I’m a content writer. I have successes with articles that brought thousands of people and shares. However, like all of us, I struggle with finding a perfect headline for my articles. I’ve searched the web far and wide to find something definitive, a guide or a template that would work at all times, but I couldn’t.
Everyone says ‘we did this and it worked’, but how can you be sure that it will work for you?
That’s why I decided to create this article, a definitive headline guide – I collected the largest sources about headlines and found actionable data for them. With that data, I picked out the most likely methods to make people click your headlines, no fluff.
The big shot – The Guardian
The Guardian is an almost 200-year-old national daily newspaper from Great Britain. Its web version spans across topics ranging from politics to culture, business, or lifestyle. The variety of genres is a promising field to conduct a study – The Guardian analyzed over 150,000 articles in order to check the success rate of their titles.
Here are their findings:
- 8 words per title result in a 21% click rate,
- Hyphens, colons and other special characters boost clicks by 9%,
- Including pictures increases clicks by 27%,
- Listicles of items in odd numbers do 20% percent better (the number 10 is the exception),
- Questions to the reader or, in other words, titles ending with a question mark do better. Three exclamation marks have also registered almost 100% higher click-through rate.
I assume the 8-word success rate is due to the width of the article column: it allows for around 5 words in the first line. If the second line features less than 5, it displays it as an inverted pyramid – a scheme commonly used in newspapers. The readers are accustomed to it, and therefore they are more likely to click on it because of the principle of familiarity.
Hyphens and colons are rarely featured in titles – that is probably why they attract attention. Overusing them might have an inverse effect. In the case of odd numbers, it’s more difficult to repeat them until they are beaten to death, but they operate on the same principle of inciting curiosity.
Images have been nominated as the content of the content. Look at Buzzfeed or Upworthy. It’s a visual stimulator that rapidly conveys a message on its own. Not using visuals nowadays is a mistake.
Question headlines were proven to be an effective way to call people to action – in this case, a click. The linked scientific study proves that using questions and referencing to people (“you”) directly resonates with them. Questions start a process in people that they want to learn an answer. Direct referencing could be linked to the crowd psychology – “you” makes people individual and incites them to listen to the message that is directed at them.
Listicles are effective as they present order the brain naturally seeks, and they immediately present the value of the article. Also, we like alternatives.
When it comes to the final point, I would attribute the success of exclamation marks because of the fact that The Guardian is an acclaimed newspaper that is highly professional – !!! makes titles stand out in such an environment as something unusually important.
TL;DR – What is useful:
I assume that some tips here work only on The Guardian’s website. Therefore, I will consider as useful only the following:
- Hyphens, colons, odd numbers and special characters work well.
- Images: very important.
- Questions and direct references to the reader are highly effective.
- Listicles attract attention.
Ripenn – 4 major viral sites
Ripenn, a service focusing on content marketing, decided to analyze the most viral websites such as BuzzFeed, UpWorthy, ViralDoza and such to check the effectiveness of their titles. The amount of headlines they analyzed was 2,616.
Here are their findings:
The viral websites use the current events, trends and famous people as a reference in their titles, and they do it with precision, often combining each other.
The titles that make people curious win – the rules about length, order, or words are only suggestions, but you must make the reader interested.
In order to elicit interest, viral websites make promises in their titles:
- They use words that bring emotional reactions in people.
- They use words that indirectly call people to action – more adverbs and verbs, Hemingway style.
- They use bold statements in their titles, regardless of whether they can back them up.
- Viral websites are human and aren’t overly formal.
Since the character of these services is mainly entertainment, it is difficult to apply these tips to every field. People who enjoy these websites look for content that is easy to digest, and are more susceptible to “tricks” and hooks in titles that promise said entertainment value.
Referencing to current trends in a given field may prove highly successful, because the content remains fresh. I’ve noticed once on Twitter a discussion on web design being dead, which resulted in a healthy dose of traffic on the blog.
Curiosity, promises and emotional words work great with an audience that seeks entertainment. Yet, when it comes to educational content that is highly prevalent in content marketing, this might not work. Same with bold statements, but these could work well in marketing if the content of the article is ready to back up its statements.
Calling people to action is a good tip, considering the previous findings that referencing to people and asking them questions has a positive effect.
TL;DR – What is useful:
- Referencing to trends in a given field in a highly precise and specialized way.
- Bold statements that can be backed up with the content in the article.
- Language calling to action and direct referencing.
Oribi.io – a study of 100 blogs
Oribi is a lead generation service that analyzed over 100 blogs to get data about their headlines. They ran mostly through tech news outlets such as ArsTechnica Technology, TechCrunch Enterprise, and VentureBeat Cloud.
Here are their findings:
- Titles containing violent words such as “kill,” “fear,” “dark,” “war” or “bleeding” were the most successful.
- Negatives such as “without,” “stop,” or “no” attract more shares.
- Listicles and titles containing numbers work better. Digits should be replaced by words, and the bigger the number, the better.
- Guides, how-to’s and entry level articles have a high click rate.
- Using large and known brands as a reference point attracts attention, no matter the content.
- Words such as “smart,” “surprising,” “science,” “history,” “hack,” “huge,” “big,” and “critical” helped in getting more interest.
- The following words were bad: announcing, wins, celebrates, and grows.
Violent headlines are a remnant of the gutter press writing style. They resonate with the primal instinct to see the darkest outcomes of given events – people prey on misery (schadenfreude), but this can be an effective technique when it is not done cheaply: Web design is dead vs. web design is over.
Negative language proved to be effective in a study by Outbrain. However, most sources cite this study only, therefore we don’t know if it will work anywhere else. We can assume it works because positive headlines are overused, they usually let us down (a song is called “the best”, whereas it just another stupid pop tune), and they make us wonder whether a writer is so positive only for endorsement.
Numbers and listicles are listed for the 3rd time – digits make content credible.
Guides and infographics show a promise that we will learn something in a very short time – people read to learn and they crave articles that will make them more educated.
Using large brands works in the same way as mentioning popular events or celebrities. It’s better to get a little bit of spotlight of big shots rather than not being visible at all.
The bad words listed by Oribi resonate with the tech audience and are directly aimed at them, hence the success rate.
TL;DR – What is useful:
- Efficiently used negative and ‘violent’ language in the headlines.
- Using numbers as much as possible.
- Successful genres are listicles, guides and infographics.
- Several words used by tech audience: smart, surprising, science, history, hack, huge, big.
Hubspot – an analysis of two marketing leaders
Hubspot, an inbound marketing and sales software entered a cooperation with Outbrain, world’s largest content discovery platform. The result of their efforts was an eBook about crafting effective headlines in marketing-oriented environments.
The study was based on over 3.3 million paid link headlines.
Here are their findings:
- Words “photo” and “who” increase clicks, while “why,” “easy,” “how to,” “credit,” “cure,” “magic,” “free,” “simple,” “tip,” “trick,” “amazing,” and “secret” decrease it.
- References to the reader such as “you” or “you’re” decrease clicks.
- Positive superlatives such as “best” or “always” decrease clicks.
- Headlines of 81-100 characters work best.
- Explaining the type of the link in brackets such as [Article], [Infographic] increases clicks.
- Words creating a sense of urgency (“now,” “need”, “limited”) decrease clicks.
“Photo” works because readers are attracted to easy to digest visual content – nothing new.
Effectiveness of the pronoun “who” comes from the fact that people like to read about others – this word introduces other people: “You won’t believe in this one mother who breathes oxygen.” Since I don’t know the exact source of the sample Outbrain and Hubspot studied, I assume it is a remnant from gossip (even Tech have gossips!) websites.
The bad click rates of “why” probably come from the fact that it promises an explanation, and that is a just feature. A rule of modern marketing states that benefits are much more important than features.
The fact that direct references (“you”, “you’re” etc.) are actually performing worse really surprised me. Scientific studies are claiming otherwise – whom to believe? I investigated that. The previously mentioned scientific study that proves direct references are good was released at the end of October in 2013. Hubspot and Outbrain collected data since the October 2013 to September 2014.
My assumption is this: since the release of the study, the headlines became oversaturated with direct references. It is often used in viral content (this sheet from Ripenn shows that almost every other title uses a direct reference) and it led to people becoming tired with that method. Probably oversaturation is the cause of this phenomenon. The same observation can be made about “how to” – it is the most used form in guide headlines. However, according to Hubspot “how to” and “tip” work bad in the case of people who are browsing, but are great for those who search for information.
Bad rates of “Easy,” “credit,” “cure,” “magic,” “free,” “simple,” “tip,” “trick,” “amazing” and “secret” are also a result of overusing and are mostly featured in spam content.
Superlatives are actually promises that can’t be met and this causes distrust, even if subconscious – “Top 10 Best Vegetables” is actually impossible to defend, as lists are mostly subjective.
I personally believe that perfect headline length is difficult to establish, but the range from 81 to 100 is similar to length provided by any other sources, so it is safe to assume this is one of the better practices.
Type of the link in brackets – apparently people like to know what kind of content hides behind the headline. However, I ran an experiment on Twitter with this and the CTR didn’t change at all. You can try this method, but no promises from me.
Words that create a sense of urgency and force people to action have become too pushy for readers. These are often use in advertisements rather than content writing and that association is negative for readers. Also, this method has been severally overused and readers became desensitized.
TL;DR – What is useful:
- Using “photo” in the title and using images.
- The word “who” – but it must be used only in content that is meaningfully referring to other people.
- Headline length from 81-100. (But I believe it is highly dependent on the column width and line length)
- Describing the type of content in brackets – optional.
Neil Patel – a guide by marketing guru
The final source of headline knowledge will be a step-by-step guide to writing a powerful headline by Neil Patel, a marketing guru from QuickSprout. It’s from the second quarter of 2015, so I assume it has fresh data.
What are Neil’s findings:
- According to Content Marketing Institute, hyphens or colons in titles increase clicks.
- Titles below 62 characters might perform better due to being visible in search engine results.
- Numbers in titles result in more clicks, shares, and engagement. For Content Marketing Institute odd numbers work even better.
- Unique rationales in headlines help them become viral.
- Make your headlines specific, clear in language and make them reflect their usefulness.
- Sense of urgency helps.
- Use interesting adjectives to attract attention.
- Flag the reader in your title – similar to using “you.”
- Use emotional words.
- Use “How to,” “why,” “which,” “who else,” “wanted,” “this,” “because,” “if” and “advice.”
- Use the following formulas: “little-known ways to X,” “get rid of X” and “who else wants X.”
The effectiveness of unorthodox characters in titles is being yet proven again, so it starts to make a really fair point.
Titles below 62 characters – whereas this is true that they are more visible in search engines, this environment is much more different. People using search engines want something specific and related to their query. Also, SEO influences the ranking. If readers are just browsing without any goals, the rules change.
Numbers, especially odd numbers in titles – this is a clear winner that will be really difficult to oversaturate soon. Nothing more to add.
Unique rationales, emotional words and interesting adjectives are a part of an area that could be covered by a different article altogether. I do believe that some words have better effectiveness, but it is highly disputable. Imagine if someone found out that the word “dog” is most effective word in headlines – suddenly everyone would start using it in their headlines: Top Dog 19 Republican Politicians Ever Much Wow, and as a result we would become desensitized to it. Oversaturation kills techniques.
Making your headlines specific, clear, and useful is pretty much obvious – if your reader knows the benefit immediately, you’re good to go.
Don’t miss out!
Sense of urgency according Derek Christian – I believe this is a wrongly adapted tip coming from eCommerce and advertising. Whereas sense of urgency tends to help in various on-line stores and is widely used in advertising (I bet you saw at least one pop-up today saying “register now we got only 3 spots wow”), it doesn’t transfer well to publishing. Nobody wants to willingly read typically advertorial content. How would it look like, anyway? “How To Bake Pancakes, Read Now – We Delete This In One Hour”?
Flagging your readers – this is a method to bypass the oversaturation caused by the overuse of “you.” Basically, you call out your readers by designating the headline towards their group, be it parents, marketers, priests. “Be an awesome marketer with these 77 SEO techniques,” or “All Mothers: Your Child Will Suffer without Vaccines.” I find it to be an actually good method.
The formula “little-known ways to X” is a real pain for me. I know it’s cheap, but it’s so effective – it uses all psychological weaknesses. People who like titles like that click on them because they believe that if something is unique, it has higher chances to work – a slight logical fallacy. If you don’t believe in such titles like me, you’re going to click them because you are curious anyway – what kind of stuff they came up with this time?
TL;DR – what is useful:
- Unorthodox characters.
- Numbers and odd numbers in titles.
- Uncommon words.
- Specific and clear headlines that show the benefit.
- Flagging the reader.
- Using “little-known ways,” “unique tips,” “methods you haven’t heard of.”
So, which tips are actually useful?
I was very hopeful once I began working on this article that I will find that holy grail, that magic bullet that will help us content marketers write the perfect headlines.
However, after going through all of these studies I found out that something like that doesn’t exist – only certain tips seem to help because they are highly universal. Others spike in popularity and then plummet down immediately, as they are overused.
What I learned is that you need to find your audience, analyze them deeply and think like them, while providing valuable and beneficial content. It makes no sense to base yourself on Buzzfeed when you want to write a professional blog about UX design. Yet, people are emotional – it’s good to use that once in a while as well.
The ultimate TL;DR – Elements of a good headline:
- Hyphens, colons, odd numbers and special characters attract attention in moderation.
- Images: they are easy to digest and people are more likely to be engaged. Also, the word “photo” and anything related to visuals promises this kind of content, that is why it’s effective.
- Listicles, guides and infographics prove to be highly engaging content.
- Vocabulary that is highly unique to your audience and unique in general tends to work wonders. However, it needs to be easy to understand at the same time – you can try to surprise your readers with one word straight outta a thesaurus, but be careful.
- Elicit emotions in people with right power words, but don’t go too far or you’ll be cheap.
- Referencing to trends in a given field in a highly specialized way makes you more relevant and fresh, and at the same time more interesting.
- Bold statements that can be backed up with the content in the article are more likely to be clicked.
- Negative and ‘violent’ language in the titles psychologically convinces people to click.
- The word “who” has been latched in our minds as a gossip introduction, and we like to gossip – but I recommend to use it only in content that is meaningfully referring to others.
- Length of the headline should be optimized towards your column width – help yourself with the inverted pyramid scheme and with UX principles established on that matter.
- Describing the type of content in brackets – optional, but for some proved effective.
- Headlines that are clear and show the benefit work with the marketing principles and show higher click rates.
- Flagging the reader is a great workaround if you want to use the power of referring to your people without applying the overused “you” technique.
- Using “little-known ways,” “unique tips,” “methods you haven’t heard of” uses the 6 principles of persuasion by Dr. Robert Cialdini – scarcity means quality, so use that.
I’m planning to use my own findings, see how they work out and prepare another study – if you are interested in seeing a study whether this worked out, reach me out in comments or on Twitter (@UserpeekCom) and tell me you’d be interested in hearing about it!