A Conductor study finds that the more explicit a headline is as to the reader takeaway, the more the headline resonates.
The new digital economy has created a wealth of new opportunity for modern marketers across search, social networks, and digital channels. Digital marketing has brought with it the opportunity to create leads, drive engagement, and drive sales at costs far less than traditional offline channels.
In some ways, though, online marketing has been victimized by its own success. Viral media site Upworthy’s co-founder Peter Koechley describes it this way:
“When we look at the media landscape, we see there being more of a demand problem than a supply problem — how do you get people to care about important stuff amidst the avalanche of content we all face each day?”
With the growth of online marketing, both the channels and volumes of content competing for our readers’ attention has exploded, making it increasingly challenging to stand out. Consider the following statistics:
- Explosion in content competing for readers’ attention: A Day in the Internet shows that 2 million blog posts, 294 billion emails, and 864 thousand hours of video are created daily. Each day also brings 400 million tweets.
- 80% of readers never make it past the headline: According to some sources, on average, eight out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only two out of 10 will read the rest.
- Traffic can vary by as much as 500% based on the headline: According to Koechley, tests show that traffic to content at Upworthy can vary by as much as 500% simply because of the headline. “The headline is our one chance to reach people who have a million other things that they’re thinking about, and who didn’t wake up in the morning wanting to care about feminism or climate change, or the policy details of the election,” he said.
Measuring which headlines resonate with readers
Given how significant a headline can be to click-through rate in both search and social online channels, here at Conductor we decided to test different headline types to determine those that resonate most with readers. Although it would be interesting to measure this by analyzing actual click traffic (and we know that there can be a difference between how respondents say they will click and how they actually do), it can be difficult to precisely test by getting multiple headlines for the same article in front of readers. Taking the survey approach also gave us the ability to gather demographic data about respondents to determine if headline preferences differed across specific groups.
To start, we analyzed a large sample set of headlines across multiple online publications and social networks to determine if there are general ways in which headlines are written. We determined there to be five high-level headline types:
- Normal (Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful)
- Question (What are Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful?)
- How to (How to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful)
- Number (30 Ways To Make Drinking Tea More Delightful)
- Reader-Addressing (Ways You Need to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful)
Using actual headlines from multiple content sources including BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, andthe Conductor blog as starting points, we showed respondents headlines written in each style for three different articles and asked them to select the headline that resonated most.
BuzzFeed is onto something with its headline choices
Before we dig into the findings, I want to draw your attention to content aggregator BuzzFeed and its quirky CEO, Jonah Peretti. A recent New York Magazine profile of Peretti describes how he began a study of what makes content resonate after accidentally creating a viral sensation as a graduate student at MIT (and later as part of the team that created the Huffington Post). “I’ve spent over a decade thinking about how ideas spread,” he says.
Close analysis of the front page of buzzfeed.com shows a number of things. First, what in the world is a boozy milkshake, and how could there be 26 different ways to make one? Second, and more to the point, they use ‘number’ headlines a lot. In fact, at the time of this writing, every other headline on the front page is in number format:
Turning now to our findings: As you have probably guessed by now, “number” headlines resonated most by far — a full 15% more than the second place “reader-addressing.” (More on what we think this means in a bit.)
Looking at headline preferences across gender groups, we can see that females were even more predisposed to “number” headlines than males. Interestingly, across all the questions we asked, this was the only one in which we saw any significant difference among demographic groups:
Superlatives: Either hit me with it or understate it
Next, we tested respondent tolerance for superlatives in a headline. We showed them several different headlines that had between 0 and 4 superlatives in the headline and asked them to pick their favorite:
- The 27 Ways to Train a Dog (0 superlatives)
- The 27 Best Ways to Train a Dog (1 superlatives)
- The 27 Best Ways Ever to Train a Dog (2 superlatives)
- The 27 Best Ways Ever to Train a Perfect Dog (3 superlatives)
- The 27 Best and Smartest Ways Ever to Train a Perfect Dog (4 superlatives)
The data shows more than half of respondents (51%) like the understated approach, preferring to click headlines with 0-1 superlatives. Interestingly, tolerance for superlatives tailed off until the headline packed with 4 superlatives, which had a full quarter of respondents stating they preferred it. These findings suggest readers prefer an understated approach or that the author shoot for the stars and tell the reader in strong terms why their content is worth reading, but the middle ground is to be avoided.
One out of five respondents don’t seem to mind if you YELL AT THEM
Next we surveyed respondents about their headline capitalization preferences. Several headlines with distinct capitalization styles were shown to respondents and they were asked to select the one that resonated the most with them:
- The 5 steps to prepare for the impending zombie apocalypse (lower case)
- THE 5 STEPS TO PREPARE FOR THE IMPENDING ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE (capitals)
- The 5 Steps to Prepare for the Impending Zombie Apocalypse (sentence case)
- No preference
The data showed that respondents strongly preferred sentence case, but, surprisingly, 1 out of 5 respondents preferred the more authoritative capital letters. As described above, there was little difference in responses across demographic groups. While we don’t recommend that content creators suddenly start writing their headlines in all capitals, it was interesting to see that a significant segment preferred that style. Otherwise, the group overwhelmingly preferred traditional sentence case.
Write headlines that leave no ambiguity
Although a follow-up study that thoroughly examines why certain headline types resonate over others would add greater insight for marketers and content creators, we can offer a hypothesis about what the research findings say about how to craft headlines.
As we started out saying, there has never been more content vying for reader attention — more channels, more content, more publishers all competing for our time and mind share. This means the modern internet user is forced to be more discerning about the headlines they click on, and is hyper-cognizant of where they are investing their time.
The commonality among the top three resonating headline types vs. the bottom two is that the more the headline type resonated, the more explicit the headline was as to what the reader was going to get out of reading the article.
Put another way, humans don’t like uncertainty. A headline like “30 Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful” removes any ambiguity about what the article is going to do for me. It tells me exactly what I will and will not get from it: It is going to give me a specific number of ways to make drinking tea more enjoyable. This may be a reason why BuzzFeed has found such success with readers using these headline types.
Likewise, the second most popular headline type, reader-addressing, is also very explicit and direct about what I will get out of the article (Ways You Need to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful).
Contrast that with the least popular headline type, the question (What are Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful?), which, perhaps given the phrasing, leaves in place a certain amount of ambiguity for the reader.
Conclusion: three essential tips when crafting your headlines
While we are not saying it makes sense for every publisher to try and become the next BuzzFeed, and we don’t think the data suggests a directive to publishers to write every headline in “number format,” we do think it serves as a reminder to publishers of the following guidelines:
- Don’t forget the headline!
Too many content creators invest a great deal of time and energy creating awesome content, but then tack a “meh” headline on as an afterthought. Remember — 80% of readers never make it past the headline, so spend the extra bit of time to create a great one that grabs the reader’s attention.
- Be as explicit as possible about what your content will and will not do
There are a bazillion pieces of content clamoring for your audience’s attention. Our data suggests that the clearer you can make your headline as to what the content will and will not do, the more that headline will resonate with your audience.
- Don’t forget to craft “headlines” in search, too
The search results are no less of a “headline click decision” for your audience than other online channels. Make sure you are putting your best foot forward when enticing readers to click on your website in the search results by following rich snippet best practices, and by leveraging schema.org to include visual markup (shown to increase CTR in many cases). (This is a great resource for more information on implementing schema.org markup.)
At the end of the day — if nothing else — this research should remind us that headlines are at least as important as the content itself in capturing reader attention in both search and social. Content creators, be sure to give headlines proper attention before publishing content.