What Separates the Best Headlines From All the Rest? 75
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What separates the very best headlines from all the rest?
We wanted to know, and we bet you do, too. That’s why you’re here, right? Everyone wants to feel they’ve written the most effective article title possible, but without data, even your best efforts are a guessing game.
Fortunately, when we were building our Headline Analyzer Studio product (an all-new, free and premium headline testing tool that takes our popular Headline Analyzer to the next level), our development teams tested tons of titles.
They were generous enough to share those headlines (and some things they learned) with our marketing team, so we could further analyze what was different about the top-performers. Some of what we learned confirmed common-knowledge best practices, while some other insights were a bit more surprising.
In either instance, this data got us closer to understanding the science of well-written titles, and what separates wheat from chaff.
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Introducing Headline Analyzer Studio From CoSchedule
Long-time fans of our Headline Analyzer know it’s a useful tool for testing titles before you hit publish. It’s the most popular piece of content we’ve ever created, attracting hundreds of thousands of users since it launched back in 2015. We even use it ourselves, internally.
That being said, we knew we could offer more with this tool, so after a lot of planning and hard work, we launched Headline Analyzer Studio into the world.
Our free Headline Analyzer Studio will help you:
- Use headline types that get the most traction for social shares, traffic, and search engine ranking.
- Make sure you have the right word balance to write readable headlines that command attention.
- See the best word and character length for search engines, like Google and email subject lines, while also seeing how your readers will scan your headlines.
About the Headline Data We Crunched
Our developers tested 277,090 headlines when creating Headline Studio. That’s a mind-boggling number; I don’t think I’ve written that many headlines in my entire life.
Thankfully, we only wanted to know what the top performers had in common. Since the data was conveniently shared in a .csv file, we were able to easily isolate headlines that scored 90 or higher.
Here are some quick stats:
- 227,090 total headlines. That’s… a lot.
- 1,953 headlines scored 90 or higher. These were the best of the best.
- Top performers made up 0.7% of the total data set. The best of the best made up a slim minority of the total set.
While we also analyzed low-performing headlines (those scoring in the 40–50 range and below), we spent the majority of our time reading through the best of the best-scoring options, documenting insights that jumped out along the way.
The Elements of Top-Performing Headlines
The highest-scoring headlines shared several common attributes that concretely separated them from the rest of the pack. Many “good” headlines (those scoring between 70 and 89) share a number of these same attributes as well, but may have executed them less effectively.
Here’s what we found, based on our analysis:
- They use emotional language. Verbiage that elicits an emotional response is more likely to inspire the reader to click.
- They include an action verb. This is basic, but headlines should always have a subject and an action verb that implies either A) what the subject did, or B) what the reader will be able to do after reading the content.
- They strike a positive tone. Based on a very rudimentary, emotional sentiment analysis, the top performers most often framed their subjects in a positive light.
- They convey clear benefits to the reader. If you’re a blogger or content marketer, then everything you write should clearly state how your content will improve their life. This could be as simple as showing them how to get something done — even if it’s something small.
- They often include a number. This could mean a stat, percentage, or number of items in a list. Numbers are associated with statistics, which are associated with hard data that supports the content’s claims.
- They average 12 words long. Most of the top performers were between 11 and 14 words long and averaged 12 words in length. The best length is always the one that conveys what you need to communicate, but this provides a target for which to aim.
What Do Poor Performers Get Wrong?
Conversely, there are a few things we noticed that caused low-scoring headlines to tank. While we didn’t spend as much time on the lower end of the spectrum of the data set, there are a few things worth keeping in mind:
- Low scorers were flagrantly over-optimized for search engines. In some cases, they were literally just a mash of keywords. The classic advice holds true: write for humans but optimize (appropriately) for search.
- They were typically devoid of emotional impact. Bottom-tier headlines frequently lacked any kind of emotional or power words. Consequently, they fell flat and failed to resonate.
- They lacked action verbs. You almost have to try to avoid using action verbs when writing headlines, but this further underscores their importance; they are absolutely essential.
How can you steer clear of the scrap heap and write headlines that are amongst the best of the best every time? Let’s dig into deeper detail.
Infusing Headlines With Emotional Verbiage
Sometimes people assume “emotional” means “sad”, but that isn’t always the case. What it means in the context of headlines is that your word choice invokes some sort of feeling, which could be happiness or sadness, or surprise, relief, concern… the list goes on.
Making Use of Power Words
Power words inspire emotional responses and are integral for persuasive writing, and headlines are all about persuasion (at least in most marketing contexts). Here are some examples you can use in your own headlines:
Making Use of Emotional Words
Not all emotional language necessarily conveys power. These words can also be important to pulling an emotional lever that will inspire the reader to click and read your content.
Personalizing Word Choice to the Reader
People love being the center of attention. That includes being the center of your headlines.
Two words that frequently appeared amongst top performers were “you” and “yours”. When the subject of your content directly impacts the reader, they’re naturally going to be more emotionally invested in your promised outcome.
You want to make sure your content can follow through on the promises your headline makes. Otherwise, you’ll run the risk of creating clickbait and getting a heavy eye-roll from your reader.
This is important to note because — while a headline might score well using Headline Studio — the headline is just one piece of the content puzzle.
Including Action Verbs in Headlines
This almost feels too basic to include because, as we’ve established before, it’s nearly impossible to write a headline without an action verb. So, the fact that every top-performer included a strong action verb isn’t exactly surprising.
However, you can get creative with which action verbs you include. Here’s an extensive list from the University of Minnesota (they’re used in a resume-writing context here, but action verbs are action verbs, and this reference sheet works for headlines too).
Positive Vibes Only Most of the Time
This isn’t exactly scientific, but when I copied and pasted the full text of all 1,900-plus headlines that scored in the top 10% of our total list into a free online emotional sentiment analysis tool, it determined they had an overwhelmingly positive tone:
This could be a coincidence (or a bias with our tool — generally marketers want audiences to feel good about their content, so headlines should follow suit), but given the extremely high volume of headlines tested, it seems unlikely that there’s no useful correlation here.
If your content can be framed either positively or negatively, leaning toward positivity may get a better response. There’s no shortage of bad news in the world (ever and especially recently), and few people likely want to learn or buy from brands and service providers that make them feel worse.
You don’t need to drench your headlines with an inauthentically joyous tone, nor should you gloss over heavy topics with false cheer. In short, steer toward a positive sentiment when possible and appropriate.
Conveying Clear Benefits to the Reader
Your audience wants to know one thing: “What’s in it for me?”
Content only has value to the extent that it gives the reader what they want. That content is never going to get read if the headline can’t communicate clear value up front.
So, don’t bury the lede, nor leave out the real reason the reader should care from your headline. You don’t need to promise your content will reinvent any wheels or radically change the reader’s life — unless you’re actually writing about something that is genuinely life-changing.
In the following example, the reader knows exactly what they’ll gain from reading the article (making more money from more valuable client contracts):
Numbers Convey Authority
Data-backed content supported with statistics naturally conveys authority, so it should come as no surprise that top-performing headlines often include a number of some sort.
Some simple ways to include numbers in headlines include:
- Statistics: The more they’re based on original research, the better.
- Percentages: Same as above.
- # of Items in a List: It’s easy to lean on lists a bit too hard because they’re easy, but sometimes a list format is the best approach to a topic. Any list headline should include the exact number of items it includes — rather than writing a generic headline that doesn’t imply to the reader that the article is, in fact, a list.
Take a look at this example:
“Two-thirds” implies a significant amount that gets the reader’s attention than simply saying “a lot” or “a majority.”
Here’s another example:
Again, this is straightforward, but using a specific statistic sounds more authoritative than simply saying the unemployment rate fell.
Now here’s an example that uses a massive (and accurate) number to catch your attention:
Here’s one last example:
This headline conveys a clear benefit that the reader can concretely achieve in a set amount of time. Using numbers make the promise more clear than plainly touting a vague benefit of using BuzzSumo.
How Long Are Top-Performing Headlines?
Questions like “how long should [INSERT LITERALLY ANY TYPE OF CONTENT] be?” are common, and there are good reasons for that. They seem like obvious questions to ask and length is something concrete you can control.
It’s easy to get caught up in trying to make things the “right” length, just like it’s easy to get caught up in posting things at the best times. Sure, top performers have a range they tend to fall into, but writing a headline that’s a certain length won’t guarantee success by itself.
Here are a few things we found:
- Most of the top performers were between 11 and 15 words.
- The greatest share of top performers were 12 words.
- What matters most for readers is your first three and last three words.
Treat this like a loose target to aim for, mainly as an optimization step rather than a hard-and-fast rule that every headline needs to hit a certain length to find success:
What You Need to Know About Headlines and Title Tags
One area where headline length does matter is when it comes to title tags.
If your headline is longer than 60 to 70 characters, then it’ll need to be shortened before being used as the title tag for your content. Otherwise, it’ll get cut off in search results pages.
It’s a good idea to use a title tag previewer to test how your title tags will appear. There are several you can find with a quick Google search, but this one from Moz is easy to recommend:
What Makes Headlines… Bad?
We’ve thoroughly covered what makes headlines good and what makes them fail. Now, let’s dig into what causes them to read poorly and fall flat.
Over-Optimizing for Google
Including relevant keywords in your headline is a basic SEO best practice that holds up. As much as the phrase “best practice” should spark suspicion — it has a tendency to lead people toward doing things the way they’ve always been done uncritically — in this case, it’s still smart.
After all, if you’re writing about a topic, that topic is naturally going to appear somewhere in your headline, in most cases.
But headlines that unnaturally cram too many keywords into too small a space will read like they were written for robots, by robot.
We won’t shame anyone with an example here, but when you see something clearly written for Google, you know. It’s immediately apparent and it doesn’t encourage taking the time to click or read.
Lacking Emotional Punch
People are exposed to too much content at all times these days. As a result, our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, too. Ever get up for more coffee only to realize your mug is still half-full? You can thank the Internet for torching your short-term memory.
Headlines have always needed to quickly capture attention. That truth is only getting more… truthy? Truthier? More condensed with truth than ever before?
The point is, you have a split second to make your reader care, and making them care requires hitting the right emotional buttons to make them want to click your content instead of every other option they have — whether that’s in search results, RSS feed, their email inbox, on social media, on a display ad, wherever.
Something we noticed consistently was that low-scoring headlines may have featured the facts of their story, but they didn’t invoke any emotional response.
They’re Too Short
Length doesn’t determine success by itself. Not by a long shot. But super short headlines without enough substance to hook a reader’s interest aren’t going to cut it. If your title is only five or six words long and has zero emotional appeal, it’s time to go back to the drawing board (or your Headline Studio account).
Lights, Camera, … Wait, Where’s the Action?
Action verbs. Your headlines need ‘em. That’s all there is to say here.
What Does This Even Mean?
Low-scoring headlines are often difficult to read. If you’re tripping up over your own words, think about how you can make things easier to read and understand.
Here are some ways to do this:
- Minimize transitional words, like “is”, “it”, “to”, “and”, etc. If you feel like you’re stacking too many words like this together, then try to rewrite your headline with as few as you can; it works wonders for clarity and ease of reading.
- Think before using jargon. Will your audience understand technical terms and uncommon verbiage? When in doubt, lean toward using words that are easier to understand.
- Don’t pad for length. Use as many words as you need — no more, no less.
5 of the Best Headlines and What Makes Them Work
Before we wrap up this post, let’s look at some examples of high-scoring headlines and break down what we think makes them effective. Hopefully, you’ll be able to glean a tip or two that will help your own writing.
1) 10 Popular Side Hustles Every Artist Can Do to Make Extra Cash
This is a fairly basic headline but it hits several boxes:
- It includes a number.
- It includes action verbs (e.g. do, make).
- It includes a clear benefit (e.g. making extra cash).
- It pulls an emotional lever — if it’s popular and every artist can do it, then if I’m an artist, I’m going to feel like I should do these things, too.
It’s great not because it’s wildly creative, but because it executes the basics extremely well. Sometimes that’s all you need to do.
2) 4 Simple Things You’ll Want to Know to Start Sleeping Better Tonight
This headline succeeds for many of the same reasons as the previous example. It’s also a great example of a headline that elicits an emotional response without directly shoehorning in emotionally-charged language. In this case, the emotional connection is made with the benefit (i.e. sleep struggles are inherently emotional for the reader).
3) Three Ways to Improve Tests By Treating Them as First-Class Citizens
Again, this headline gets the basics right. If you notice a pattern developing here, it’s that your headlines don’t necessarily need to be overwhelmingly creative in order to be successful.
4) Blog Post Checklist: How to Write the Perfect Blog Post Every Time
Here’s an example that succeeds without leaning on using a number. It also shows that it’s possible to be bold with keyword placement and still write a readable and effective headline.
5) How EDI Evolved Into a Series of Benefits Every ERP System Needs
Our last example is another clear and simple headline that works because it gets the basics right. It’s well-structured, includes clear actions and benefits, and we can safely assume that the audience would understand any jargon it uses (e.g. ERP).
It also drives an emotional response by saying its benefits are something every ERP system needs, which would create some anxiety that would need to be resolved if the reader’s ERP system doesn’t include those things.
Now Make Your Headlines Their Best
You have the data and the tools to make better decisions when crafting articles, now it’s time to put what you’ve learned into practice. Get your Headline Studio account, bookmark this post for reference, and enjoy future success.
April 22, 2021