Have you ever tried hitting a moving object, except the moving object is a millisecond glance? That’s what crafting digital headlines feels like, at least for some of us.
Internet surfers glide through dozens of headlines daily, stopping to click only when…
Only when what?
When they see how many people tweeted it? When a keyword strikes a settling (or unsettling) chord? When they see it’s their best friend or Conan O’Brian sharing it?
While Google Analytics and eye-tracking software allow us to see answers to the what — we can’t always be certain of the why.
Websites that cultivate discussions regularly have an undeniable amount of social influence and power. But in many cases, the content is growingly auto-regurgitated — automatically shared via aggregation sites or simply reposted without a thought.
Once a site has reached this command of social capital, does the practice of crafting proven headlines become moot? Let’s find out.
For your convenience, the meat and potatoes of this article:
- Content aggregation and the state of headlines
- Investigating reasons for headline performance
- Various examples of headlines (proven and unproven)
- Role and goal of copywriters
- Role of headlines
- INFOGRAPHIC: The Headline Bundle
- Your thoughts…
Content aggregation and the state of headlines
Consider the amount of content aggregation these days. Not just power sites like PRWeb, Outbrain, Alltop, and now Triberr, but people too — the point where we trust brands as much as we trust our friends.
We’re willing to share the next thing they post before it even comes out because we’re certain it will be high quality. And don’t forget about social proof; when we see hundreds of tweets on a headline we instantly assume it’s worth clicking.
None of this is necessarily a bad thing, but…
This got me thinking. Do “proven” headlines still matter as much for big brands and influencers (hard news publications aside)?
Of course headlines still matter — but do we really need to spend an hour thinking of the ultimate headline if we have thousands of people ready to share our content regardless?
Investigating reasons for headline performance
Tapping into Quora, I asked this same question here. After a week of discussing headline influencers and the idea of proven headlines, I discovered the answer is not so cut-and-dry.
Leonard Kim, a corporate strategist and marketer, was the first to answer and agrees:
“Once the brand establishes itself, a headline doesn’t really matter. News looks more like a press release, which people end up reading regardless of how it’s written; unless, the opening line is extremely poor in providing quality content.”
McDonalds even tried no headlines (source). I figured that was it; game, set, match! Fortunately, others started contributing and helped evolve the discussion.
Anna Bassham, Communications Manager at Guru, states:
“In this fast-paced digital world, headlines matter now more than ever! Attention spans are getting shorter by the second, and you have a very short time to grab attention. Working as a communications manager, I see the importance of headlines all the time. Blog posts I write and articles I share that have a snappy, interesting, funny, and/or shocking headline are shared and commented on far more than articles with plain ones.”
Having opened up the playing field, I rephrased the question for Anna, asking her to consider an industry power influencer such as Gary Vaynerchuck sharing a blog post titled “Wine and stuff” instead of “11 Wines From 11 Weird Places.” I proceeded to ask if she thought the headline would still perform well. Her response:
“I see what you are saying. And while I do think that influencers such as Gary V can get away with more “creative” and less-descriptive titles, I think the rules still apply for the majority. Yes, if I am a wine lover and have been reading Gary’s stuff for ages I will probably click on any new article that is on the topic. However, he might have trouble gaining more followers or readers”
Anna points out the importance of medium, explaining how headlines are the most important element for Twitter, while spellbinding images can outperform headline captivation on Facebook or Pinterest.
She sums this up best suggesting, “It’s all about knowing how to pique your audience’s interest on any given platform.”
Janelle Vreeland, SM Community Manager at LonelyBrand, contests:
“Absolutely they do. Even if you’re preaching to the choir, so to speak, and are sharing content with an eager, ready-to-listen-and-read audience, a solid headline is what’s going to grab their attention. For example, we have a weekly newsletter that we send out that includes a list of our previous week’s blog content. The people who have signed up for this newsletter are people who are already interested in seeing and reading our content, but if the headlines aren’t compelling enough to hook them, they’ll probably move along to the next thing. You may not need to have a stellar headline every time, but phoning it in will definitely be obvious to readers and probably rub them the wrong way.”
Meeting me in the middle, Ian Greenleigh, author of “The Social Media Side Door” answers:
“Yes and no.”
Ian goes on to highlight some of the vital associations with headlines:
“The only thing that prevents me from offering a solid “yes” is the increasing prevalence of “previewable” content. Take the way videos and images are being natively featured within Twitter and Facebook, for example. If these platforms forced users to click on links to view all media, headlines would be exponentially more important. But users don’t rely on the headlines alone, because they don’t have to. They get “content clues” like who has liked or shared something, the description, a representative image (if it’s a video), and other information. Or, as is the case with Twitter and many images, they see even more than a preview of the image, they see the full image in their stream. The other element of this is a kind of diminishing opportunity cost. If I need to leave the page or experience I’m currently enjoying to consume content that I might have interest in (based on a headline or tweet w/ link), I might decide it’s not worth disrupting the experience I’m enjoying. But now that more and more media is viewable within experiences, I don’t feel I’m risking anything (except time) by playing it or reading it.”
Now the ball was rolling. Ian’s insights removed my topical tunnel-vision and provided future considerations. (Also, there are a handful of other great responses I suggest checking out.) With a diverse set of opinions and dozens of factors raised, I felt this was substantial to move forward.
Various examples of headlines (proven and unproven)
Content and Headline Stats (source: Outbrain.com)
- Titles with eight words perform best (Receiving 21% higher CTR than average)
- Thumbnails work better than logos (Receiving 27% higher CTR than average)
- Headlines with odd numbers received 20% higher CTR than even numbers
- A colon or hyphen in the title performed 9% better than headlines without them
- Question marks in headlines had higher CTR than exclamation or periods
- However, three (!!!) received twice as many clicks as all other punctuation marks
And as many of us already know, the five best practice headline formats are:
- Number (7 Ways to…)
- Reader Addressing (Reasons why you need to…)
- How to (How to sell…)
- Normal (Ways to do…)
- Question (Are you losing readers by….?)
After crafting headlines along these rules of thumb 10+ times, it’s just a matter of switching one or two words, reversing the subject, or adding/removing adjectives. A new social website just released? Perfect, let’s make “The Ultimate Guide to [new website] Marketing.”
Some examples of the most successful format: “Number”
It’s clear why there’s so much push for these headlines: they work.
Having been shared thousands of times, there’s no denying their success rate. They work for lots of identities, but not everyone utilizes them.
Certainly some people ignore best practices and still perform well, right? Look at Seth Godin’s recent headlines:
Every article gets shared hundreds (if not thousands) of times. This brings us to the “influence plateau,” a place where all the content published by someone like Seth gets shared indefinitely.
At the “influence plateau,” the concepts of “best headline” formats and practices might be extraneous.
Let’s balance the stage and take a look at the headlines of small- and medium-sized identities that are nowhere near the influence plateau.
Vain Blog (small biz, hair stylist & beauty industry)
Philadelphia Runner Blog (small biz, running shoes industry)
CJ Pony Parts Blog (medium-size biz, auto parts industry)
Small businesses may not have the time to be regularly publishing content and crafting the perfect headline. They may not have the copywriting experience needed to entice new readers or the knack for what qualifies as “high quality content.”
What they do have is personality, and with it they can express themselves uniquely, unbound by the shackles of pageview quotas.
From the examples above, the two small businesses received close to zero traction; however, CJ Pony Parts was able to reel in over a thousand social signals.
While the quality of content should be a personalized reflection of their brand, a key performance indicator (KPI) for traction is directly related with the size of business (their budget, reach, and promotion efforts).
But underneath the weight of marketing budgets is the copywriter.
Their experience, time investment, and content quality are among dozens of factors determining an article’s success.
Role and goal of the copywriter
What are the standards of an outstanding copywriter? A snippet from California Employment Development Department resonated with me:
“Copywriters may be assigned to a variety of accounts and must be versatile enough to adjust to each new product and medium and to vary the language and tone of each message.”
Anna mentioned this specifically. It’s about using words and messages to capture those brief glances we talked about earlier, depending on the medium.
Copywriters must execute this feat with absolute precision. Once a reader has clicked through to the content, it must continue to captivate readers while accelerating towards a higher goal (such as a purchase or subscription).
Goal of the copywriter
The goal of the copywriter is not cut in stone. As Seth Godin points out:
“Instead of measuring, for example, how many people click on a link, we can measure how something you wrote or created delighted or challenged people…You can see the changes in emotion, or dignity improved or light shed.”
While Seth Godin’s suggestion is commendable, reciting this to a boss who plays the number game seems futile. In most cases, we employ Godin’s philosophy on the content:
Utilizing best practice headlines to meet a quota, then focusing on quality content to benefit readers
As Zach Bulygo has said:
“The key lesson to learn from great copywriters is how very good they are at acting on people’s core beliefs. When people see attention grabbing copy, it grabs their attention right away and they quickly click. It sparks excitement and curiosity. They don’t “hover over” the link or advertisement. They see it, it draws their attention, and they click. It’s all about getting a reaction out of people, and at its core, advertising has the same purpose.”
We might even take a magnified look at this statement and add “how very good they are at acting on a targeted and well-researched audience’s core beliefs.”
If we follow the transfer of influence from an organization’s goal to the copywriter, we can zoom in on what headlines (as a separate entity) are capable of.
Roles of Headlines
“The first thing to keep in mind is that a headline is a promise. It promises some kind of benefit or reward in exchange for attention. That reward could range from an amusing diversion to the solution to a pressing problem.”
So if headlines are indeed a promise, what are the more specific roles?
- Primary: To get people to click though.
- Secondary: To give people a benefit or solution, influence a purchase, subscription, or social share, to raise a question or concern, or provoke emotional and social responses.
Nathan Safran suggests writing headlines that leave no ambiguity. He states, “Humans don’t like uncertainty.” Even as the majority of Quora responses affirm Safran’s suggestion, it still begs the question, “Can ambiguity work?”
Maybe the fact that humans don’t like uncertainty forces us to click through to settle our uncertainty.
From these discussions and research, “force indicators” seemed like the best way to put all the pieces together for others to use or consider.
Conclusion: The Headline Bundle
What are the forces that determine whether a headline works? The following infographic shares my own discoveries, based on previous interactions and research. In the infographic, anything that impacts headline performance is deemed a “force.”
What are your thoughts?
As I’ve learned from the Quora discussions and research, everyone has a different perspective on the state of headlines. They are, inevitably, a complicated mix of subjective and objective views with valid points from all angles.
It’s easy to align with best practices that are “proven” to work. But it takes some openness to consider how a non-descriptive, nonchalant, or random headline might perform just as well (or even better) because of the associated forces supporting its success.
So let’s continue the discussion.