8,000 Easy Steps to Fix Your God-Awful Headlines

Posted by Filed Under Content Strategy & Creation
Man reading newspaper

In the glory days of print journalism, reporters and feature writers wrote stories, but headline writers wrote headlines: No one single person was expected to write both because they required different skill sets.

Few of us writers now have the luxury of a headline writer, yet arguably the right headline is more important today than ever. With so much information on multiple screens vying for our attention all at once, an attention-catching headline can make the difference between being click bait and click repellent. Writing a catchy, attention-grabbing headline is critical for getting eyballs on your blog post or other social media content.

I recently came across an article that explores the science of writing successful, must-click headlines for social media. For The Dark Science of Naming Your Post: Based on Studying 100 Blogs, writer Iris Shoor reviewed over 100 blogs, ranked them from most read to least based on analytics, and then evaluated each of the blogs’ headlines to determine what factors they shared. The results, excerpted below, are a little surprising, but because they are extracted from real data, they’re worth taking into account before you write your next headline.

Go negative. The more dramatic and deadly the headline, the more clickable readers find it. Some of the most clicked on headlines in Shoor’s study included “Oracle moves to kill open source mySGL” and “Big Data is dead. What’s next?” Shoor also found that using the negative form of a noun or verb is more powerful than using the positive locution—“No,” “without” and “stop” lead to more shares. Thus “5 things you should stop doing” is more appealing to a reader than “5 things you should start doing.” For headlines using negative superlatives (“worst” or “never”), click-through rates were over 60 percent higher than similar headlines using positive superlatives (“Always” or “best”).

Numbers: The bigger, the better. Anyone who has been on Buzzfeed.com knows that putting a number in a headline draws in readers. The promise of a list implies diverse information, a quick read, and predictability. However, Shoor found that there’s a correlation between clickability and the size of the number. For instance, a headline promising “25 tips” will generally outperform a headline offering “10 tips.”

Shoor also found that placing the number at the front of the headline leads to more clicks than if the placed elsewhere in the phrase. Thus, “5 ways social networks are changing the world” would outperform “Social networks are changing the world in 5 ways.”

Offer exclusive information. Offering an “introduction to,” a “beginner’s guide,” or “how to” is a tried-and-true strategy for click-throughs. As Shoor notes, “It seems like we don’t just want to be told what not to do or to be threatened with scary verbs—we also want to learn new stuff. Preferably in 5 minutes.” She also found that headlines that promise to teach something in an easy way or from scratch also tend to be more viral. “The beginner’s guide to Android SDK” or “DIY Android SDK” will outperform “How to use Android SDK.”

It’s also worth noting that these headline strategies aren’t mutually exclusive. The more negative superlatives, the higher the numbers, the more DIY you can pack into a headline, the better. “25 beginners tricks to NEVER teach your cat” – you want to click on it, don’t you?

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