“Content is king“, said Bill Gates in 1996. That incredibly foresighted statement still lives on today, but a sad fact is that no one will read your copy – no matter how unique and great the content is – if your headline blows. Traffic can vary up to 500% between headlines for the same content. That’s why every digital marketing agency has published at least one blog post telling how to write a killer headline. The problem is, if you’ve read one of those posts, you’ve pretty much read them all. 99% of time there’s always same few “tips & tricks” mentioned.
That’s why I decided to compile this guide for you!
1. Lists & numbers
Without a shadow of a doubt, every single blog post that tells you how to write headlines starts with this one (heck, usually the posts themselves have a list in the headline!), so I figure why not start my guide too. For some reason people are just drawn to lists, and hey, if it works, don’t fix it, right?
However, there’s a downside no one seems to talk about, perhaps because it goes against the norm. The buzzfeedication of blog writing has started to eat away the credibility of blogs and eventually their writers, as even reputable business blogs are swaying towards click-baiting and easy-to-digest casual writing, instead of providing true value through sharing knowledge. So although still powerful, you might want to keep a close eye on how this trend is going to play out in the end.
Always try to use and odd number, as they can generate up to 20% higher CTR than headlines with even numbers.
Use digits rather than words. “5 ways to improve…” works better than “Five ways to improve…”.
Go big or go home. The higher the number, the better the headline performs. Iris Shoor from Oribi also mentions that based on their data mining, whatever number you choose to go with, make sure to start the headline with it (as opposed to have the number in the end).
Using (any kind of) numbers in headlines can’t really go wrong. CoSchedule shared that “Seven of our top 10 posts on the CoSchedule blog have at least one number in the blog title, if not more. And of those seven, six are in the top six positions and they get on average 206% more traffic than an average blog post.” While this does sound like an impressive statistic, it’s hard to say whether or not those things have any correlation (since a post can be a top performer for other reasons than its title).
A Conductor study found that 36% of respondents preferred headlines with a number. Some sources quote this same study saying that numbers increase headline CTR by 36%, but this isn’t technically correct.
Interestingly enough, the same study revealed that “number headlines” is the only type that has significant difference in preference between men and women.
2. How-to (and other forms of education)
Actually this one is a bit of a double-edged sword. While how-to’s can be very powerful for catching those readers who are looking to learn on your specific subject, they usually don’t attract casual browsers.
As for this post’s headline, it was a calculated move: I knew that the length of this guide would be too much for someone who’s not that interested on the topic, but on the other hand it’s a very intriguing title for those who are.
Same goes for all similar type of headlines, like “tips“, “DIY“, “introduction to“, “in 5 minutes” etc.. People want to learn more, but they don’t want to learn everything!
3. Special characters
A colon or hyphen in the title perform 9% better than headlines without. Simple, but effective – truly a favorite of mine. Brackets, like [infographic] or (video), seem to be pretty effective too, performing 37% better than their peers without. These things work because they give the reader a clearer idea of what to expect from the post.
Just to make this more confusing, it turns out that the exact opposite also works. Or at least according to CMI, headlines with question marks have higher CTR than headlines with exclamation marks or periods.
Unless you go with three (!!!) exclamation marks, because that seems to work, too.
4. Power words
War is the ultimate manifest and showcase of power. No wonder then that war-like words such as ‘kill’, ‘fear’, ‘dark’, ‘bleeding’, ‘death/dead’, and (duh) ‘war’ have become quite popular. “Samsung is at war with Google” or “Apple is killing this service”. Grimmer the better. Also using negative form of a noun or a verb is much more powerful than the ordinary one. Words like ‘no’, ‘without’, ‘stop’. “The app you can’t live without” will go more viral than “The app which will improve your life“.
Generally well performing words include (but likely aren’t limited to) ‘smart’, ‘surprising’, ‘science’, ‘history’, ‘hacks’ (hacking, hackers, etc), ‘huge/big’, ‘critical’. But actually one of the biggest traffic magnets is ‘photo(s)‘, which can boost performance by 37%.
Anna Mazeeruv from Lifelearn argues that adjectives in general make headlines better. Her suggestions: ‘essential’, ‘interesting’, ‘fascinating’, ‘fantastic’, ‘awesome’, ‘useful’, ‘practical’, ‘avoidable’, ‘compelling’, ‘important’, ‘relevant’, ‘creative’, ‘effortless’, ‘significant’, ‘powerful’, ‘amazing’, etc.
Using some big brand name in the title (preferably relevant to your industry), like Google or Microsoft, can have a surprisingly big impact. Don’t worry if your post has nothing to do with that/those companies, since neither does ⅓ of posts containing such big names in title. If cleverly incorporated, you can use their fame to make your own.
According to Hubspot, positive superlatives (‘always’, ‘best’) seem to decrease headline’s performance by 14%, but then again Hubspot also encourages using them (#1 on this list!). It’s also suggested that you either go with 0-1 superlatives (51% of readers prefer this) or 4+ (25% of readers prefer this).
Here’s some words to avoid (and their impact on CTR): ‘easy’ -44%, ‘need’ -44%, ‘now’ -12%, ‘magic’ -59%, ‘credit’ -58%, ‘cure’ -58%, ‘free’ -41%, ‘trick’ -23%, ‘amazing’ –24%, ‘secret’ –26%. Statistics from here. Also words ‘announcing’, ‘wins’, ‘celebrates’ and ‘grows’ tend to be less interesting.
An often quoted statistic says that 8/10 people will read your headline, but only 2/10 will read your actual copy.
Brian Dean from Backlinko said it very well: “sharing content is an emotional decision“. Although using power words are somewhat related to stirring up emotions, you can get an emotional (first-)reaction out of a reader without those. It’s studied that content provoking ‘awe’, ‘surprise’ or ‘anger’ is 28% more likely to go viral.
Out of all emotions, fear is the most powerful for grabbing (and keeping) our attention, according to Jon Morrow from Boost Blog Traffic.
Should you go with positive or negative titles, then? I’ve seen research supporting both, and I think there’s no absolute right or wrong answer here. That said, you should always use common sense when making that decision, and always do it with the context in mind.
6. The “you paradox”
It’s rather well established fact that we are just more interested in content that has something to do with us specifically. For proof look no further than your Facebook timeline or the (nowadays somewhat sarcastic) hashtag #allaboutme. Headlines like “Are YOU making these mistakes…” keep popping up steadily in our information stream, but according to Outbrain’s research, headlines containing ‘you’, ‘you’re’ or ‘your’ perform 36% worse than average.
CoSchedule analyzed nearly one million headlines and according to their results, ‘you’ or ‘your’ headlines “performed extremely and were shared frequently“. So my guess is that this varies a lot between different audiences or context. In any case, headlines with ‘me’ or ‘I’ were less of a success, getting shared three times less.
7. Size does matter
There seems to be a sweet spot for the ideal length for both words and characters in a headline. The catch is that the sweet spot varies between platforms, e.g. ideal length is different for an email headline than it is for Twitter or Google. Personally I think that Julie Neidlinger from CoSchedule has written perhaps the most comprehensive piece on the topic, definitely worth checking out. Here’s what others think:
- Content Marketing Institute says eight-word-headlines have 21% higher CTR.
- Hubspot recommends going for 70 characters or less.
- Moz bases their recommendation of ’55 character or less’ on the fact that anything longer gets cut off on Google search results.
- Kissmetrics argue that readers can scan through not just your copy, but headlines as well. Hence, first and last 3 words are the most important, making ideal headline word count 6.
There’s effectively no found correlation between social shares and people actually reading. Headlines sell.
I’m not a big advocate on building headlines around SEO. In fact, one by-product of buzzfeedication is that headlines are often so bizarre that you’d never know how to find those stories unless they pop up on your social platform’s timeline. You would do better off using long-tail keywords in the copy itself.
8. Let’s throw in some acronyms, because why not
I don’t know why, but Americans seem to be obsessed with acronyms. Unsurprisingly, they’ve come up with at least these two “convenient” abbreviations regarding headline writing:
- S.H.I.N.E. Specificity, helpfulness, immediacy, newsworthiness & entertainment value.
- SPUB. Simple, powerful, useful, bold.
- STEPPS. Berger’s very famous formula from few years back is made more to explain why things go viral, but the same principles can help any headline crafter as well:
- Social currency: People talk about things to make them look good.
- Triggers: Topics that are at the top of your mind are at the tip of your tongue.
- Emotion: When you care about something, you share it.
- Public: When you see people doing something, you’ll imitate it.
- Practical value: You share things to help others.
- Stories: You like to share things that are wrapped in narratives.
9. Headline score
Folks at CoSchedule have created this amazing tool called Headline Analyzer. It’s completely free to use and gives you a nice overall look at different aspect of your headline, like type of words used or Google search results preview. It is not the perfect way of valuating your headline, so take the results with a grain of salt, but in most cases it does give you a general idea on how’s your headline going to perform.
And that’s it. That’s roughly 1,900 words worth of best practices for you (actually 1,600 words (or 7 minutes) is the optimal length for blog posts), free to use and distribute. If this all feels too overwhelming, I’d say just keep your headlines short, make them easy to understand, and give a clear value promise (e.g. what benefits the reader will gain from reading your post).
Always try to come up with at least 10 different headlines (the more the better) and then figure out which one of those work the best. Writing them out puts you in the “zone”, and you’ll always have a better end result than what you started with – guaranteed.