What can you do to make a headline more compelling?

  1. Start with an attention-grabbing headline (3 tips in this post!)
  2. Tell a story that conveys 1) value and 2) your values
  3. Write like the original you are – drop some knowledge on those readers!
  4. Use images that tell a story and help readers relate
  5. Let your goals determine content length

How to write engaging content - the five steps

It’s been building to this point for the last 5 years…

I saw it coming. I was powerless to stop it…

What is it?

Shock. Your audience is in shock. Content shock.

They’re overwhelmed with the content that lands in their inboxes and social media feeds every minute of every hour of every day. And you have to pay the price.

Because there’s a limit to the amount of content we can consume. More importantly, there’s a limit on the amount of content we’re willing to consume.

And we’ve become more discerning than ever.

Content that doesn’t engage your readers won’t do anything to enhance your brand, let alone increase your conversions, leads and sales. It gets glossed over. Lumped in with the masses. Ignored.

That accounts for around 75% of the content out there, according to the latest reports.

Content isn't engaging readers, and isn't getting shared
Graph from Moz – click to view their [fantastic] original post

Engaging content, however, gets read and shared.

It ranks better in search results.

It moves the audience down the path to purchase. It establishes your credibility. It builds trust. In fact, you might say:

Engaging Content Is the Swiss Army Knife of Content Marketing.
Yet Most Content Writers Don’t Even Know They Have It in Their Pocket.

So, what exactly is “engaging content”?

It’s less of a thing, for starters. It’s more of an outcome. And this is the outcome:

Engaging content changes your reader.

That change could mean opting in to your list. Buying your product or service. Making an inquiry. Or it might just mean changing their attitude from feeling indifferent to feeling emotionally connected. And that, my friend, is the most powerful change of all. You cannot pay for a change like that. You can’t buy it in bulk or download it or install it as a plugin on your blog. Changing a reader from indifferent to emotionally connected is perhaps the single goal of marketing. Which makes it intimidatingly difficult.

I’ve spent the last decade and a half writing content for clients in tech, professional services, marketing, financial services and energy. I’ve made a career out of studying content and learning what engages readers at various points in their buying journey. And what I know for sure is this: there is no formula for engaging content. What engages readers changes all the time. That said, there are better practices – there are essential qualities you can watch for and repeat…

Using Buzzsumo, Moz Content, and good, old-fashioned Google search, I took a closer look at what’s engaging readers today…

I looked at the content that’s getting the most shares, ranking highest in Google searches, and being talked about the most online.

(Learn how to do this yourself in Moz Content with this free guide.)

And what did I find? I found 5 specific elements that make the most popular content engaging. Naturally, I’m going to share those with you now because I’m a very nice person, and you certainly seem like a very nice person. By the time you’re done this post, you’ll be able to rewrite your ho-hum content until it is absolutely, undeniably and – yes – measurably engaging…

Engaging Content Element 1:
Write an Attention-Grabbing Headline1 Headline

Engagement starts with a great headline. For this post, I wrote these 15 headlines before I arrived at the one I used:

  1. Write Engaging Content for Higher Conversions
  2. How to Write Engaging Content
  3. Engaging Your Reader is the Key to Converting Them
  4. Secrets of the Most Engaging Content Online Today
  5. How to Engage Your Audience – and Convert Them
  6. Why Changing Your Reader Can Change Your Business
  7. 5 Secrets to Engaging Your Reader
  8. 5 Secrets to Changing Your Business by Changing Your Reader
  9. 5 Secrets of the Most Engaging Content Online Today
  10. After Writing 500+ Pieces of Content, and Analyzing the Most Popular Content Today, Here Are the Secrets to “Engaging Content”
  11. After Writing 500+ Posts, and Analyzing Content With Tools Like Buzzsumo, Here Are the Secrets to “Engaging Content”
  12. After Writing 500+ Pieces of Content, and Analyzing the Most Popular Content Today, I Found the Secrets to “Engaging Content”
  13. After 15+ Years of Writing Content for Businesses, Here’s What I’ve Learned About Engaging Your Reader
  14. After 15+ Years of Writing Content for Businesses, Here’s What I Learned About Making Content Convert
  15. What Makes Content Engaging? Here’s What I’ve Learned After 15+ Years of Writing Content and Studying What Works

A good headline captures a reader’s interest and invites them to read the rest of the content.

But a great headline does more heavy-lifting. It:

  • Guides the reader smoothly from headline to body content
  • Inspires trust
  • Uses keywords
  • Encourages sharing
  • Speaks to the reader’s state of mind – accounts for their stage of awareness and connects with the conversation happening in their head

Your headlines will work hard for you – but you have to work hard on them first!

About 80% of people will read headline copy, but only 20% of those people read the rest of the content.

Let’s look at some examples of engaging headlines.

This trending Forbes article titled The Rise of the Licensing Cartel is intriguing.

A fantastic headline in action: Rise of Licensing Cartel

It has a sense of urgency to it, with “the rise of.” And it equates licensing (a legitimate business practice) to a drug cartel. I had to know what it was about, so I clicked.

Let’s break down the next headline: AI Is Transforming Google Search. The Rest of the Web Is Next.

Intriguing headline - AI Is Transforming Google

First, it hits on new technology (artificial intelligence) that people are curious about.

Second, it mentions Google Search, something most businesses care about.

Third, and finally, it leaves you with an impending sense of personal impact when it talks about the rest of the Web being “next.” In total, it’s intriguing.

Now look closer at the keywords: “AI” and “Google search.” Those keywords tell Google what the article is about, sure. But they also speak to a particular audience. This audience is tech-savvy, or at least is interested in technology. They’re concerned about the state of Google search. And they’re invested in the fate of the Web, too, which means they probably own a website and/or proprietary Web-based software, or their customers do.

Next up: an article entitled How to Find Your Lens’ Sweet Spot: A Beginner’s Guide to Sharper Images.

Excellent and compelling headline - this time for a photography post

This headline tells the reader up-front that it’s for beginners. Readers can trust that they’ll understand the content, even if they’re new to photography.

Now look at how it transitions from headline to body copy. The first bit of body copy is one short sentence that’s easy to say “yes” to (the compliance principle in action) – then the post ties immediately to the headline in the second sentence by referring back to “your lens’s sweet spot.” It confirms for the reader that they were right to trust the writer because right away they begin to deliver on the promise.

Now that you know a great headline is when you read it, here are 3 tips to keep in mind the next time you want to write a headline that makes them click.

Headline Tip 1: Take your time. No really. TAKE. YOUR. TIME.

The headline is the first thing your audience reads, and it’s going to either keep them reading or make them click away – so you need to knock it out of the park.

Don’t skimp on this step!

In her book Headlines, Subheads & Value Propositions, Joanna Wiebe — the copywriter behind Copy Hackers (you know, the blog you’re reading right now) — suggests you spend 90% of your writing time on the headline.

Write several headlines, then narrow them down to a few of your best. Then put those top headlines through the 4 Cs test:

  • Is the headline clear?
  • Is it concise?
  • Will it compel the audience to read the content?
  • Is it credible? (See number two below for more on this.)

When a headline checks off all four of those Cs, you’ve got a winner.

Check out more headline formulas here.

Headline Tip 2: Kill the clickbait!

She Gets a Cup of Coffee From Her Local Coffee Shop – and You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!

25 Toys From Your Childhood That Would Scare Your Kid Today

Who is this senator, and why is he so drunk?

Ugh. Stop.

Just stop.

This is clickbait, and I’m begging you – don’t do it.

What is clickbait? It’s an overly sensational, provocative or exaggerated headline that draws the audience to click – but then doesn’t deliver in the content. It might get your reader to click – but when they experience the bait and switch, they’ll never take your desired action, so the click was worthless.

That doesn’t mean that click-worthy headlines are always clickbait, though. If the content delivers, then it’s just a good headline. Period. The point: Don’t write a headline just to entice someone to click on it. Make sure it actually makes a promise you can deliver on.

I mean, how many times have you clicked on an article only to find out it has nuuuuuuthing to do with what the headline promised? Super frustrating! Don’t do that to your readers. It’s annoying – and worse, it breaks their trust. (Breaking one’s trust is basically irreparable. Not worth it for a few hundred clicks.)

I had to laugh at this Mashable article for this reason: Jeff Bezos, Washington Post owner, takes a stand against clickbait. The article has almost nothing to do with clickbait. The headline was clickbait about clickbait. How meta.

Headline Tip 3: Get Medieval on Their Asses

It’s said enough that it sounds like a cliché, but this is really quite helpful to answer when you’re writing blog post headlines:

What wakes my reader up at night? What makes it impossible for her to get back to sleep?

It’s your job to tap into the hierarchy of needs and get your reader to pay attention. Not in a sleezy and scuzzy way. (I hope that goes without saying.) But in a way that says, “I hear you, and I’ve got the answer to your problem.” Here are the basic needs we all have:

Consider needs when writing engaging content - Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Take this headline, for example: One Thing Is Killing Content Marketing and Everyone Is Ignoring It.

If you’re a content marketer, that headline might tap into esteem – you might get flustered that your profession is coming under fire.

Or it might tap into physiological needs – you might wonder if your career was on the line, which would affect your ability to provide for your family.

No matter what, that headline is going to make a content marketer sit up and pay attention.

Or how about this one: Data Destruction Software – Security Tool or Digital Spy in Your Computer? This is an obvious one – it speaks straight to safety.

I bet if you made a list of the last 10 headlines you clicked on, you’d be able to map each and every one of them to one of the basic needs on that list.

Okay, let’s move on to the second element required to make your content engaging.

Writing Engaging Content Element 2:
Tell a StoryTell a story. A Story. A STORY.

The odds were stacked against Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. They started their company, Hewlett Packard, and built their first product in a garage in Palo Alto, CA, with a budget of only $538. Today, that garage is not only the birthplace of one of the largest computer corporations in the world – it’s also known as the birthplace of Silicon Valley.

This story describes HP’s humble beginnings, yes. But it also taps into the part of us that loves a story of personal triumph. You’ll find references to HP’s “garage story” throughout their websites and in a lot of their marketing content for this reason. (I worked for HP for years.)

The HP story helps to humanize their products, which otherwise might be as boring as dry toast. Let’s face it – laser printers and enterprise servers are not that romantic.

HP using a story to help humanize their products

Whether your goal is entertaining, informing, educating or inspiring, your audience will connect more with your content when there’s a narrative.

Storytelling is how we connect with each other. And content that draws the reader in and gets them to buy into what you’re doing – what you stand for – is going to engage them.

Take this recently trending Bloomberg article, for example.

Millennials are changing the Stock Market

It kicks off with a story about a guy who’s spending his money in a non-traditional way, then leads into how millennials are impacting the stock market. It makes that human connection before it dives into a potentially dry topic.

This is another good example of how engaging storytelling can be: 6 Storytelling Tips to Tell Your Business Story Like a TED Pro. It came up on the first page of TWO of my Google searches: “how to tell a story in your content” and “how to tell a story in marketing content.”

The writing isn’t the highest quality. And the formatting is terrible. But it made the first page of my Google searches, which means enough people are reading it, sharing it, and linking to it that Google thinks it’s an important article.


It tells a story.

It tells multiple stories, in fact.

Let me recant the opening for you, just in case you didn’t click that link:

I recently joined John Bates and some fellow Boston professionals in a modern, glass-enclosed room at JLabs in Cambridge to learn how to tell a story like a TED Pro…John Bates has an impressive background actively coaching CEO’s and executives at big name companies like Motorola and Johnson & Johnson, training 100’s of TEDx speakers and “is considered one of the best communication trainers working today.”

It makes you want to hear what the writer learned from this famous speaking coach.

It’s engaging.

This post is a great example of how a good story can overcome a lot of friction.

Stories can also help the audience relate to you. Telling great stories is one of the best ways to convey the value of your offering and your values as a company.

I love the Hewlett Packard garage story from the opening of this section for this reason.

Here are 3 ways to use stories in your content (make sure to click on the hyperlinked text to see real-life examples):

  1. Use an anecdote in your introduction
  2. Weave a narrative throughout your content
  3. Use a story to clarify or drive home a point

Writing Engaging Content Element 3:
You’re an Original. Stop Burying Your Awesome In Unoriginal Content… You're an original. Write like it. Write something new. Write something different.

There’s a lot of regurgitated content out there.

It’s not necessarily all bad. But if it’s the same old content they’ve already read on a thousand other sites, they’re going to click away.

And it certainly won’t leave a lasting impression.

Instead of quoting, paraphrasing or pulling from other sources, write something new.

Something that includes your thoughts. Your experience. Drop some knowledge on those readers!

Wayne O’Neill, CEO of RESET, is a great example of how original content can drive engagement. He regularly posts thought and opinion pieces to LinkedIn – not recaps of other content but out-of-the-box ideas – and his LinkedIn connections have grown dramatically as a result.

Wayne O'Neill LinkedIn post on the importance of failing fast

He’s gained well over 500 new connections in the last year alone, and he maintains an active presence on LinkedIn while continuing to publish original content for his followers to engage with.

Original content can gain media attention for your business, too.

One of my clients, Fluid IT Services, was recently contacted by a radio station. This radio station had done a lot of research on IT companies in the area, and chose to contact Fluid’s CEO, Wade Yeaman, specifically.


What made this small IT company stand out among all the others in this big metro area?

The radio station told Wade, “We were impressed by your website, and by the quality and frequency of your thought leadership content.”

Original content can actually gain media attention for your business

Original ideas. Thought leadership. Content backed by experience and research. This is what stands out today – this is what helps your readers overcome their content shock and actually get something out of your content.

Originality matters.

In their recent report, Buzzsumo found that these content formats do well in the B2B space today:

  • Research content
  • eBooks and guides
  • Updated reference content
  • Trending and hashtag/news-jacking content
  • “How to” and practical content
  • Provocative content
  • Curated and list content
  • Quizzes
  • Product launch content
  • Tools
  • Infographics
  • Case studies

Look at all those opportunities for original content!

But where are listicles? Where’s the curated content? Where are the Best Of posts???

To be sure, those do have their place. I won’t completely discount them. In fact, that same report found that list posts are still some of the most shared content on the Web. Which is great – if shares are what you’re going for.

But get this …

Contently analyzed their original content and social media updates and found something interesting: While their social media updates were retweeted or shared over 10,000 times in 2015 (which is a really good number!), their original content performed about 70 times better. Their content was shared 704,000 times.

Shares don’t always mean engagement, though. Shares can result from engagement – but people also share content they’re not engaged with. Keep that in mind when you’re setting your KPIs (key performance indicators).

Writing Engaging Content Element 4:
Help a Reader Out! Use Visual Aids.Help a reader. Use visual aids. Make It Easy.

Lots and lots of text means lots and lots of possible points of friction.

Use visual elements to break up your content and illustrate your points.

No matter the topic of your content, it will be easier to read and more engaging with images, videos, diagrams and charts.

In fact, content that uses an image for every 75-100 words gets the most shares.

Be thoughtful about what visual elements you use, however. Make sure the images add value to the content. This Kissmetrics post recommends that you stay away from stock photography for this reason.

While I agree that some people default to stock photography too often, and it doesn’t add any value to the content, I do think that stock photography can improve engagement. When it’s added thoughtfully.

What makes a “thoughtful” visual element?

Visuals add authenticity to your content.

Images can tell a story and help readers relate to the content.

Original photos work best for adding authenticity to content, but a carefully chosen stock photo can sometimes do the trick, too.

The original photos in this article give life – and a human face – to the subject: This NYC custom headphone startup turned its office into retail space and a 3D-printing factory.

Visuals, used correctly, can add authenticity

A great visual clarifies or explains the content.

Visual elements can help make a concept clearer in the reader’s mind.

This article about wireless charging furniture (yep, furniture that charges your mobile devices) wouldn’t make nearly as much sense if it didn’t have amazing images to go along with it. According to Moz Content, this article has a reach score of 100 – which is the highest score for both link activity and social sharing.

Wireless furniture - yes it's a thing. And this image communicates more than any text possibly can.

Visuals illustrate an idea.

Writing about your company’s innovative new product is great. Including pictures or drawings of it is even better.

Look at this guide to mid-century modern interior design. It’s full of photos that bring the concepts to life.

Pictures that bring concepts to life

One more reminder to be thoughtful about your visual aids, however. That Mashable article about Jeff Bezos taking a stand on clickbait breaks up the text with screenshots of tweets – after almost every sentence. This is going a little overboard, in my opinion. But you be the judge.

Now for the fifth and final element you MUST have for engaging content.

Writing Engaging Content Element 5:
Go In-Depth. …More Than That. …No, Really, More Than That.Go in depth!

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: content fatigue (or content shock) is real, and content writers need to overcome this in order to get readers to engage with their content.

Most content published (85%, according to Buzzsumo’s report) is less than 1,000 words long – but content over 1,000 words consistently gets shared and linked to more often.

There are many theories about why this is.

  • You have more room to cover the subject thoroughly
  • There are more opportunities for backlinks
  • People stay on the page longer
  • It includes lots of sources for quotes
  • If the subject warrants lengthy content, it is likely very interesting, thus very shareable

Look at some of the most popular websites and blogs today. You’ll find that most of the content is over 1,000 words.

Many businesses create content using a “quantity over quality” methodology. This is usually spurred by reports from companies like HubSpot, who have for years spouted mantras of “more content equals more leads!”

But even HubSpot is changing their tune. A little bit, at least.

They did an experiment in conjunction with Moz last year, and while HubSpot still got the best results (in their case, the most leads) from high-volume, low-comprehensiveness content, they did find some other interesting things:

  • There was a threshold for the number of posts the audience could consume
  • Their email list received the highest number of unsubscribes when they were sending out low-comprehensiveness content in high volumes
  • Their “Deep Tactical” content, which averages over 1,500 words, generated some of the highest traffic

The takeaway: Consider your goals. (Rob Marsh wrote about this here.)

If you’re trying to engage readers because you want to build your email list or drive traffic to your site – longer, more comprehensive content may be a better bet.

There are a million examples I could give you of engaging long-form content – but I want to share this one in particular: Growth Hacking Your SaaS Startup – a Guide.

Is longer, more comprehensive content the way to go? Growth Hacking SaaS guide

That registered with a reach score of 76 in the Moz Content Search tool. And if you run that URL through the Moz Open Site Explorer tool, you’ll find a higher-than-average number of inbound links to it.

It’s performing pretty well. But I’m sharing it with you because it’s awesome. It’s comprehensive. Easy to navigate. You can read it online or download it as a PDF. It has actionable advice. It includes Click-to-Tweets for easy sharing. It points you to more resources. That guide is gold.

It engaged me, so I spent time reading it, I bookmarked it for later and I’m sharing it with you here right now.

Now download your free guide to using Moz Content Search – and figure out quickly what your audience needs you to do to engage them…

A Quick Checklist for Making a Headline More Compelling?

  1. Write at least 15 headlines for every piece of content. Tap into needs, and be careful about sounding clickbaity.
  2. Tell a story. Open with an anecdote, write in the first person, weave a narrative throughout…
  3. Write something new. It’s hard to engage with another roundup post or listicle.
  4. Give the eye a break with some visuals. Scroll back up through this post to see how many I added.
  5. Go deeper. As Janet Jackson once sang, “We go deep and we don’t get no sleep.” But that was pretty pervy, actually…