7 much needed alternatives to using lists as headlines (irony noted)

Lists are everywhere. They make writing blogs and articles that much easier and the click through rates that much higher. Here’s why:

  • They establish expectations
  • They promise to be easily digestible
  • They offer choice – “13 reasons you should eat McDonalds” is bound to include at least a couple of great nuggets, right? 😉

However, they are now so prevalent that on its own a list won’t necessarily help you stand out, so if you want to demonstrate a bit more imagination without actually having to use your imagination, here are some other bullet proof techniques:

(Actually, before I begin I feel that I should say that the notion that the noble craft of composing headlines can be dumbed down to a mere set of formulas makes me want to cry, but, like it or not, there are certain principles that work really well and as a marketer you should know what they are, particularly when you’re marketing content to an audience that has no existing relationship with your brand.)

  • Make an outrageously huge promise that people would be crazy to ignore.

For example – “You’ll never speed again after watching this video”

Remember, you have no prior relationship with the reader and you are competing with 30 other headlines at the same time. Small promises won’t do. Yours needs to be life changing.

  • Be a tease and create a sense of mystery.

For example, “I thought I knew how to make an omelette fast, but then I saw this…”

The headline cliffhanger is a classic. Humans are inherently curious. If we get 80% of the story and then the final 20% is snatched away, we suddenly need that 20% more than anything in the world, even if the previous 80% was rubbish (think Eastenders).

  • Create a sense that you’re giving access to something exclusive or off limits.

For example “The weightlifting technique that the professionals don’t want you to know”

We all like to feel special, like we’ve won the golden ticket to the chocolate factory and get to play with the ompah loompas while all the other kids are outside crying. Give the reader their golden ticket.

  • Make the subject something that they already have an emotional connection to, such as celebrities, brands, films or music.

For example, “The shocking scene in The Little Mermaid that you won’t believe you missed”

Stuff is more interesting when we have a personal connection to it. When a stranger falls down a large flight of concrete stairs on a YouTube clip I might respond with a slight curving of the lips and an inward titter, but should that happen to a close personal friend I would literally buckle at the knees with joy and laughter (and then of course check they were still breathing).

  • Contradict commonly held beliefs.

“Why you need to start eating more junk food”

Stop the reader in their tracks with an outrageous statement that they will either want to see verified or disproved. The only thing they won’t do is ignore it.

  • If it’s instructional, make it sound easy.

“The idiots guide to erecting a tent in less than 30 seconds”

People want to achieve great things, but they want to achieve them three days ago and at no outlay of time or money.

  • Create a sense of urgency.

“Stop whatever you’re doing and read this secret to business now. Everything else can wait. This can’t.”

You’re not giving the reader a chance to think about it. They click before they’ve even had time to fully process the statement. After all, every second they hesitate is a second they could have been reading the article that’s going to transform their business …. probably.


HOWEVER, that last sentence brings me onto my concluding point. Each of the ideas covered here, while hugely effective, has the potential to be complete spam. This is not to say you shouldn’t use them. The reason why these tactics have become associated with spam is quite simply because they work, and when you have no prior relationship with the reader you need to use tactics that work. But there is a caveat…

You must ensure your content delivers what it promised (or at least comes bloody close). After all, remember that getting clicks is less than half the goal. Your true objective with any form of content marketing must be to either:

  • Encourage shares
  • Achieve a positive brand experience
  • Attract links
  • Achieve some other conversion

These things will only happen when the readers expectations are met or surpassed. In other words, the sensationalist heading should be no more than an accurate representation of some sensational content. If the content sucks or isn’t relevant then everyone loses, including you.