Headings, titles, headlines, banners, call them what you like. They are clicked more often when they promise to deliver something the reader wants. If readers don't find what they want in the first few lines of content, they may click away and never reach your call to action. Rule #1 in the content writing game is to deliver value and keep promises.
If you're a content marketer, prepare to be surprised. The art of writing headlines revolves around fitting inspiration into structure, not the other way around. In summary this means:
- Using 8 – 16 words depending on your audience
- Including a number in your headline
- Staying away from fluff by being neutral to negative
- Dividing your headline into a beginning and an end
- Avoiding confusion over what your content is about
1. Use 8 – 16 Words Depending On Your Audience
Back in 1956, a psychologist named George A. Miller wrote a treatise titled, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information. He was a man of his word, you can count on it! He believed the average human attention span is seven of anything plus or minus two. As a total aside, this is probably why you cannot find your dongle among the clutter on your desk.
Years later, the Guardian reported titles with eight words had the highest click-through rate with these headers performing 21% better than average. It was a sponsored post they took down when the advertisement expired so you’ll have to take my word for it. The exception to the rule is when your audience is new to the topic and you need more words to explain. Clearly, George A. Miller was creating breaking news with his treatise.
2. Include a Number in Your Headline
Numbers work best in our busy world, although this time I am not sure why. Perhaps it is because we engage with them instantly and then scan quickly to find the concept to which they apply. From a personal perspective, they speak to me of value and provide the assurance that I am going to find something solid at the other end of the click. I invariably look to see if there really are that many topics. When I find there are, I get the feeling the information is valid. Here is the proof that numbers work.
3. Stay Away from Fluff by Being Neutral to Negative
I have had my fill of cheesy reps that blast my ears with expansive promises and cut me down when I express my doubts. I prefer a person who says, “look, this is not perfect but at the price it does its job,” compared to “you are so lucky, I have one left.” Would you be surprised if I told you headlines work the same?
A company called Outbrain compared engagement rates of around 65,000 paid link titles and concluded that negative superlatives (never or worst) outperformed positive ones (always or best). Check out what they found.
4. Divide Your Headline Into a Beginning and an End
I have been scrutinizing headlines on my favourite BBC News and yes, counting the words. They seem to be on top of George A. Miller’s thinking, and, like his 16 word monster, usually consist of a topic and a qualifier. Here are three I grabbed at random:
China Cuts Rates after Days of Market Toil
Australian Venomous Snake Rescued from Tin Can
Released Medical Research Chimps at Risk in Liberia
This technique is analogous to using headlines and bylines because it helps me spot a topic (China, snakes, chimps), and then confirm its relevance. In my opinion, ‘After Days of Market Toil China Cuts Rates’ would be far less effective.
5. Avoid Confusion Over What Your Content is About
This returns us to the necessity of having a promise in every article and having matching content following it. If the user misunderstands the former, the two may never join up. Make promises clearer by using the intention indicators we so often overlook.
Question: Why Did China Wait So Long Before Cutting Rates?
Neutral: After Days of Market Toil China Cuts Rates
How To: How China Could Have Avoided Days of Market Toil
Engaging: Things You Need to Know About Chinese Rate Cuts
Number: 7 Reasons China Tolerated Market Toil Before Rate Cut
All five will work well in the right context. There is a sixth way to write headlines that get clicked I didn't mention yet: understanding your users’ reasons for coming to your page. This is just as important as the other five when taken together.
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