Your guide to the perfect headline

More depends on a good headline for a post than you might imagine. Social research has uncovered powerful truths about writing a headline that inspires lots of online sharing.

Let’s start with this question: How are posts shared?

It’s not the blog post, tool, or resource that gets shared. That might be what motivates the person who shares it, but all that gets shared is the headline. The headline is what you share with your subscribers, it’s what people see in search results, and it’s what gets passed around.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a good headline helps your traffic.

What’s less obvious is that sometimes the best way to come up with an idea is to start with the headline. Here’s why: If you start with the resource, you might put a lot of time into it before you realize there’s no way to summarize it with an irresistible headline. This is like the death sentence most products face if they don’t have an “elevator pitch.”

The ingredients of a good headline

According to a study published in The Guardian, these changes help your headline’s click-through rate:

  • Headlines with 8 words do 21 percent better than average.
  • Using a hyphen or colon will add 9 percent to your CTR.
  • Thumbnails and images boost clicks by 27 percent. Use them on every platform you can.
  • List posts tend to do better. They do even better if the number of list elements is odd instead of even. In fact, odd-numbered posts do 20 percent better than even-numbered posts. I suspect that “10” is an exception to this rule.
  • Headlines that end with a question mark do better. A university study also found that question headlines do better. They also discovered that question headlines did even better if they referenced the reader with “you” or “your,” as opposed to rhetorical or other questions.
  • Headlines that end with three exclamation points get twice as many clicks as headlines with any other punctuation! Obviously, you can do this too much!!! You’ll start to lose credibility after a while! But if you use an exclamation point, you might as well use three!

Strategies the best blogs use

Using a script, Startup Moon scraped several blogs and organized the posts from most to least shared on social networks. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the most shareable headlines, but it’s probably a good indication that these posts attracted more traffic than usual. Posts in the top 20 percent used these tactics:

  • Some of the most successful posts used words like “kill,” “fear,” “dark,” “bleeding,” and “war.” Violent language gets attention, even when the subject isn’t about violence.
  • The negative spin on a post tends to do better. Words like “without,” “no,” and “stop” showed up in a lot of the top posts. A study by Outbrain reached a similar result. They found that the negative superlatives “never” and “worst” performed 30% better than average and 59 percent better than positive superlatives. I’d bet that this all comes down to the human bias called loss aversion. Even when the outcome is the same, we pay more attention when the outcome is framed as avoiding a loss instead of gaining something.
  • People like seeing numbers in headlines. But it’s not just list posts that do this. Numbers of any kind add credibility to headlines by adding specificity. Bigger numbers also do better because they sound more dramatic. Use digits to represent numbers, not words. Time units also help, probably because they indicate exactly how much time it will take to learn something new. Finally, it’s best if the headline starts with the number.
  • Guides do very well. Words like “introduction,” “beginner’s guide,” “in five minutes,” and “DIY” will help your CTR.
  • Piggybacking on big brands and hot topics helps, even when the articles only use those brands or topics metaphorically to make a comparison with something very different.
  • A few random words help: smart, surprising, science, history, hacks/hacking/hackers, huge/ big, critical.
  • The study found that these words hurt: announcing, wins, celebrates, grows.

Finally, if you want better headlines, your content must be built on a broad base of subjects and topics. This is where you look for inspiration from the top brands and widen your content strategy to include as many themes and ideas related to your industry as you can.

In another study, Ripenn analyzed 2,616 headlines on sites known for their ability to elicit clicks: BuzzFeed, UpWorthy, ViralNova, and Wimp. Here’s what they recommend as a result of their findings:

  • Reference current trends, celebrities, and popular movies but put a unique spin on them.
  • Inject headlines with curiosity. Elicit interest, but don’t give it all away in the title.
  • Use emotional words.
  • Use action words. This is backed up by Dan Zarrella’s research on Twitter click-through rates. More adverbs and verbs help CTR, while more nouns and adjectives hurt it. We like to hear stories about things being done or learn how to do things. We don’t like stories about things sitting there.
  • Make bold claims.
  • Write relatable, human headlines, and don’t get too formal.

Working with Ripenn on that study, BufferApp discovered the most popular phrases in successful headlines:

What to do when sales is the goal

While these are great tactics for sparking interest in a subject, many of them backfire if they target users already looking for something. Several case studies from ContentVerve at Unbounce demonstrate that for landing pages:

  • Question titles almost always perform worst. (“Need a Free MP3 Player?”)
  • Loss-aversion titles tend to come in second unless there is a very clear thing people try to avoid. (“Don’t Waste Money on Expensive Mp3 Converters”)
  • Titles expressing a very clear benefit do best. (“Get Your Free YouTube Converter”)

Writing headlines for landing pages is very different from writing headlines for blog posts. On landing pages, you’re trying to capture the attention of people already looking for something. Clever headlines just force them to think harder about what you’re offering.

With blog posts, on the other hand, you’re usually trying to elicit interest in a subject.

Focus on your goals

Think carefully about which goal you want to accomplish before you write your headline.

This probably depends on the platform. You’ll want to write more creative headlines for platforms like Facebook and Twitter, while you will often want to use more straightforward headlines for paid search or email.

It all comes down to the question of serendipitous discovery versus goal-oriented search.

Pratik Dholakiya is the co-founder and VP of marketing of E2M, a digital marketing agency and MoveoApps, a mobile apps development company. A version of this article first appeared on Convince & Convert.

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