keep you hooked until the end where you find the answers.
Promise your readers the answer to something you know they’ll care about, and make sure you stick to that promise, but only by offering small nuggets of information as they get towards the end of the post.
Ask a question: Though questions can make very effective headlines, I personally don’t like to use them in this way. I prefer to use them in introductions. This way, you can both ask the question and answer it to offer value straight away, or you can use it as a hook.
Similar to the last point, you could answer an intriguing question and then promise to answer it towards the end of the post. A good one from the book Made to Stick is the question, “What are the rings around the planet Saturn made of?” I’ll tell you at the end of the post ;).
Use Reverse Psychology: I recommend you use this sparingly as too much of this tactic will annoy readers rather than encourage them to read your post. I used this tactic in my ‘most important blog post‘ article when I wrote “This blog post is quite long so you probably shouldn’t read it. To the 50% of visitors who are still with me, I’ll say now that less than 1% of you will get to the end so you may as well leave now.”
I can imagine some people will take this too far and tell their readers in every post that they aren’t going to read it or they won’t enjoy it. Trust me, this tactic only works when you use it very, very sparingly. Think of some unique ways you can apply it and you’ll be on to a winner.
The middle of your post is where you get across your main points, provide value to your readers, and offer lessons you hope that they take away from the article. For example, in my post on How I received over 900,000 visits from Google in 30 days, I began by proving my facts and claims in the headline. The meat of the post was exactly how I was able to do that.
Although I mentioned this earlier, it’s very important that even if you have a great intro and a great headline, the meat of your content must match up to those high standards. If you have extravagant headlines and can’t follow them up with great information, you’re just going to annoy readers and they probably won’t come back.
In other words, if you’re going to offer some “secrets”, make sure they actually aren’t that well known.
Be personal: One of the best ways to get your points across is to speak about personal experiences. On the most basic level, this means that you should be open to sharing both your failures and your successes. In my article about generating more blog post ideas, I was more than willing to share that I had been struggling to come up with things to write about.
The reason that being personal works so well is because people can relate to what you’re saying. And, if people can relate to your content, they’re more likely to take your advice to heart and engage in your site. Don’t be afraid to use personal stories to help get your points across. It’s probably one of the most effective things you can do.
Provide concrete evidence or examples: I’m lucky enough right now to be in an industry where people know enough about what I’ve achieved to trust what I say. However, that wasn’t always the case, especially when I was blogging about personal development. In order to get your point across and have your ideas stick, it’s good to have enough information to backup your points so that they really can’t be disputed.
I often include images of ‘roadmaps’ when I talk about complicated subjects like my SEO strategy in big industries, and always try to include examples to help people create a picture in their mind of what I’m talking about. Evidence and examples might not help your post be more viral, but it will help solidify the ideas you’re trying to share.
List your most important points first: I can’t remember where I first read this, but it makes total sense, and it’s something I’ve tried to implement in all of my posts. If you’re writing a list post or ever just listing points in a certain order, put the most unique and/or valuable at the top of the list.
I believe the simple logic is that if you’re going to share points that are interesting and someone hasn’t heard before, they’re more likely to continue reading than if your initial points are just generic and nothing new.
Keep Your message simple: In most cases, it’s best to keep the message you’re sharing simple. Or, if it is complex, at least keep it to one idea. The best blog posts tell you one thing and they tell it well. Seth Godin is a master at this. If there’s a key message that someone can take from your article that they understand fully, then they’re more likely to pass that message on.
An example of this is my post on blogging partners, which was one of the most popular on the site. I said a lot about the subject, and covered it in-depth, but I really just stuck to one idea: If you want to grow your blog faster, find a blogging partner.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” – Leonardo Da Vinci
The summary of your post, in my opinion, is the least important aspect of your article. The hardest part of anything you write is to get people to read it, and then continue reading it until the end. Similar to what newspaper journalists learn, your best information should be in the introduction and main sections of the article.
If you rely on the summary for people to “get” what you’re trying to say then you’ve just wasted 80% of your writing, in most cases. Although the summary isn’t as important as the other sections, there are some recommended ways to use it.
End with a powerful statement: The more articles I wrote, the more I found myself trying to end them with a message that left an impact on the reader. Movies do this all the time; if you’ve seen the end of Inception then you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Just because you’ve got your main message out of the way, it doesn’t mean you should get lazy with your article. On two random guest posts that I’ve written, here were two of the endings:
Start a discussion: This will be the third time I’ve mentioned starting discussions and asking questions. I do so because I believe that conversation is really at the heart of blogs, and one of the main things that makes them so different from static sites. Often times, people will want to leave a comment, but they just aren’t quite sure which part of the post to share their thoughts on.
You can use your summary to remind people of the most important points, and ask questions around any of them. This should help to get the comments flowing.
Summarise Your Post: Although very obvious (it is called a summary, after-all), I couldn’t leave this point out of the post. A good suggestion for ending is to pick the most important advice you’ve shared and repeat it in bullet-form. Another option, where relevant, is to give people an action plan as to the steps to take next after reading your advice.
My final suggestion, which is not directly related to making your content viral, would be to offer links to other relevant posts on your site. If people like what they’ve just read (and they probably did, if they made it to the end) then they’re likely going to want to see other articles you’ve written.
I generally break many rules when it comes to readability, but I still try to include the basics when I can. Even if you write the best posts in your industry, nobody is going to take the time to read them if you just list paragraph after paragraph without any formatting or line-breaks.
There aren’t many things to remember when it comes to making your posts scannable. Here are a few things that I think you should:
Many of these suggestions are aimed towards people who aren’t going to take the time to read every word that you write, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The whole point is that they’re reading your content and enjoying it in their own way, and then sharing it if they like it.
Many people will also skim an article first, and if it looks interesting, go back to read the whole thing in detail.
To those of you who read the whole post, and want to know the answer to my question about Saturn, the rings are believed to be made out of dust-covered ice. Are you going to use these tips to make sure that your next article is a hit?