The Horrible Truth About Headlines

headlinesA piece written in the Chicago Tribune detailed a fun little prank played by a satirical news site called the Science Post. They put a story up on their site with the headline “Study: 70% of Facebook Users Only Read the Headline of Science Stories Before Commenting.”

Almost 46,000 people shared the post and here’s what’s interesting about that:

Below the headline was a brief introductory paragraph followed by over 1,700 words of meaningless “Lorem Ipsum” text. Maybe some of those 46, 000 shares came from readers perpetuating the joke, but you can bet that more than a few people shared the piece in earnest without reading past the first few sentences.

This past year Columbia University conducted a study that revealed that 59% of links shared on Twitter had been re-tweeted without the reader having even clicked to open them.

That should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the nature of content marketing.

Copyblogger says that on average 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest.

So what’s the takeaway? This piece isn’t about how important it is to write a good headline or the ins and outs of headline psychology. That’s been done already by people who have applied a ton of time, effort and analysis.

Instead, let’s take a look at the bigger picture. From a branding perspective, to the 80% of the people who will see your headline without clicking through to read the content the words in the title serve as a clear measure of your message.

If you go back and look at the headlines for pieces you have published, what do those headlines say about your brand? What do they say about your message and your tone? Are they fun and playful? Are they smart and authoritative? Edgy and controversial? There is no right answer, but be aware that the tone they carry is the tone that readers will associate with you.

In addition, the content of your headline can go a long way in establishing (or harming) your brand. Take one of your headlines and paste it in a Google search box. Do a lot of very similarly titled articles appear? Would your headline just blend in with all of the noise rendering it invisible? 

The headlines you use can also help you to determine the type of content you should be creating.

Using this concept you can build a mini-strategy for a handful of content pieces. Consider the stages of your buyer’s journey:

  • Awareness – the prospect realizes they have a problem that needs a solution.
  • Consideration – the prospect is searching for solutions to their problem(s).
  • Decision – the prospect makes a purchase and hopefully they choose your solution.

Now write 3 headlines that your buyer’s persona would identify with at each stage of the journey. Write some great content for each of those headlines and you now have a solid handful of pieces designed to guide the buyer through your funnel. Rinse and repeat and you will find yourself with a robust collection of content that can capture and convert new visitors in various stages of their buyer’s journey.

It’s nearly impossible to know who will click on your content based on your headlines. One thing you can control is what those headlines say about you and your message.

Don’t Give Up on Content Marketing Until You Read This:

content marketing

How are you?

Do you feel like giving up on content marketing? Well don’t! At least not until you read this.

We all feel like giving up sometimes. And whenever you feel like throwing in the towel, you should click on this and reinvigorate your purpose in life.

(Ninja tip: right click that link and play it in another tab and let it be the soundtrack in your ears while you read the rest of this.)

Don’t give up. Unless it is heroin or shoplifting. Those are things that it’s okay to give up on.

All right. Breakdown:

There are so many different places you could be coming from to read this article. In my work as a freelance content creator, I find that most companies that are using content marketing tend to land within three different categories:

(1) Companies that give up on content marketing after a few months because they don’t see an immediate ROI:

These companies range from small to medium businesses, startups and established companies. They keep their ears to the ground to learn how to increase profits and how to drive leads through the buyer’s journey and they have noticed that there are companies from all industries that have generated massive growth by using content marketing. They have seen stats like these that lead them to jump into content marketing:

  • Content marketing leaders experience 7.8 times more site traffic than non-leaders.
  • While content marketing costs 62% less than outbound marketing, it generates more than three times as many leads
  • 93% of B2B marketers use content marketing

With numbers like that, why wouldn’t a company look into investing in content marketing?

So they hire a kick-ass writer and pay for a couple of month’s worth of blogposts about their product or service. Sixty days later they haven’t seen any return on their investment so they pull the plug and go back to their traditional marketing efforts and wash their hands of that whole content marketing idea.

(2) Companies that are not seeing a ROI but keep spinning their wheels:

This may seem gauche, but I like to think of these companies as Kool-Aid addicts. They see stats like:

  • Content marketers report having conversion rates that are nearly six times higher than their competitors.
  • 86% of B2B marketers and 77% of B2C marketers use content marketing.
  • 82% of consumers feel more positive about a company after reading custom content.

In looking at those stats, it only seems likely to throw money at content marketing efforts while expecting the investment to eventually pay off.

The unfortunate thing about these companies is that while it’s very cool that they are focusing on a form of marketing that works, they are just tossing out content with a Field of Dreams mentality. (If you build it, they will come.)

(3) Companies that are using content marketing and absolutely killing it:

Some companies got it, and they got it good.

  • Yale Appliance and Lighting. Their traffic tripled from 40,000 to 150,000 monthly visits after shifting their focus to content marketing.
  • Skytap started implementing content marketing in 2011 and their website traffic increased by 210%.
  • River Pool and Spas was an early adopter in the content marketing space. After lazering in on creating content for their prospective customers, the River Pool and Spas blog blew up with over 500,000 visitors a month.

Don’t Give Up

The companies that are killing it with content marketing and the ones that aren’t are separated by one simple thing:

content strategy

In this day and age, if you are cranking out great content then you are ahead of the game. And that’s awesome. But as a company, you aren’t paying for or creating great content for fun are you? You hope to see your efforts reward themselves in terms of conversion.

Here’s what’s interesting. There is really only one small difference between companies that aren’t seeing a measurable ROI with their content marketing efforts and the ones that are killing it.

It’s all about strategy. The content has to have import. There is no reason to pay for content or to create it in-house unless it has a reason.

Defining your strategy should be the first goal before creating any content.

The good news is that you can DIY when it comes to strategy. There are programs and services that can teach you content marketing strategy for free, but that takes time and effort. You could hire someone to design your strategy, or you could just read the rest of this article where I will give you a super short and simple content marketing strategy template for free.

Define Your Buyer

This is straight down the line. Don’t make it difficult. What are you selling and who is buying it? What is their life like? What keeps them up at night? What makes them smile during their day? What is the one thing that you could provide that could make them happy?

That’s your buyer persona. You could google that phrase and get lost in an endless rabbit hole about creating buyer personas. Don’t do that. Establish who your customer is and what value your product or service can bring them. Nobody cares what kind of car they drive or where they get their coffee.

Visualize Their Journey

Here is another place where we can spend all of this time and effort on talking about funnels and journeys. While those things are important, for now let’s just drill down on the most direct path between a buyer’s journey and your solution. As you further develop your content marketing plan then you will want to take the time to fine tune those aspects. But for now, let’s just drill it down.

Here’s the journey in a nutshell:

  • Awareness Stage – the prospect is aware that they have a challenge and they are searching for a solution.
  • Consideration Stage – the prospect has identified various solutions for their challenge and they are weighing the pros and cons of each of every option available.
  • Decision Stage – the prospect has researched and read about the different solutions available to them and they have decided to move forward with a purchase or engagement.

Create Content for Each Stage of the Journey

Instead of just tossing out blogposts about what is going on in your industry or heavy-handedly spoon feeding your offer, consider creating pieces that resonate with each level of your prospect’s journey.

Let’s pretend that your company offers a super slick suite of HR solutions. The offering provides tracking, reporting and implementation of pay and benefits. It’s so much better than whatever in-house bullshit your buyer is currently dealing with.

So, this sounds simple but:

Write (or hire someone to write) pieces about how challenging it is to meet upper management’s expectations.

Then create some pieces talking about the pros and cons of outsourced or in-house solutions.

And then finally, iterate why your solution tics all of the right boxes.

It’s going to seem like I’ve over-simplified the process of creating a content marketing strategy.

In reality, I just broke it down. It’s not rocket science. Who are you selling your service or product to? What are they searching for when they are trying to find ways to dial down their issues? Speak to their challenges and give them a path to your solution.


I think you get it. If you need help creating content that speaks to each step of your buyer’s journey then feel free to contact me. In the meantime, let’s just keep these four words in mind: “What do they need?”






A Lesson in Branding from General Mills

branding content

Whether you are an old stalwart of content marketing strategy or new to the game, you probably know this: storytelling is massively impactful in building and establishing your brand.

Here is what usually happens. A company hires a writer or a strategist or implements the process in-house. They create a narrative with a sexy mystique or a fun story that fashions the voice of the brand.

Here’s a nice little brand story that I like to use as an example. MVMT Watches. They have a link on their page with a button that says “Our Story.”After clicking that link, you can read about how Jake and Kramer, two college kids, got together to make a watch company. Here’s that story, directly from their website:

“In 2013, two watch enthusiasts (Jake Kassan & Kramer LaPlante) dropped out of college with the dream of reinventing the watch industry. Tired of big brand markups, the duo set out to create a direct to consumer model. Due to enormous fan support, we became the second highest crowd-funded fashion brand in 2013. Through the amazing engagement of our fans we have established a growing community on social media amassing 1.5 million followers.”

Pretty good, right? Instead of just saying “MVMT watches have cut out the middle-man to provide high quality time pieces at affordable price points” they have put faces on the plate. Hey, it’s Jake and Kramer! They have a hip startup story. They have a nice website design and a solid and viable model. That’s some good brand-based storytelling settled nicely within a forward thinking structure.

It’s not easy to do that but here is where a lot of brands fall short: they create a lovely origin narrative and then they stop creating stories and start focusing on shooting content to different levels of the funnel that they haven’t earned access to yet. (I’m not saying MVMT does this. I just used them as an example for a great origin concept.)

So how does a company continue to tell great stories to keep prospects engaged while moving them deeper into the buyer’s journey? They don’t do it by reinventing the origin narrative. That is something that should be written in stone and adhered to.

There is a way to continue to generate memorable storytelling that mashes with a company’s brand and mission while still driving momentum-based engagement. And it’s not a magic trick. It’s simply a matter of ingredients and a recipe.

And the secret sauce? Create stories about your campaigns.

One only needs to check out a recent viral ad campaign brought to us by Honey Nut Cheerios.

Don’t act like you don’t know what those are.

Recently, Honey Nut Cheerios launched a new content marketing campaign that tells a delightful story. And the story isn’t based around the brand…it’s based around the campaign.

We all know the brand story about Honey Nut Cheerios, don’t we? They are made by a company called General Mills, which was started back in WWII because General Mills wanted to create more tasty and healthy breakfast foods for his soldiers.

I’m kidding. I highly doubt that is the General Mills story. But you are still reading this, right? I have to do what I can to keep you hooked in for the big payoff coming up.

Let me just give you the high concept of how viral this recent Honey Nut Cheerios campaign is. I didn’t go find this story. It showed up as a news alert on my phone from CNN. That is like ninja-level viral. It found me.

You probably saw the story too. I’m not going to go on a rant about how click-baity everyone, including CNN, has become. But still, their headline was pretty click-baity. It was something like “See Why Honey Nut Cheerios has Pulled Their Mascot.”

When I saw this I immediately thought “Oh no. What has Buzz the Bee done? Did he pose for pictures in questionable attire?” I hate clickbait and the main reason I hate it is because it still works. Yes, I clicked on the link out of curiosity. Thankfully, instead of a buzz kill, I was led into a well structured ad campaign.

Here’s the actual “story”…

“Buzz is missing because there’s something serious going on with the world’s bees,” read a statement on a Cheerios website dedicated to the issue. “Bee populations everywhere have been declining at an alarming rate, and that includes honeybees like Buzz.” In partnership with Veseys Seeds, Cheerios launched the #bringbackthebees campaign hoping to spread 100 million wildflower seeds around the United States in an effort to reconstitute collapsing bee colonies.”

That’s brilliant. As SMBs and tech startups, I get that we don’t have the same resources as the good old General and his family may have in their upstairs attic coffers but we can observe and then capitalize on what they did. We can incorporate the general (sorry!) concepts and apply a tenet that not a lot of content marketers are aware of: corporate dollars can be efficaciously replaced with ingenuity.

Let’s look at the ingredients of General Mills’ campaign and see if we can re-create the same level of kick-ass storytelling. (Spoiler alert: yes we can.)

Topicality: Somebody at General Mills realized that there is a lot of buzz going on about the sustainability of bumblebees. That ties into conservation issues which, not to get political, are a hot button right now. Not sure who that “somebody” is in the GM company, but they had one of those eureka moments and realized: “Wait. This bumblebee thing is getting pretty big. And we HAVE one of those!” A topic popped up that tied in with the brand.

Story: The topic is hot and ready to work with. Now it’s time to create a story that is symbiotic with both the brand and the theme. When these two components are well blended, then the result can be as comforting as a nutritious bowl of cereal on a harsh morning at a WWII battleground on a blustery day.

Implementation: This is where it all comes together. After a brand-friendly hot take has been discovered, and a well written story is created that ties the topic and the brand together, it’s time to implement a call to action that can be tracked and monetized. General Mills is incorporating wildflower seeds (and probably no shortage of big ad buys). For an SMB or a startup, remember how we can replace dollars with ingenuity? Well a hashtag program with discounts on Twitter can be a viable solution. A take-a-pic-and-share Instagram or Snapchat routine can work. You could even go old school and wrap your campaign into an email list building/sign up model.

At the end of the day, there are some suasive push-button archetypes that can be forged into your content marketing efforts by replicating the antics of Buzz the Bee and his cereal General:

Always be telling stories that align with your brand. It’s not over after the about page has been published.

Create a CTA that not only drives engagement and action, but is also so much fun that your customers share it with their friends and family.

And finally and probably most importantly…

Leverage social consciousness and topical awareness to make the campaign rise above the brand to be about something much larger.


OK, Burger King!


Let’s address this Burger King ad that ran recently. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about because EVERY outlet seemed to cover it. And for those of you who missed it, I’ll give you the hot take on it so that we can all be on the same page.

Recently, Burger King shot this tv spot ad and basically it went down like this: An actor on screen says “this is a 15 second ad and that’s not enough time to really describe the ingredients for a Whopper so I’ve got an idea. OK Google.” And then the camera pulls in close to the actor and he says “what is the whopper burger?”

When that commercial plays, it instigates a wikipedia read-out-loud thing that describes the ingredients of a whopper using words that makes the Whopper ™ sound way more succulent than it actually is.

People lost their minds. The OK Google command initiated google home devices, cell phones, tablets, you name it. Users clamored to Google and demanded that they keep the villainous corporate claw of Burger King out of their private lives.

Google swarmed in and changed some security algorythms to disable the ads access.

Well apparently, BK was ready for the backlash so they made some of their own adjustments. They also had ads set up for late night talk shows an when the ads on those shows aired, they re-initiated google assistants.

So here is what it comes down to: this was either a brilliant marketing campaign or it was gross negligence in terms of using brand strength to push forward a marketing message.

I want to know how you feel about this. Are you thinking “not cool, BK! How can I trust you as a brand?” Or are you thinking “brilliant move. Wish I had thought of it.” I have just sent out a tweet with the hashtag #OKBK. Please use that hashtag and reach out and to say which camp you are in.

On the side of “not cool, BK!” I can see how the campaign might seem invasive. Burger King is an internationally recognized brand…why would they risk their trust factor by pulling this stunt? I mean, it’s not like they need to go viral on news sites to let people know they exist, right?

I get that, and I think that this perspective makes perfect sense. However, to play devil’s advocate and make an argument for the “Brilliant Move” camp, think about it this way: this wasn’t a cheap ad buy. BK spent a lot of money on placement and air time. But the coverage they got from all of the news outlets maximized their exposure exponentially. Like, every outlet carried a version of the story. So for the amount of exposure they got from the stunt, they paid a fraction of the cost that it would usually take to get in front of that many people.

Why would an internationally known brand even need to mess around with a campaign that could potentially turn customers off to them?

Three words: TOP OF MIND.

Let’s say someone is riding around in their car, and they are hearing about Burger King’s stunt on the radio or maybe they saw it on the news on tv or flicked through a piece about it in their news feed on their phone earlier that day.

Maybe they are hungry and their sense memory goes back to the story or their top of mind impulses kick in and they think “You know what sounds good right now? A big bag of candy corn!”

No I’m just kidding, they are thinking “it’s been years since I’ve had a Whopper!”

Speaking further to top of mind, there is this psychological phenomenon called the observer-expectancy effect. Here’s an example: let’s pretend their is someone that you are romantically interested in and you want to trigger them to think about you throughout the day even when you are not around. You could say something to them like “you know what I’ve noticed lately? It seems like I see SO MANY blue Hondas on the road. Like way more than normal.”

Now you have just triggered that person into observer-expectancy. So for the rest of that day, and probably several days afterwards, every time they see a blue Honda they will think of you. They will also probably feel like they are seeing a preponderance of blue Hondas that they hadn’t seen before. The reality is there are just as many blue Hondas as there always were, but you have initiated the observer-expectancy effect.

In content marketing, this goes hand in hand with “top of mind” techniques to extend your customer’s awareness beyond the normal shelf life of your content’s message

And in a way, I feel like whoever got the OK Google campaign green-
lit by the powers that be at Burger King probably pitched this as the end game.

What camp are you in? “Not cool, BK” or “Brilliant Move”?

I’d love to know. And you chime in with me on Twitter by using the hashtag #OKBK.

You could also be my new best friend by listening to my podcast called Let’s Talk Content.