5 Ways to Write Better Blog Post Titles
Writing titles for blog posts is hard because it requires a different type of thinking than you use for general writing.
When you finish writing an article, you understand the topic you’ve just written about at a deeper level than ever before. You’ve just spent hours/days/weeks organizing your thoughts into words. You can speak eloquently on the topic.
To come up with a good title for that piece, however, you need to find a framing of the topic that will make sense and interest someone who knows none of what you now know. You have to think like a complete beginner—go back in time to before you understood everything you understand now.
One of the best ways to go back in time is to use a collection of mental models to put yourself in a different frame of mind. With the right mental toolset, you can help your brain snap out of “expert mode” and into that fruitful beginner mode much faster.
1. Help Your Readers Get Promoted
Your readers have needs. They want raises and promotions. They want to look good at work. Great title-writers take advantage of those needs without being manipulative or condescending to their reader.
The top headlines from a site like Inc. are a good example of how far this can be taken if your #1 goal is to drive clicks.
Almost every article on Inc. plays on some volatile cocktail of emotions, whether it’s:
- laziness (the desire to get more with less effort),
- self-righteousness (the desire to get what we feel we truly deserve), or
- schadenfreude (and the desire for others to get what they deserve).
Relying strictly on this kind of emotional manipulation is unlikely to be appropriate if you’re creating content for, say, a video marketing product.
That doesn’t mean you can’t address a work-related emotional need more relevant to your customer base, the way Wistia does, for example, with a post like Look Great in your Next Webcam Video.
People want to look good to their bosses, be better at their jobs and be recognized. They want to look good on camera and sound more confident on sales calls. They want to get more done in less time, have better relationships with their coworkers and be less distracted.
Frame your piece of content around the “need” it’s addressing, and your titles will be crisper, more relevant and more effective.
This holds even if you’re writing about something as technical and specific as using behavioral cohorts in your product analytics strategy. The #1 goal for most PMs is figuring out how to retain users. That’s the need that occupies most of their time at work. It makes sense to help them with content and to make it clear in the title just how vital your advice is:
The writing process here is relatively simple.
Figure out what desirable result your piece of content is going to help readers achieve or what emotional fulfillment it’s going to deliver. Then orient your title around that.
If it’s not helping anyone in your specific audience get better at something they want to get better at, what’s the point of writing it?
2. Reverse Everyday Expectations
Counterintuitive titles make us click because they present the world in a way we don’t expect. We click because we’re curious about how this new worldview works.
The key to a counterintuitive title is really understanding your space. You have to understand what unstated assumptions guide the plurality’s thinking. Then you have to know, very specifically, how to frame a contrarian take.
Opting to “go slow” when your competition “accelerates,” for example, goes so against the conventional ideas we have about startup competition—most of which are informed by the logic of venture capital and fast growth—that you feel compelled to click just to figure out the argument the author, Chris Savage, is making.
Put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Ask, “Why would this article be interesting to read for me?” Use that to find your angle.
3. Show Your Work in the Title
Some articles are easy to write titles for. All you have to do is own the actual value you’re delivering and be slightly immodest about showing it off.
Sometimes, demonstrating the value that you’re delivering to the reader means making explicit the work that went into producing the piece of content. You can study a bevy of post-welcome email examples for an article about what makes a great post-welcome email and then call it, “10 Tips for a Better Post-Welcome Email,” but—assuming you actually put some effort into your analysis—this is a dramatic undersell.
Calling it “Lessons from an Epic Analysis of 50 Welcome Emails,” on the other hand, makes me feel like I am getting the result of some serious thinking and study on the subject of post-welcome emails. It makes me feel like I’m going to get something of real value, and that makes me want to click.
“Showing your work in the title” like this can be a powerful way to reset your title when you feel like you’ve put a lot of work into your content and it’s just not coming through in the title.
Try retracing your steps to find a process-based title you can put on your piece instead.
4. Mine the Specific for Universal Truths
With workaday SaaS content, there may not be an obvious counterintuitive or effort-based angle that you put to work in the title.
In these situations, the best thing to do is just take the most obvious title you can possibly imagine for your piece and turn the screw a few rotations in your mind. Try to find the most explicit embodiment of your piece, then go a few steps further, find something more specific to pull out, and see what happens.
First, imagine you title your post on Facebook ads “8 Psychological Tips for Making Your Facebook Ads More Powerful.”
It has the basic cadence of a title. It’s not blowing anyone away, and it sounds fairly generic, but it gets at the point of the article in a clear way.
If you go deeper, though, you can look for things that do make your article different from others like it. Are there points made that stand out? Are there novel bits of your article that could make the title work better? Or could you include a learning in the title itself?
Often, it’s those specific details that make a piece interesting to a wide audience — not the more general, generic formulation. We always find the universal in the specific, not in the outwardly universal, and you can use the same phenomenon in your blog post titles to make your content more interesting.
5. Get Out of the Story’s Way
Sometimes a number (like a conversion rate) or a name (like Amazon) is the real story behind what you’re writing, and your job as a title-writer is mainly to get out of the way.
Make yourself scarce. Allow the title to speak for itself.
This is a great way to go because generally, the easiest way to make whatever you’re writing about interesting is to appeal to remarkable numbers (“How One Line of Code Increased our Conversion Rate 25%”) and remarkable names (“Why Amazon’s Best Managers Aren’t The Ones Who Went to Ivy League Schools”).
Numbers and names give us something powerful to hang our arguments on: proof.
More importantly, they make us curious about:
- how particular people accomplished remarkable things
- how remarkable people do particular things
If you can mention the percentage point improvement that a decision resulted in, or the name of a major company, you almost always should.
It’s not always necessary to pull out a perfect percentage point number, either. Just evoking the quantitative aspect of your story can be an effective way to leverage that love of proof.
We might not care that Booking.com does a lot of A/B tests because if we know anything about A/B tests, we know that a lot of companies do a lot of A/B tests.
When we’re given the precise figure, on the other hand, we get a perspective on the scale of the situation, and that’s a story. Nothing about the actual article needs to have changed, but readers are far more interested to know how this presumably massive testing suite could possibly work.
It works similarly with the names of prominent companies that, depending on where you’re writing, people inherently care about.
When you write a post about how Amazon or another major company does something — especially if it goes against the way we think — people will be interested before you even put any effort in.
It’s the perfect way of letting your article ride off the inherent curiosity we have about how the biggest and best companies do things differently.
You shouldn’t, however, namedrop for the sake of namedropping.
The reason that “Why Amazon’s Best Managers Aren’t The Ones Who Went to Ivy League Schools” would work as a title isn’t just that it mentions Amazon. It’s that it uses the idea of Amazon to play upon one of our strongest emotional biases: undeserved privilege.
Why Writers Should Think About Titles
It would be a mistake for writers to leave the work of coming up with and picking a title solely to their editors.
Picking a title is just as much an exercise in thinking about distribution and framing as it is an exercise in thinking about what is truly interesting about your post.
Whatever tactic you choose, in the end, this is what coming up with a title is about: finding the perspective, angle, frame, or simple combination of words that makes the prospect of reading your article interesting to someone who 1) knows nothing about it and 2) has no obligation whatsoever to read it.
How to Make People Care About Your Content: Find the Right Angle
In 2004, psychologist and neuroscientist Ullrich Ecker ran a study on article headlines. Participants were asked to read either a fact- or opinion-based article and answer various questions about its content.
Half of the participants received a version with a headline designed to slant their perception one way, and the other half received a version with a headline designed to slant it the other way. People’s perceptions of the subjects they were reading about were biased by the slant of the headline they were given—but that wasn’t the surprising part of the study.
The surprising part was that the headline a person read changed which details they were able to remember, and how well they could remember them. People remembered the actual content (whether factual or opinion-based) differently, depending on the way the title framed the piece. Framing, in other words, dictates recall—and not just people’s memory for rote details, but for people’s memory of what your post was all about.
Angles don’t just decide whether we click—they decide how we read.
Framing Is What Gives Insights Their Power
The SaaS world is full of truism like “build things people want” and “hire for culture.” For the most part, people take such truisms at face value, but when they’re given reason to question those base beliefs, they listen.
It’s easiest to see this tactic at work in thought-leadership content. Chris Savage, founder and CEO of Wistia, is one of the best at leveraging this kind of curiosity in his blog posts. His titles routinely play off straightforward-sounding startup values in subtle, pointed ways. They’re contrarian without being outwardly so, and that’s what makes them both clickable and impactful.
- When Your Competition Accelerates, Have the Courage to Go Slow
- Thinking is Work. Give Yourself Time to Do It
- Being Busy Doesn’t Mean You’re Successful
- Great Leaders Say “I Don’t Know”
The insights that Chris conveys in the posts don’t run aggressively counter to your average lines of thinking on leadership or work. But each title above takes that core insight and stretches it around a lazy, familiar concept that we all think we know. By framing the insight against those familiar terms, it becomes more important—and makes us want to click.
We don’t typically think that we should slow down when our competition goes fast, nor that “thinking” is work we have to actively make time for. That’s why these titles work so well on that curiosity-gap level. Also, we may not profess to believe that “busy = successful,” but we recognize (and possibly resent) the truism lurking behind that statement enough that we click to see how Chris unravels it.
Hiten Shah is another great example:
- We Haven’t Hit Peak SaaS
- How AWS Achieved an $11.5B Run Rate by Working Backwards
- Why Less Isn’t Always More for SaaS Sites
- Copycat Your Competitors to Take the Market
- Why Trello Failed to Build a $1 Billion+ Business
Each one of these headlines plays against our expectations of how SaaS and other startup businesses should think about growth, their markets, and building products.
The thought that Trello “failed” is patently absurd on the face of it—as Shah acknowledges—but it makes sense when you actually read the piece and think about it in the context of contemporary venture capital and how startups are expected to grow.
Then there’s the idea that “copycatting” would be something to try, a premeditated tactic rather than the desperate move of a dying business. It may sound wrong, but it’s been borne out many times in the last few years that copycatting is one of the most powerful strategic moves a startup can make.
Hiten and Chris have written some of the most memorable content on business and startups in the last several years. I remember these posts not just for their titles but also for the arguments within, and how their logic worked in order to convince me of their specific points. That’s not a coincidence—that’s the power of framing.
How to Find Unique Angles
Finding a unique angle to take on a topic is the hardest and most important part of writing a blog post.
When you’re writing a post, you know what you want to cover. You probably have some personal experience that informs your understanding. You know you have interesting things to say about company culture, organizational structures, hiring developers, or whatever it is.
Without an interesting angle to match, however, it’s unlikely that what is interesting about what you have to say will shine through. It doesn’t matter how hard-won the understanding or how subtle the intelligence: Unless you frame the topic in the right way, your post is not going to have the reach or the impact that it could.
Here’s a simple exercise you can run to generate blog-post ideas as well as to “prime the pump” on unique angles to hit in future blog posts. It should take about an hour. By the end, you will have at least one high-quality idea for a blog post—from the content to the angle to the title.
First, put together a list of at least 20-30 perfect (or as close to perfect as possible) truisms about the industry or field you want to write about. It can be helpful to have someone else put this together to avoid bias. It’s even better if you can source your truisms from a definitive relevant institution, like YC’s Essential Startup Advice guide.
It’s really hard to argue with many of these points:
- Build something people want.
- Do things that don’t scale.
- Get sleep and exercise—take care of yourself.
They’re best practices for a reason. Look for the kinds of statements that guide people’s thinking about a topic, both the little stuff that people tend to take for granted and the foundational stuff they believe without actively thinking about it. “Show, don’t tell.” “Retention is king.” “Hire for culture.”
Here are some example truisms you might use, borrowed from YC guide linked above.
- SaaS businesses need to be aggressive about sales to win
- You should do tons of user research before you start working on your product
- Startups are more productive than large, enterprise organizations
- You should never really think about your competitors
- Raise money as quickly as you possibly can and get back to work
- Avoid conferences unless they are the best way to get customers
- Sometimes you need to fire a customer
- Don’t start a company by thinking, “What kind of company can I start?” Think about “What kind of problem can I solve?”
- It’s better to build something a small number of users love than something a lot of users like
- When there are multiple directions your company can grow in, you should always choose the more ambitious path
- Iterate your product and company as quickly as you can, especially early on
- Avoid making big deals with big companies when you’re first starting out
Then go through the list, preferably with a partner you can bounce ideas off of, and set up QuickTime or Zoom to record.
For each item, you want to think about whether you have any reason to believe the opposite. Think about whether you can imagine interesting edge cases in which the truism might not hold. Maybe hiring for culture makes sense early on, as you build out the future leadership of your company, but becomes less important later on. Maybe not. The idea is to prod at these truisms, see whether holes can be poked in them, and, most importantly, whether your thinking can do anything to fill in the gaps in new, illuminating ways.
If you picked your truisms well, you probably won’t have much to say for most of the items on your list. Skip items liberally and often—this is why you should put together a list of 20-30 truisms if you want to find one or two good blog-post angles.
The one or two points where you find yourself passionate and engaged in the reversing of convention—those are your angles. The title of your blog post will probably emerge organically from that angle. If you’re rethinking the classic instruction to “show, don’t tell,” then you can start brainstorming with something like, “When Telling Beats Showing.” The titles write themselves when you use this technique to come up with ideas for blog posts.
This might sound like clickbait, and it is, in the sense that any blog post on the internet circa 2018 needs to do a bare minimum of “baiting” to get people to read—but it’s also more than that. The truth is that when you take the ideas rolling around in your brain, the collected experience and war stories and insights that you feel could be valuable, and just write them down in honest, truthful, stream-of-consciousness style, they usually come out sounding generic. No one wants to read them.
The insight isn’t what’s going to make your posts land. The angle is.
Why Should Anyone Care?
When you write a blog post, you’re saying that you believe you have some take on a situation or problem that is unique enough that your voice should be heard. Whether or not you actually believe it is irrelevant—when you sit down and publish that post, that’s the message you’re sending.
The problem is that for most of us, our problems aren’t all that unique, nor are our ideas for solving them. Ninety-five percent of startups have dealt with the question of hiring for culture and changed how they approach hiring over time. Everyone has dealt with the challenges of scaling as they grow, and a lot of those challenges don’t differ all that much from startup to startup. The problems and solutions are not the interesting part here.
How you frame your points—the angle you choose—is the interesting part.
Your post is inevitably going to be compared to a hundred or a thousand other posts people have already read, so if you want people to click, read, and remember what you said, you have to know people’s expectations and subvert them.