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“How long should my headline be?”
You’ve asked yourself this, and with good reason. In the content marketing world, a lot of attention has been given to the headline of your blog post in recent years.
There’s so much headline information out there, so many do’s and don’ts, so many great tips that you’re drowning in advice and you have no idea of what to actually do.
You want a definitive answer in the form of a number or at least a firm set of guidelines. You don’t want to hear “it depends.”
The truth is, it does depend. Sort of. It depends on what you want your headline to do.
Do you know what you want from your headline?
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There are two schools of thought when it comes to headlines. Traditionally, headlines should be, according to Jakob Nielsen:
Nielsen’s shorter headlines aren’t the “label” variety. Label headlines are those which are short, but not terribly information rich.
For example, a Nielsen headline might be “Speeding Car Crashes Into Wall” while an uninformative label-type headline might read “Speeding Car.”
The second school of thought, however, is what we tend to see online now. And it seems to be the exact opposite of what Nielsen says.
A headline that performs well on social media is one that people share a lot, and click through a fair amount. But mostly share.
The headline is often shared as much as the people sharing it will read. This is a unique situation in headline history.
Instead of being helpful in the traditional sense (as described above), headlines are now meant to invoke curiosity and capture clicks.
This is particularly important on social media, where news feeds are quickly cycling through, competition with other headlines is fierce, and you have to pull out all stops to get someone to notice.
How does that speeding car headline read for the social media age? How about “5 Reasons You Should Fear That Speeding Car”.
The social messages that accompany your blog posts won’t necessarily be your headline. You’ll probably customize them for repeated shares.
But if you do rely on your blog post headline to be the body of the social message, then the ideal social message length will matter for your headlines.
Buffer’s Kevan Lee has written a seriously comprehensive blog post about the ideal lengths of just about anything you could put online. It’s packed with information on the length of just about everything, but check out what he discovered for the most popular social networks:
Depending upon which network you lean most heavily or get the most traction, you should consider making your headline fit the ideal length for that social network.
Within those character ranges, remember the importance of emotions in a headline that does well on social media. Emotional headlines, with specific trigger words, get shared more on social media.
Just like social media, you have the ability to customize your emails so that you rework how your headlines appear in the subject lines. But not everyone does.
Sometimes the work you put into finding that perfect headline can carry right on through to your email subject line.
So how long should they be?
MailChimp, the popular email provider, has stated that it doesn’t really matter how long your subject lines are.
Last year, we carried out our own tests on how our email subject lines fared. We found that an email subject line with around 50 characters fared the best.
Find out what works for you by testing if you don’t believe either MailChimp or our results.
As you test your headlines in your email to determine what works, remember the difference between open rates and click-through rates.
Open rates are not the same as click-through rates.
An open rate is the percentage of total recipients that opened the email. In some email software, just by opening their inbox they “open” emails.
The click-through rate is the percentage of those who opened and then clicked at least once. Aim for a high click-through rate as the basis of what a successful headline does, not just an open rate.
Whatever you decide on headlines that will become the subjects of an email, they certainly shouldn’t be so long that they get severely cut off in the email software. Some truncation, particularly if you front-load your subject line with the strongest words at the beginning, shouldn’t harm you.
Obviously, using crucial keywords (but not packing your headline with them!) is important to helping your headline do its work and bring people to your content.
You may be using SEO plugins that allow you to customize the title and meta content that displays in a search engine. In that case, writing the perfect blog post headline is less relevant because you can tweak the search engine version to specifically fit the search engine results page (SERP).
But if your headline is what appears, as is, on the SERP, then it’s handy to know how it will fare. The blog Powermapper has done a bit of digging in how many characters various search engines allow on a SERP.
You can see that character allowance has been increasing over the years (except for Yahoo’s 120 characters in 2007). Despite this, the SERP still won’t return a book when it comes to your headline.
So, while a longer headline might be all the rage for different purposes, if you’re relying on the headline to show up on the SERP as is and don’t want it to be cut off, your best bet is to keep it around the 70-character mark at the most.
Over at Outbrain, the concept of what kind of headline length gets the most engagement is taken a bit further, with consideration given for different languages. Using their own content, they tracked what kind of success they saw with their headlines.
For English language headlines, they discovered that the sweet spot for headlines is 60–100 characters. Anything above and below that saw reduced click-through rates.
Outbrain found that, as far as word count, 16–18 words was the headline length that brought about the most engagement for English language headlines.
Outbrain found that French and Italian headlines fared similarly to English headlines. However, Spanish headlines differed in that the longer the headline, the better it performed. 101–120 characters saw the best engagement, while 19–21 words did well.
The takeaway? Headline rules aren’t the same for every language and culture. What works for an English language blog in the United States won’t work for a Spanish language blog in Spain.
You can see a pattern in these numbers, which seems to hover around 50–70 characters for headlines. Combine that with everything else you know about creating great headlines, including the use of emotional words and keywords.
Frontloading is a bit like the inverted triangle technique, where you put the most important words at the beginning.
Kevan Lee pointed out in his infographic that only the first three and last three words tend to be read. His takeaway was that six-word headlines were ideal.
I’d give you a bit more leeway and say that, considering truncation in SERPs and in email subject lines, at least be sure the first three words are a stand-alone powerhouse. If you go past the ideal character or word count, or your headline gets clipped at the end, the best part is still visible doing its job.
So, for example, “The 3 Best Methods For Training Cats” is fine, but it might be better written as “3 Cat-Training Methods That Top The List”. You give your reader the best part at the start.
We preach it a bit here, but I’ll say it again: Don’t take our word for it. Try it out for yourself, test the success of different headlines, and see which headline length and content return the best results for your specific audience.
February 16, 2015
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