How to write headlines that make people click

Good content marketing turns people into customers. Your headlines are the first contact people make with your brand, so they must be strong, compelling and to the point.

Many people have written about content as the key to connecting and interacting with prospects and customers. But however good your content, one vital fact remains: Headlines are the gateway to your content, and if you don’t understand what works, few will click on them.

Your headline must grab their attention. Your job is to make sure people click, read and share your content.

How much time do you spend coming up with a killer hedder? Statistics from Copyblogger should make you take notice: “8 out of 10 will read your headline, but only 2 out of ten will read the rest of your content.”

Some experts recommend dedicating half your creative time to a headline. As Abraham Lincoln would have put it (if he blogged), “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

We’re not just talking about search engine optimization and title tags. Adding certain words or brackets can have a big effect on whether someone reads your headline.

A report from Hubspot and Outbrain, “Data Driven Strategies for Writing Effective Titles & Headlines,” analyzed data from more than 3 million paid-link headlines from Outbrain’s network. It revealed how headlines affect click-throughs, engagement and conversions.

The study’s key takeaway: A bad headline stops your message dead. However interesting or relevant your content, the reader won’t view it unless your hed conveys that the reader will find value by clicking through. And a clickbait headline that promises strong content but doesn’t deliver breaks consumers’ trust in the brand.

Download this free white paper to discover 10 ways you can improve your writing today.

While the above is important, it’s not groundbreaking. It’s more interesting to analyze how the words and symbols regularly included in headlines entice readers to read content.

As you consider the statistics below, remember the research is solely on B2B data. Words ineffective in one sector might be perfect for another. Experiment to see what works.

Click-through rate

As this graphic from Hubspot and Outbrain’s study shows, three kinds of headlines attract more clicks:

  1. Headlines with bracketed content descriptions performed 38 percent better than those without. “Power Your Cold-Calling with Social Recon [Webinar]” informs readers an interesting webinar awaits.
  1. People respond to visuals. Headlines holding the word “photos” increase click-throughs.
  2. Titles that include the word “who” increase CTs 22 percent, whereas “why” intrigues readers less; it decreases clicks by 37 percent. “Who else wants more …” suggests you have knowledge others have consumed and your reader needs.

Many words and phrases we often stuff into headlines had a negative affect:

  • “How to” and “tip” reduced click-through rates by 49 and 59 percent respectively.
  • Suggesting something is “easy,” “simple” or “best” can have a negative impact. “Magic,” “trick,” “amazing” and “secret” reduced click-throughs.
  • Speaking to readers with “you,” “your” and “you’re” appears to be a turn-off.
  • Headlines with an urgent call to action such as “need” and “now” saw lower click-through rates than titles without them.

Certain words can turn readers off, perhaps because the click-baiters and publishers who use them have eroded trust by raising our expectations and repeatedly letting us down.

The study also revealed that while brackets increased post views, the keywords in the brackets have a major effect on performance.

The bracketed term, provided it’s accompanied by a clear description in the rest of the headline, tells readers what to expect if they follow the link. Offering a “template” proved overwhelmingly attractive. This finding could have been due to the business bias in the data, so consider what will work for you.

Words that engage your audience

The study also analyzed which words engage readers. Researchers measured this by looking at how many pages of content visitors viewed after the first click.

The use of “photo” and brackets in a title continued to have a positive effect. The most amazing result, though, was the use of the word “amazing.”

Measured by page views, “amazing” powerfully boosted engagement. Researchers concluded that although “amazing” might attract a small audience, these readers are more engaged. Once again, play around to see what works for you.

All other words that deter clicks reduce engagement, including negatives such as “worst'” and “never.”

From clicks to conversion

Good content marketing gets your reader to take action beyond her original click—gets her to become a customer. Two features stood out in conversions: telling readers they “need” something, and bracketed clarification.

It makes sense that brackets convert, because the reader has only gotten this far because he has a clear picture of what the story will be about. “Need” is interesting: It’s a turn-off for click-throughs and engagement but a winner with conversions.

The research tells us that what deters initially can seal the deal later on. You might need to turn away large numbers of readers to attract the ones you really want. It’s hard to strike a balance.

As for the optimum length for headlines to engage and convert, the study gives common-sense advice:

  • If you want Twitter shares, leave room for retweets.
  • Use fewer than 65 characters so search engines don’t shorten your headline.
  • Put vital information at the beginning of the headline.

An added thought: Kevan Lee from Buffer quotes research suggesting readers only absorb a title’s first and last three words.

There is a lot of conflicting advice about blog post headlines. This article from ProBlogger advocates using words like “quick,” “easy” and “simple.”

Some go so far as to construct a formula for headline success, like Lenka Istvanova: numbers + adjective + target keyword + rationale + promise = success.

Don’t let anyone tell you writing headlines is easy. It’s not!

The best solutions depend on your industry, campaign goals, topic and preferred distribution. This study doesn’t have all the answers, but it does stimulate thought. It can refine your headline-writing methods. Brian Clark at Copyblogger sums it up nicely, citing the trainers at American Writers and Artists: Headlines should be useful, unique, instill a sense of urgency and be ultra-specific.

Download the full report here.

(All graphics are from the study.)

Shelly Kramer is a marketing veteran and co-founder of V3*Broadsuite. A version of this article originally appeared on the V3B blog.

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