No matter whether it’s a sign in Times Square, or a fast-paced social media network, headlines compete for attention in a crowded landscape. Make your headlines more attention grabbing by breaking the worst headline habits.

According to Miranda Tan, CEO and founder of MyPRGenie, every marketing writer knows that unlocking the secret to a great headline or email subject line is critical to getting the best return on a company’s investment in marketing. It’s becoming increasingly clear, as data is accumulated from millions of tweets, Facebook posts, and other kinds of sharing on social networks that every social media post is a headline and content summary rolled into one.

Failing to recognize the power of that 140-character post, Tan says, is among the worst headline habits. The “80/20 Headline Rule” is a well-known marketing axiom that says that if 100 people read a headline, only 20% of them will read the rest of the story. In social media, according to tracking data from, the online short link generation company, 90% of the people who share your content do so on the basis of the headline only – they don’t even bother to click and read the content before sharing.

Here’s a collection of five terrible headline habits from MyPRGenie’s popular how-to and best practices blog that may be hurting your bottom line, with expert advice on avoiding these mistakes next time you’re writing a social media post, or a headline for a press release, blog post, white paper or other form of content.

Don’t Tell Me What to Do: Pushy Headlines

Outbrain, the content aggregation service that distributes paid syndicated content world-wide, recently conducted a study on headlines. The survey says that headlines perceived by readers as pushy get up to 20% fewer clicks than those perceived as less pushy.

What makes a headline pushy? According to Outbrain, using words such as “you” or “your” or any verb that tells the reader they “must” or “should” do something is too pushy.

A study from MyPRGenie says that journalists and bloggers are especially resistant to pitches and headlines that seem too pushy. While 66% of journalists and bloggers say they use press releases in their work at least once a week, over 70% say that pushy headlines and subject lines will earn a fast trip to the recycle bin.

Don’t Focus on the Positive: Negatives Sell

Another Outbrain study, headlines with negative superlatives – like the headline on this blog post, which contains the word worst – outperform those with positive superlatives such as always or best.

Compared with headlines that contained neither positive nor negative superlatives, headlines with positive superlatives performed 29% worse and headlines with negative superlatives performed 30% better.

The big news in the study however, is that the average click-through rate on headlines with negative superlatives was a staggering 63% higher than that of their positive counterparts.

Econsultancy‘s Chris Lake looked at the handful of articles that were responsible for more than 10% of 22 million page visits over four years on his company’s site. He found that violent words like kill, dead, fear, war, and battle are common in web content with high volumes of social shares. So are headlines that use vibrant words such as brilliant, fails, horrifying, ultimate, and kickass.

Wondering how to work words like that into your marketing content? Take a look at these headlines for some examples.

  • A headhunter’s blog offering career tips: Don’t Kill A Promotion With Social Media Disasters
  • Tweet from a bakery: Horrifying Holiday Menu Mistakes That Can Ruin a Party
  • Landing page for a sales training company’s webinar: 10 Ways to Avoid Winding Up Dead in the Sales & Profit Wars
  • PR consultant’s email pitch to prospective clients: 7 Brilliant Holiday PR Strategies that Failed Miserably

Don’t Write Long Headlines (Unless They Work)

These days, every writer knows that search engine optimization – that is writing content that the search engines can find and index – is a job requirement. And one of the first rules drilled into a writer about SEO is that headlines should be shorter than 70 characters (60 is better, as headlines longer than that can be truncated in search results), with at least one keyword.

There is good reason for that rule – and for most of the others about headlines. But sometimes, a longer headline with a pun, a literary or pop culture reference, or just a memorable phrase in them can pack a more powerful punch than a 60-character headline. So look at your analytics before you decide to throw out the rules. If your highest-traffic content has longer, higher impact headlines, then use them.

Headline length matters, according to that Outbrain study cited earlier. It says that a review of 150,000 English-language headlines promoted by Outbrain, 16-18 word headlines performed better than shorter or longer headlines. In fact, the study says that the highest click-through rates for content come with headlines that are about 100 characters in length, and that headlines shorter than 60 characters don’t perform as well.

Don’t Write Headlines Last: Put the Important Stuff First

The prestigious Columbia University School of Journalism has an online tutorial on headline writing that includes this quote from Abilene Christian University Associate Professor of Journalism Dr. Merlin R. Mann: “The importance of headlines cannot be understated … Headlines are far too often written last (often quickly and under deadline pressure).”

Starting with a working title is one way to give a headline the attention required to deliver the needed impact. Famed copywriter and ad man David Ogilvy wrote that a working title written that summarizes the main point of your story should be written first. “Then go back afterwards, to make sure it reflects the entire message, and conveys that point in a fresh way that will grab the audience’s attention.”

It’s not enough to write headlines that are just OK. They need to be strong enough to continue to generate traffic week after week, and even year after year. For instance, on my personal blog, three traffic-hogging blog posts continue to draw more than 200 new page views every day — 2 years after they were originally published.

What do those articles have in common? Two of the three include numbers. I don’t know why, but ever since Twitter started, tweets that include numbers and links in them get more shares and more click throughs than tweets without numbers. And all three focus on things people are afraid of: being sued, getting into trouble with the government, becoming the victim of a scam.

It’s sad, but true: we are motivated by fear — and headlines that promise to alleviate a fear, or solve a problem that makes us fearful get noticed.

Don’t Be Wimpy: Give People a Reason to Pay Attention

Forbes Contributor Jayson DeMers wrote that the biggest headline mistake copywriters make is forgetting the benefit to the reader. “The reader is going to use the few short words in your headline to decide whether the next 40, 400, or 40,000 words are worth his or her time. So if you forget what the benefit to your target audience is when you’re writing your headline, you won’t get the results you want.”

In his article, DeMers uses his own business as an example. He’s an SEO consultant, so one of his examples was writing social media and content marketing headlines that would give prospective customers a reason to click on his copy. He describes a 30-minute process to write a headline that might work something like this for his business.

Start with a working title that tells a specific target audience what the benefit for them is of using your product or service. For his business, that working title might be something like ““3 Techniques for Instant Search Engine Rankings Boosts in the Law Industry”.

Focus on the benefit more closely by asking a question – in this case, the question might be, “Why are search engine ranking increases important for lawyers?” Then refine your headline to something like “3 SEO Techniques for Lawyers to Attract Customers and Leads.”

Finally, once the first draft of your copy is finished, look for the most powerful summary you can write that tells a prospect exactly how he will benefit from what you have to say. That got DeMers to his final title, “3 SEO Tools That Lawyers Can Use to Attract New Clients in 30 Days.”

The more specific the benefit is to the prospect, he says, the more likely they are to click through and read the content.

Photo credit: Photographer Tom Collins offered his black and white photo of headlines competing for attention in Times Square on Flickr under a Creative Commons License.