Is your headline as disappointing as a toy in a box of cereal?

Big promises on the box. Small on delivery. “Toy inside!” False promises in cereal boxes and in headlines only disappoint your audience. That’s no way to build yourself up as a blogger or a small business.

Do you find that you have a lot of clicks but low time on site? Or maybe your headlines aren’t getting any clicks at all. Maybe you’re not writing for your audience.

Clickbait Headlines are Cheap Tricks

Clickbait. We’ve all seen it. Most of us have clicked.

The mad-lib formula headline gets the most publicity but is it the most disappointing?

“[Personal Noun] [past tense verb] into a [location] and you’ll never believe what happened next.”

Now, we joke about them because they’re often formatted like a joke. But how many times are you disappointed in that type of a headline?

I’d posit that the outlandish headlines are rarely disappointing. What is disappointing, however, is a promise that’s unfulfilled. Say, “three tips to increase productivity.” Most of the time you click and there are no tips. It feels like you’ve been ripped off.

Empty Promises Through Slideshows

Many entertainment sites about what dress Celebrity X was wearing at the Grammy’s use this strategy. The headline often refers to an item that entices you to click but buries the lede until the end of the slideshow.

Ten slides and four ads later, you barely get a good photo of Beyoncé’s dress. You’ve spent 10 minutes, they have high time on site, they placed ads, and you got nothing. That’s deceptive. That’s disappointing.

So, how you do write a better headline?

We all know that headlines are a “pain in the asterisk” as Carol Stephen points out. But they can make or break your click through rate. Am I right?

The key to a good headline is, and I state the obvious, give the reader just enough to know the topic and incentivize the click. And when this advice is taken to the extreme, you have classic clickbait.

Who do we write for?

My biggest problem when writing my headline is who do I write it for? You know? Is it part of my analogy? Will the reader silently chuckle? Is it how someone would type a question into Google? Do I write for humans or bots? SEO or an inside joke? Personally, I go back and forth.

Moz’s Rand Fishkin puts it best in this Whiteboard Friday:

“When writing headlines and title tags, we’re often conflicted in what we’re trying to say and (more to the point) how we’re trying to say it. Do we want it to help the page rank in SERPs? Do we want people to be intrigued enough to click through? Or are we trying to best satisfy the searcher’s intent? We’d like all three, but a headline that achieves them all is incredibly difficult to write.”

Headlines are Hard. Period.

I wish there was a better answer. And, just to be annoying, it depends. If you’re writing as part of a team for a brand, you have to write headlines according to your brand standards. If it’s a personal blog, you can be as insider baseball as you want.

Think about your audience. Who are they? How will they find you? What are they interested in?

Say my audience is a new-to-social-media person who writes but maybe needs a bit more direction or a small business owner who wants to DIY social. This person may ask questions in Google:

  • How do I write a headline?
  • How do I write a headline that gets attention?
  • How do I write a better headline?

Those are all good questions but may not give you good answers.

Those are boring headlines.

Those would be boring headlines. They may come up with great results in Google but I’d never click on them in Twitter or on Facebook. This is when tools come in. The first tool is CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer (Carol writes about it more in depth here) and the second is Google Analytics (which I write more about below).

I’m not a big fan of CoSchedule’s editorial calendar and social sharing because, maybe ironically, I love the automation of Revive Old Post. Neither here nor there, their Headline Analyzer is AMAZING. I use it all of the time.

How does it work?

You write your potential headline in CoSchedule’s box. It analyzes it and ranks it based upon length, unusual words, emotional words, and power words.

For this headline, “Is your headline as disappointing as a toy in a box of cereal?” I got a score of 70 or a B+. It has emotional words, gets points for being a question, but is kind of wordy.

Actually, this is the first time CoSchedule gave me a score above 65. Wordy but it works. I will take that B+ thank you very much.

The other cool thing about their headline analyzer is that you can make adjustments and it will keep score for you. Keep typing, they’ll keep analyzing and scoring.

CoSchedule’s Headline History is the best part of the tool.

Next up. Google Analytics. Sorry.

The answers are in the Data.

I know. Data. Blech. Blah. Boring. I hate it. But it helps.

So, according to Google Analytics for the month of June 2016, my average time on site is 2:08. I can live with this. My posts are around 800 words. So that means that people are reading.

What posts had the highest time on site?

My top 8 posts for June 2016 were over 5 minutes. This is surprising to me, but maybe they kept their browser open while researching elsewhere.

My top 8 posts for June 2016 were over 5 minutes.

The top was a recap of a Chris Lema talk at a WordCamp about being audience centric in your writing, the second is about why I was brought to social media, the third is about the plugins every new WordPress user needs, and the fourth is about WordCamp. Now, there aren’t a lot of hits, but they do spend time there.

What this tells me is that the posts that are the most read are about WordPress and blogging. Does that shift my current belief about my audience? Yes. Maybe I have a third persona: the new to WordPress user.

Not only does this give me ideas on what my headlines should be (a question) but the topics to write about.

For the same period, what were the top hits (Pageviews)?


Top Page Views for June 2016

There was some overlap with the post about “What is WordCamp?” The first is my home page, the second was linked to in a post I wrote on WordImpress, the third is about WordCamp, and the fourth is my blog home page.

Where your time on site and pageviews overlap is a good place to start tracking your audience.

What are my best headlines?

Unlike this post, which I decided to go with a cereal box analogy, my best headlines seem to be about WordPress in general and in the format of a question.


This could be because I started writing more about my experiences, how I’m getting to know WordPress more, and less about social media. The cautionary tale here is either I found an accidental audience or I forgot my primary demographic. When you’re selling products or services, this can be damaging to your bottom line.

So, write (test) and look at the data. Do it month over month and maybe year over year. See what types of headlines work best for you.

Speaking  of the bottom line…

The best headlines:

  • Are a thesis.
  • Speak to your audience.
  • Make your intentions clear.
  • Answer a question.
  • Are relatable.


9 responses to “Is your headline as disappointing as a toy in a box of cereal?”

  1. One thing I can say about your blog is that no post I’ve clicked on has ever let me down. I did discover you through a Wordcamp, but the posts I like the most are probably the social media and online interactive/giving value posts such as this. This is excellent. Thank you for sharing!

  2. This is rich in funny, relevant, awesome content. And the headline was a good lure. 🙂

  3. I remember as a kid getting a sticker in a box of cereal. A sticker is not a toy! However, I’ve never gotten just a sticker from anything you’ve written. So there.


  4. Great article Bridget and had to share it.

    Funny that one of my big pet peeves as a reader is a great headline and content disappointment.

    Looking at the other side as you did is smart and love how you approached it.