Monday, November 19, 2012

6 Steps to Writing Great Titles to Help Readers Find Your Content

Writing a great title is arguably the most important part of content optimization.  You must make it obvious to your target audience that they will benefit from your content, or you will not ever get them to your call-to-action.

Whether you are write blog posts, articles, tweets, email, or post videos, photos, or presentations there are 6 criteria that, when used correctly, result in 4X improvement in views to your content.  With 4X the views you end up with more people to convert and - if you write titles correctly - more of the right people engaged with your content. I observe and test the characteristics of high and low performing blog posts.   In doing this, I hypothesized and tested some criteria that, when followed, showed an average of 4X higher page views than when the criteria were not present in a title.

The 6 steps are: 

  1. Customer problem focus
  2. Customer relevance
  3. Customer keyword
  4. Time-to-value proposition
  5. Specificity
  6. Use of a number when appropriate 

Step 1: Customer Problem Focus

If you were searching for tips on dental hygiene, which post would you be more likely to click on? 

  1. Big Smile Company has the Best Toothpaste for your Dental Health
  2. 5 Tips for Better Dental Checkups

If Big Smile Company wants you to read what they write, they would be much wiser to create a post with a title like #2.  At the bottom of that post or even somewhere within it they can include something like "Big Smile Company's toothpaste was named by the Big Dental Association to be the most effective at preventing tooth decay. Try some!"   They could even include a link to a coupon and to their website.  They will be more likely to have readers take them up on their offer when they can get people to open the content in the first place, by providing something of immediate value and including an offer to deeper engagement.

What does this mean for you?  There's more available content than ever before. You are competing for attention.  Help your customer identify with your content by relating it to what they are searching for.  If they want content about your company they will go right to your website and look up what they need.   When they search Google or thumb through Twitter feeds on a smart phone, they are more likely to read content relevant to a problem they are having than they are to read what you want to tell them.  Start with the customer problem, help them begin to solve it, and then they might stick around to find out how you can help solve their problem further with your products or services.
Step 2: Customer Relevance

Expanding on the Big Smile Company example above, let’s suppose the toothpaste is for people who have sensitive teeth.  We need to get that into the title, too.  Because if you have sensitive teeth and can choose between the following titles, which would you choose?

  1. 5 Tips for Better Dental Checkups
  2. 5 Tips for Better Dental Checkups for People with Sensitive Teeth

That's relevance.  What that will do is help to assure the people who read your post are more likely to benefit from the offer. That approach will improve your conversion rate, too.  Plus, it assures that the right customer, your target audience, will prioritize your post over the other search results on dental hygiene.

Personas are another good way to provide relevance.  If you consider the different audiences you are trying to reach and segment your content to reach each of them, you will help them connect to your content.  Here are a few examples of personas the Big Smile Company may want to address and how to reach them:

  • 3 Critical Tips Dental Hygienists Can Use to Improve Patient Dental Health
  • A Dentist's Guide to Treating Sensitive Teeth
  • Parents: 4 Ways to Help Your Children Develop Good Oral Hygiene

Each of these titles provides relevance both by addressing the persona and providing relevant information each persona might find within the post.  These titles signal the right audience and provide relevance to the specific customer it tries to address.

Step 3: Customer Keyword

If your blog post about dental hygiene has great content such as tips for when to floss and includes an embedded video to demonstrate the right angle to hold the toothbrush, you will be tempted to let everyone knows that Big Smile Company came up with this really great content.  Let your content do the talking for you and leave the company out of the title.  Choose keywords based on customer relevancy vs. company relevancy.

Which would you be more likely to view?

  1. Big Smile Company's Toothpaste for Sensitive Teeth Brings You 5 Steps to Better Dental Checkups
  2. 5 Steps to Better Dental Checkups for People with Sensitive Teeth
If the title includes so much about the company and the specific toothpaste customers might think it is an advertisement.  I love my DVR.  I don't usually choose to watch ads except for Super Bowl Sunday when I might see something fun.  If I look at a web page and things flash at me or include a company name, my eyes have learned to avoid those items while I try to look for valuable information.  Marketers might like ads.  Not everyone shares that curiosity, particularly when they are at work and are busy. And not when there are so many content options available to them as digital communications channels now enable.

Maybe you hope that Big Smile Company is a frequently used keyword in search.  More likely, though, your potential customer is searching for something relevant to their problem.  If they wanted Big Smile Company, they would likely want to search and find your website and products rather than read your blog post about brushing and flossing. Your blog post is to attract those people whose problems you can solve but who aren’t necessarily looking for your company to solve them.  Your call-to-action can help them find your company and products as a solution to their problem.

Is the second title perfect?  It may need customer keyword tuning.  You can go to Google Adwords and look for relevant terms that people are searching for. Maybe there is a comparable term for Dental Checkups with less competition but not much less use.  Maybe that’s Dental Visits or Dental Hygiene. Using a tool like Google Adwords helps you find the best customer keywords.

If you use the words your customers are searching for rather than your brand name, your content will find its way into the right, most relevant search results. Strike a balance between search volume and competition.  Only use search terms that are a natural fit for what you are writing about.

Step 4: Time Value Proposition

This may be the most important criteria.  For videos or other content requiring more of a time investment it is by far the most important criteria. 

What is time value proposition?  Most readers, including you, calculate this without even knowing it.  There are triggers that tell us if content could be time consuming but not give us the answers we seek.  But sometimes we are willing to view content that appears a little less relevant if there are clues that it won’t be a big time suck. Other times, we will invest more time to content we perceive as having higher value and greater relevance to our needs.  You do this every day when you go to your email inbox.  Each of us has different ideas of what will have value based on our needs or the job we do.

Imagine being new at your job in content creation at The Big Smile Company.  Your job is to know what all the departments are doing and find great stories to tell for the company.  On your first day, you receive 500 emails.  You’ll never get through all of them.  So which of the following emails would you prioritize to read?

  • Update from the floss team
  • Floss Monthly Email: November, 2012
  • Today's 5 Top Stories About Floss

You may not be sure what #1 is about.  #2 might take a really long time to dig through, and content that could be a month old is potentially stale.  But #3 gives you subtle cues that this content is timely, relevant, valuable, and it provides a way for you to estimate your own time investment.  The fact they tell you there are 5 stories suggests to you that they have organized their thoughts and that the content might be easy to scan.  They have prioritized it for you.  The other titles might have the exact same content inside, or even more relevant content. The other titles do not let you know, before you open the content, that they have respected your time.

Time Value Propositions are important in all your communications.  If you master the art of time value proposition you will see improvements in engagement, not only in views to content that you title, but to your emails (from subject lines) and tweets.

When your customer scrolls through search results, blog posts or videos or twitter, your content will stand out if you provide a balance between value and time investment.
Think about the scales of justice.  If you have content that will be timely to consume, you have to have a killer value proposition to balance that scale.  If you have content with less of a value proposition, you need to provide signals that it will be very quick for your reader/viewer to digest.

Some examples of showing respect for a reader's time are listed below.  When customers see titles with these triggers, they know that you have done your best to organize the content into easy to consume chunks and they will be more willing to trade their time to absorb it. These triggers give readers a subconscious way put the time and value on opposite ends of the scale and determine if this is a must read or time bleed.

  • 3 Tips to Save/Avoid/Improve
  • 5 Steps to Better/Stronger/Faster
  • Pros and Cons/Guide to/How to
  • 3 Minutes to Improve/Increase/Learn
  • Increase Your X using 1 Easy Tool
  • Learn to Save X in 5 Minutes (or 5 Easy Steps)
Step 5: Specificity

Specificity looks a lot like Relevance and a little like Time Value Proposition.  But there are enough differences that Specificity is important to call out separately.  It acts like a second check for both of those criteria and potentially fills some gaps.  Here’s what it looks like:

  1. Weight Loss: Take the Steps You Need to Succeed
  2. Weight Loss: 5 Steps to Losing Baby Weight after Pregnancy
In both examples, “weight loss” is a relevant keyword and “steps” offers some time value indicator.  But in example #2 the specificity achieved by adding “baby weight” and “after pregnancy” lets the real target audience know this content is relevant to them.  Specifying the number of steps “5” helps improve the time value proposition.  

You don't want your title to be too broad.  Specificity increases relevancy and makes your content the right content for the right audience.  It helps them find you.  Here's an example likely to be relevant to those of you developing content.  If you were to see the three titles below appear in a search result, which would you choose to read?  Wouldn't you be disappointed to view #1 and find that it is all about improving how fast your web pages load? Specificity is what will get you to the right content for you.  And it will help you get the right readers to the content you publish.

  1. 3 ways to improve your website
  2. 3 ways to improve content on your website
  3. 3 ways to improve call-to-action conversion on your website

I recommend that you review once for Relevance, once for Time Value Proposition, and then again for Specificity.  See how close you can get your title for your true target audience.  If 20 people turn away and just 1 reads, you will already know you have the right one. The others will respect you for not wasting their time. Just watch your conversion rate improve.

 Step 6: Use of a Number

Search engines love them. They often indicate organization of thoughts.  Digits take up less space than the words that represent them. That’s all.

 Follow my blog (here to the left) or follow me on twitter @deniseburns to keep informed of my latest tips for optimizing your content.  

Do you need me to optimize for you or teach your team to optimize?  Check out my LinkedIn Profile – I’m available.

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