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Scientifically Proven Ways to Write Better Headlines

By Karen TaylorNov 2, 2015

write-better-headinesHow to write better headlines is making headlines. Today’s Digital Dynamos preach the value of headlines as the way to gain valuable marketing results—including more attention, more clicks and more leads.

They aren’t wrong. But they also aren’t the first to trumpet the gospel of compelling headlines. The 1960s advertising geniuses depicted in the AMC show “Mad Men” covered this topic all the way back in the mid-20th century. One of the leading proponents was David Ogilvy, who famously stated: “On average, five times as many people will read a headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent 80 cents out of your dollar.”

Ogilvy wasn’t all talk either. He wrote many headlines that stopped magazine readers from turning the page—helping sell everything from Rolls-Royces to Schweppes tonic water.

Ogilvy also created a hit list of power words to use in headlines—suddenly, now, announcing, introducing, quick, magic, and revolutionary. All of these words worked as well then as they do now.

Another iconic ad writer, John Caples, author of Tested Advertising Methods, created 35 headline formulas for achieving optimum results. They include how-to’s, testimonials, questions, warnings and news headlines.

Digital Dynamos Expand on Mad Men Headline Research

Today’s Digital Dynamos have taken cues from their Mad Men forebears, targeting keywords and creating formulas to write headlines that get better results—including enticing readers to click on links, share on social media, and opt-in to subscriber lists. But today’s content creators have something the Mad Men didn’t—the ability to analyze headline success at deeper and wider levels.

This in-depth research is driven by today’s much more competitive media landscape, where every marketer is competing with millions of new forms of content every day for attention, clicks and shares. In 2014, Uberflip created an infographic called “A Day in the Life of the Internet” showing how much content is published daily, including 2 million blog posts, 294 billion emails, and 864,000 hours of video.

One of today’s most viral content creators, Upworthy, lives and dies by its headlines. Founder Peter Koechley stated that tests have shown traffic varies by as much as 500 percent simply because of a headline. “The difference between a good headline and a bad headline can be just massive. It’s not a rounding error. When we test headlines we see 20 percent difference, 50 percent difference, 500 percent difference. A really excellent headline can make something go viral.”

Seeking to better understand the impact of headlines in today’s mountain of content, three leading companies conducted their own studies:

Here’s what they found.

Conductor Survey: What Headlines Do Readers Like?

In 2013, Conductor set out to understand how readers responded to headlines, conducting a survey to discover:

  • Which headline styles resonated with readers
  • How well people liked or disliked superlatives in headlines 

To begin the research, Conductor pulled headlines from multiple sources, including its blog, BuzzFeed, and The Huffington Post, and analyzed them to find the most common headline styles. These five scored highest:

  • 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)
  • Numbered Lists (30 Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful)
  • Reader-Addressing (Ways You Need to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful)

Conductor found three formats yielded greater results on average:

  • 36 percent of respondents preferred headlines with numbers
  • 21 percent liked reader-addressing headlines
  • 17 percent preferred how-to headlines

“The commonality among the top three resonating headline types versus the bottom two is that they were more explicit about what the reader was going to get out of them,” stated Conductor.

To test readers’ preferences on superlatives in headlines, Conductor presented them with five options to rank:

  • 27 Ways to Train a Dog (0 superlatives)
  • The 27 Best Ways to Train a Dog (one superlative)
  • The 27 Best Ways Ever to Train a Dog (two superlatives)
  • The 27 Best Ways Ever to Train a Perfect Dog (three superlatives)
  • The 27 Best and Smartest Ways Ever to Train a Perfect Dog (four superlatives)

The results showed that 51 percent of readers either liked zero or one superlative, while 25 percent of readers liked four superlatives. Headlines with two or three superlatives did not score well. “These findings suggest readers prefer either an understated approach, or that the author shoot for the stars and tell the reader in strong terms why their content is worth reading,” said Conductor.

PR 20/20 Analysis: Which Headline Formulas Go Viral?

Driven by the desire to discover why some headline formulas go viral and others fall flat, our friends (and neighbors!) at PR 20/20 pulled a year’s worth of their blog posts to study. The project started by pulling the most shared posts using a tool called Buzzsumo. Then it used Google Analytics to pull a list of the most-viewed posts. Next, it compared the lists side-by-side to find similarities.

Only two posts appeared on both lists:

  1. 15 Steps to Build Your Marketing Plan
  2. Marketing Automation is Only the Beginning: How Algorithms and Artificial Intelligence Will Disrupt Marketing Forever

PR 20/20 gained the following insights:

  • In page views, the most tactical, business-savvy posts tended to perform the best—for example: Marketing Strategy versus Sales Strategy
  • In search, nine out of 10 of the top-performing posts explained how to do something, with five headlines containing the word “how”

From these results, PR 20/20 created one ideal headline formula for attracting the maximum number of readers to its content:

List + How to (for example, How to Write the Perfect Headline in 5 Easy Steps)

CoSchedule Study: Which Headlines are More Sharable?

When CoSchedule reached its millionth blog post, the company wondered what it could learn about growing traffic and writing better headlines from its own content. In particular, the company wanted to know:

  • What is it that makes one headline more shareable than another?
  • Do emotional headlines perform better?

For the study on shareability, CoSchedule first whittled down its million headlines to the top 11 percent most shared. Here are some of its findings:

  1. List headlines are the most likely to be shared (for instance, 10 Ways to Deliver Better Results)
  2. Headlines that use “You” and “Your” are shared more often versus headlines containing “I” or “Me”
  3. Headlines that announce giveaways and free gifts perform well

To study the emotional value of its headlines, CoSchedule used a free tool created by the Advanced Marketing Institute—the Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer. It counts the number of emotional words used in a headline and delivers an EMV score, along with other insight. For comparison:

  • Good headlines will score in the 30 percent to 40 percent EMV range
  • Exceptional headlines can reach the 50 percent to 75 percent EMV range

To test the EMV of its headlines, CoSchedule examined an average sampling of headlines in three sharing groups: 100, 500 and over 1,000 shares. The results were that emotional headlines got shared more often. Posts with a high number of shares frequently reached an EMV score of 30 or 40, which was several points higher than posts with fewer shares.

This headline research is a great reminder that headlines are at least as important as the content itself in blog posts, eBooks, social posts and more. If content is king, then think of your headlines as the crowns—the shiny, glittering objects on the head of your content that will pull readers in and entice them to engage with the rest of your content. 

Three key takeaways:

  • Spend time writing your headlines
  • Use proven headline formulas and power words
  • Test your headlines

Bonus Tip: CoSchedule also offers headline writers its own free Headline Analyzer to help content writers improve their headline. It delivers an overall score along with a word balance grade, headline type, length analysis, keywords, Google search preview and sentiment rank.

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Additional Topics: Content and Design
Karen Taylor
The Author

Karen Taylor

Karen Taylor is a professional content marketing writer with experience writing for over 100 companies and publications. Her experience includes the full range of content marketing projects — from blogs, to white papers, to ebooks. She has a particular knack for creating content that clarifies and strengthens a company’s marketing message, and delivers optimum impact and maximum results. Learn more at KarenTaylorWrites.com.
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