A great headline is short and snappy. Or it’s long and labyrinthine, creating a “hypnotic” effect.
It grabs you by the collar and gets in your face. Or—wait—maybe it’s actually subtle, employing psychological tricks most readers will never consciously notice.
Spend 15 minutes looking into what writers and marketers have to say about how to write an effective headline, and you’ll come up with an almost unmanageable amount of advice—some of it completely contradictory.
Don’t worry: I’m not about to add to the confusion with yet another universal theory of headline writing. Instead, today I’m sorting through an array of popular claims and conventions around writing good headlines.
Which headline-writing techniques are backed by data? And which ones make the most sense to try out on your landing pages and blog posts?
There’s also one bonus resource I want to share with you to complement this post. In order to get the greatest conversion boost from your shiny new headline, you’ll need to make sure the rest of your copy is strong as well.
Before you read further, take a look at the headline of this post. Can you identify the headline-writing tactics I used—and guess whether those tactics are effective? Jump down to the comments and weigh in!
Now let’s see which headline-writing questions we can answer with data… and which ones may need further research.
How can I get started writing good headlines?
In the rest of this post, I’ll be focusing on data-backed techniques that can improve your headlines. But what if you need help staring down your keyboard and just getting some words into your header area?
If you’re facing headline-writer’s block, try one of the following time-tested strategies to get off the ground. Remember, you can always test and improve as time goes on.
- Focus on your readers. Every headline you write with the goal of getting sales or opt-ins should answer the reader’s question: “What’s in it for me?” Sometimes your subject matter will make this pretty obvious—say, “Free Home-Delivered Cookies”—but even if you think readers should make the connection, see what happens if you spell it out. Could “Free Cookies Delivered to Your Doorstep” perform even better?
- Don’t forget the details. In a crowded field (as most of us are in as web content continues to explode), you can’t hope to stand out with a vague, general headline. And that’s true even if it’s a general headline about something valuable. Which would draw you down the page: “How to Increase Your Revenue” or “The One Piece of Software That Can Increase Your Revenue 10% in 5 Minutes a Week”?
- Take tips from viral articles. Sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy use powerful algorithms to determine what content to promote based on its ability to get read and shared, so scanning the front page should spark some ideas (even if your landing page has nothing to do with heroic puppies). Be sure to check out lists of “most emailed” articles on your favorite news sites, too. The headlines aren’t the only thing behind the success of those articles, of course, but they’re the gateway to viral success.
- Head to the supermarket. Specifically, the checkout lane. Glossy magazines rely partly on their ability to quickly catch the eye of people waiting in line and spur impulse buys, so they tend to distill headline-writing down to a lean, mean science. Tabloids and women’s magazines are especially good at this.
- Write the headline before the page or post exists. Once you have 800 words of content written, writing a headline to sum it up can feel like trying to cram a mattress into a pillowcase. If you’ve ever found that to be true, the next time you need to create a landing page or a blog post, first come up with a compelling headline, then write the rest to match.Writer and venture capitalist Andrew Chen has said he often tests the power of a headline by tweeting it. If it gets lots of engagement, he writes a post to match.
How long should my headline be?
When I began researching this in earnest, I was a little surprised.
I’d heard various figures bandied about—8 words, 70 characters, etc. That seemed about right to me.
But when you’re looking for engagement, it turns out there’s also some evidence it’s worth going on at length.
There is some data backing up the “short-ish” approach to writing headlines For instance, there’s a much-cited 2011 study from content-distribution network Outbrain that reports that headlines containing exactly 8 words had a click-through rate 21% higher than average.
But then there’s another Outbrain study from 2013 that found that “the highest click-through rates were achieved at moderate headline lengths, with 16–18 word headlines performing better than headlines of any other word length.”
That stat doesn’t seem to be an outlier, either. In a brain-imaging study by Native Advertising published this year, Sharethrough made this discovery:
Our research validated what many headline writers already knew: longer headlines drive more engagement and deliver greater impact. What surprised our research team was just how long a headline has to be to maximize engagement. How long? 21–28 words!”
These higher figures don’t imply that you should simply keep writing until you’re well into the double digits. If you’re going to pull off a 28-word headline, you have to create a powerful sense of flow and purpose.
Be conversational, but be scrupulous about clarity, spelling, and grammar, and don’t add words for the sake of adding words. It’s easy to tell when a landing-page headline was built with a “special formula,” and to most readers it’s likely to seem about as modern and compelling as a door-to-door salesman’s spiel.
Based on the data we’ve seen from our members’ split tests at Leadpages, I suspect the benefits of extra length don’t come from word count alone. Instead, they come from the extra detail and clarity it allows.
In fact, in nearly every case in our split-test log where a short headline out-converted a long one, the short headline gave more information about what was being offered, with headline structures such as “9 Proven Tips to . . .” and “Free SEO Tips . . .” performing better than a more general “how to” structure.
How much does headline structure matter, by the way? Let’s turn to that question next.
How should I structure my headline?
Once you start playing with headlines, you’re likely to find that your core concept can take a nearly infinite number of forms. The expectations of your audience and industry will narrow things down a little—“You’ll never believe what this politician said about dogs” probably won’t play in the New York Times—but you still have lots of options.
Here are a few popular structures to consider, and what the data says about them.
Lists and numbers: 5 Reasons Why . . . 25 Ways to . . . 10 Facts That Explain . . .
The appeal of numbered lists is intuitive. Quantifying the information in a post or the benefits of a product communicates that you have a lot to offer—but not enough to overwhelm readers. Start with a number, and you’re making an appealing promise that’s easy to fulfill. (As for the best number to use, different analyses have come up with figures ranging from 7 to 10 to 25 to “any odd number,” so let your content guide you.)
This is a popular headline structure that shows no signs of flagging. When Conductor analyzed the appeal of different headline types, they found that “number” headlines were judged 15% more enticing than the second-place headline type.
That runner-up, by the way, was . . .
Reader-referencing headlines: These are headlines cast in the second person, talking about what “you” should do or “your business.”
Headlines like these get mixed reviews in studies—which surprised me a little based on my own writing experience. Though the aforementioned study found “you” headlines performing well, another Outbrain study reported: “Titles that make references to the reader by including the word, “you,” “your,” or “you’re” performed 21% worse than titles that did not contain any of these words.”
But I’d resist making any sweeping conclusions about your headlines based on that alone. “Your” and “you” crop up often in winning headlines when Leadpages members split test. And in fact, a 2013 paper published in Social Influence found that “self-referencing cues are particularly effective” in headlines (emphasis mine).
That finding was in the context of a study on the effectiveness of question headlines in e-commerce. So let’s take a closer look at those.
Questions: That Social Influence study also found that “question headlines are significantly more effective than declarative headlines in generating readership.”
Specifically, a question that references the reader seems to get the most engagement. Think about the old late-night TV PSAs asking “Do you know where your children are?” It forces you to answer and engage in a way that “Why children shouldn’t stay out past curfew” never could.
The key is to ask questions that readers can’t resist answering in their heads. The same conversion boost decidedly doesn’t crop up when you examine questions that center your brand or product. If you’re using headlines like “Why Is Company X the Best Solution?,” check out this collection of split tests from the Marketing Experiments Blog for some sobering stats.
Multipart headlines: For the same reason longer headlines can boost your conversion rate, multipart headlines are your friend. Outbrain’s 2011 study found that headlines with introductions set off by colons or hyphens performed 9% better than others.
We’ve noticed this effect in the Leadpages community, too. In one striking split test, adding the heading “A Whole New Way to Attract Realtors:” to an already-long headline boosted opt-ins 82%.
In addition to colons and hyphens, you can use brackets to give greater clarity to what your post or page is offering. Hubspot reports: “Bracketed clarifications, e.g. [Infographic], increase click-through rate when included in headlines.”
In split tests at Leadpages, we’ve also seen conversion rates rise when a parenthetical note is added at the end of the headline (like the headline of this post, or like this parenthetical note itself). It seems to communicate that readers are in for a nuanced understanding of a topic they might not find somewhere else.
“How to” headlines: The jury’s still out here. Some studies find that “how to” helps, and a roughly equal number find that it hurts. The effect of this structure probably averages out to neutral on a larger scale, but test it and see in your own business. If you’re using a “how to” headline, it may be even more effective as a list headline, a reader-referencing headline, or a multipart headline.
Once you’ve thought about your headline structure, it’s time to fine-tune your vocabulary.
What kinds of words should I use?
You know you want to be specific about what you’re offering and its benefits. Once you’ve taken care of that, here are some word types that reliably get greater engagement.
Emotional words: Stir the right kind of emotion, and you spark action, whether it’s sharing a post or buying a product. It’s not enough for your headline to make people think—you’ll also need to make them feel.
A study from CoSchedule found that posts that were shared 1,000 or more times contained about twice as many emotional words as those that were shared just 100 times.
There are many shades of emotions you can draw on in a headline, both positive and negative. Perhaps you want your visitors to feel . . .
- Smart for discovering your page
- Worried they’ll miss out on your offer
- Curious about how your page applies to their life
- Angry that the solutions they’ve found so far aren’t working
- Excited about making a difference in the world
- Energized about improving their lives
Try a variety of emotional approaches to see what resonates.
Context words: Of course, the road to the emotions runs through the brain, and certain less flashy categories of words seem to be especially “sticky” to our brains as well. Native advertising company Sharethrough and Nielsen Neuro ran a brain-imaging study to find trends in headline words that sparked the most brain activity (a measure for both attention and emotional engagement).
They found that the words that really got readers’ gears turning fell into 4 categories:
- Insight: People are hungry for knowledge. They respond to words that suggest they’ll get new and unique insight from a post, such as “proof,” “admit,” “secret,” “link,” “justify,” and “discover.”
- Time: Out with the old, in with the new. Build a 4-hour work week. History repeats itself. In harmony with the notion that quantifying what you’re offering gets results, Sharethrough discovered that references to time also increase engagement. Look for words like “early,” “always,” “fastest,” “recent,” and “now.”
- Space: Spatial concepts seem to pull readers into the scene you’re setting, even if your topic is totally abstract. Think “beyond,” “farther,” “span,” “top,” “within.”
- Motion: Moving objects catch the eye, and so do motion words. Introduce movement to carry visitors along down the page by using words like “break,” “climb,” “rush,” “stop,” “shake,” or “fall.”
Like most headline-writing principles, however, this may not be universally true. Hubspot has found decreased click-through rates for well-worn headline words like “simple,” “tip,” “trick,” “amazing,” and “secret,” as well as words that convey a sense of urgency, such as “need,” and “now.” If you get the sense that these tropes have been overdone in your industry, consider breaking the mold.
Big names: It might feel like cheating, but you may be able to boost your headline’s power by referencing a major brand or company. In a study of the most shared posts on 100 blogs, Iris Shoor of Takipi discovered that “Twitter, Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon definitely star on the most shared posts list. It was amazing to see that at least a third of these posts were not about Facebook, Google or other cool companies but just piggybacking on their brand name.”
Simple and “smart” words: Mixing the familiar and the highbrow may be a headline writing strategy. According to a Buffer study of 3,000+ viral headlines, the most-shared headline words heavily include kindergarten vocab like “day,” “man,” “guy,” “girl,” “dog,” “life,” “love,” and “year,” but also analytical words like “smart,” “science,” “history,” “hacking,” and “critical.”
Numbers (again): Finally, consider replacing words with numbers—and specific ones. Quantifying the benefits of what you’re offering typically has a positive impact on your conversion rate, and it seems to be the case that that impact is greater as your numbers get larger and more specific. Consider these split tests from our archive:
- “Free 5-Day Training Reveals the Exact Video Marketing Strategies I Used to Rake in 21,559 Free Leads & Generate 823 Signups in My Business converted 140% better than a version that replaced the numbers with “Over 20k Leads” and “More than 800 Signups”
- “Free Webinar Reveals… ‘Secret to Sell Over $1,800,000 of T-Shirts on Facebook’” converted 274% better than “How to Make 6 Figures per Month Selling T-Shirts on Facebook”
“Free:” I’ve never yet seen a split test in which adding the word “free” failed to help a page’s conversion rate. (And if you have, definitely share it in the comments!) It won’t be relevant on product pages or many blog posts, but on an opt-in page, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
Is a good landing page headline the same as a good blog headline?
Context matters here. While you can use the principles in this post to guide headlines you use anywhere, your actual headline may be different depending on where it appears.
For instance, a blog post headline should probably be written with sharing in mind—and drumming up urgency and scarcity might not inspire readers to share with their friends.
A landing page headline, on the other hand, only requires visitors to take one action. You can probably get away with a more forward approach and a longer format than you’d want to use on your blog.
In either case, it’s possible—even probable—you’ll want a totally different headline for the purposes of social media and SEO.
A key consideration in both cases is length. Most social platforms will cut you off at some point, so you may as well keep it well under 140 characters so it works on Twitter and everywhere else (leaving space for a link and brief commentary).
Search-results pages will also cut off your headline after 60 characters. Most publishing platforms allow you to designate an alternative title for social and for SEO—so take advantage of these fields if you have them, or tailor your title to your most important goal and traffic source if you don’t.
If you’re using Leadpages, make sure to update both your page name (editable at any time after you create it) and page title for maximum SEO. Just fill in the “page title” field under “Leadpages Options”:
Any rules and any platform aside, be engaging. A 2009 study in the Journal of Pragmatics found that “Headline readers tend to disregard standard norms such as length, clarity, and information as long as headlines rivet their attention.”
Of course, you can be riveted by a car crash, too—so make sure your headline is drawing customers toward your product, not driving them away.
And in all of this, remember: though much of what we know about engaging headlines comes from tracking shares and pageviews, your ultimate metric as a marketer should be not clicks or views but conversions.
That’s why you need to continually ask yourself this question . . .
How can I be sure my headline’s working?
For landing pages, there’s one clear answer: split testing. Headlines are among the easiest and most popular page elements to test. (Check out our archive of headline split tests here for inspiration.)
When you’re testing, don’t just throw a couple of random variations against each other. You’ll build more knowledge from testing concepts, which you can then apply to headlines you write in the future.
Every one of the headline-writing principles in this post begs to be tested. Try out different word choices, structures, emotions. (Then let us know what you find!)
It can be trickier to test blog post headlines, though there are split-testing tools and plugins available out there, with varying levels of affordability and ease of use.
An alternative is to use social media as your test environment. On Twitter especially, it’s possible to post the same story once a day for a week without annoying your audience. For each post, try leading in with a different headline and track which one gets more engagement.
Remember: the findings in this post are based on broad averages and specific use cases. In every study there are headlines that don’t fit the trend. Yours may be one of them—so test away.
What other headline-writing resources are out there?
Headline analyzers: If you’re trying to predict your headline’s results, try the Emotional Marketing Value analyzer. It’ll tell you how your headline’s emotional content stacks up.
This isn’t an arbitrary metric—as I mentioned above, CoSchedule found it had power to predict shares, and accordingly the company incorporated it into their own headline analyzer, which also assesses things like length and word choices.
Headline generators: If you’re taking a headline-first approach to writing, start your brainstorming with generator tools, free versions of which abound online. Search and see which ones you like.
For instance, for the topic of this post, Blogabout suggested these headline formulas:
- 4 Ways to Make Your Headlines More Successful
- The Only Headline That Actually Works
- 7 Headlines That Actually Add Value
- 7 Headline Writing Tools No Marketer Should Be Without
- 7 Reasons Why the Art of the Headline Will Never Die
And Portent’s Title Maker suggested these:
- It Did What? 7 Secrets About Headlines
- Why Headlines Are Killing You
- Unbelievable Headline Success Stories
- The 8 Biggest Headline Blunders
- Will Headlines Ever Rule the World?
I’d click through to most of these, if only to see what on earth could follow the sillier ones.
One final recommendation: have fun with these tools. Headlines are seriously important to your conversion rate, but I suspect you’ll be inspired to work on them more if you approach it in a spirit of play. Brainstorm, experiment, and see what you can discover!
Is one of your headlines giving you headaches? Drop it in the comments to get suggestions!