Long ago and far away, advertising legend David Ogilvy pointed out the importance of headlines, declaring “when you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar“.
The point that Mr Ogilvy was making is that 80% of the value of an advertisement (or indeed any article or story) is in the headline. If you don’t catch a reader’s attention and interest then, you’ve lost the bulk of your audience.
Mr Ogilvy was writing in a pre-Internet world. Nowadays, we have cascades of data showing us the relative importance of powerful headlines.
For example (per Moz):
Traffic can vary by as much as 500% based on the headline: According to Upworthy co-founder Peter Koechley, tests show that traffic to content at Upworthy can vary by as much as 500% simply because of the headline. “The headline is our one chance to reach people who have a million other things that they’re thinking about, and who didn’t wake up in the morning wanting to care about feminism or climate change, or the policy details of the election,” he said.
And the New York Times shares the results of some of its headline split-testing:
The Times is using a tool that allows us to simultaneously present two different headlines for the same article on its home page. Half of readers on the page see one headline; half see the other. The test measures the difference in readers clicking on the article and lets us know if the numbers are statistically significant. If so, the winning headline goes on the home page for all readers.
And so, for a short while on March 15 , one reader might have seen this:
$2 Billion Worth of Free Media for Trump
While another saw this:
Measuring Trump’s Media Dominance
Any guesses on which won the test, and by how much?
The top one got nearly three times as many readers, which underlines the crucial role of headlines in the digital age.
A story might be 1,000 words long, but tweaking the tiny handful of words that promoted this one on our home page gave us 297 percent more readers.
In other cases, headline tests have increased readership by an order of magnitude.
Soul-Searching in Baltimore, a Year After Freddie Gray’s Death
was paired against this:
Baltimore After Freddie Gray: The ‘Mind-Set Has Changed’
The test showed a 1,677 percent increase in readership for the second one.
More power to the headline, then.
So what can you do about improving your headlines?
Well, in our own headline we promised five tips to make yours more effective, so let’s dive right in:
Use Numbers (and make them Odd Numbers)
According to the book “Top 100 Growth Hacks” by Aladdin Happy (2015), headlines with numbers are twice as likely to generate clicks vs. “how to” headlines, according to research by Conductor. And a study of 150 000 headlines revealed that odd-numbered headlines have a 20% better Click-Through Rate (CTR) than headlines with even numbers.
In an analysis of over 3 million headlines, Outbrain found using [brackets] in a headline bumped up CTR by 38%.
Consider These Top Five Headline Types
Moz analyzed a large sample set of headlines across multiple online publications and social networks to determine if there are general ways in which headlines are written. Moz determined there were five high-level headline types:
Normal (Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful)
Question (What are Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful?)
How to (How to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful)
Number (30 Ways To Make Drinking Tea More Delightful)
Reader-Addressing (Ways You Need to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful)
Be Careful with Superlatives
Moz also tested respondent tolerance for superlatives in a headline, showing consumers several different headlines that had between 0 and 4 superlatives in the headline and asking them to pick their favorite:The 27 Ways to Train a Dog (0 superlatives)
The 27 Best Ways to Train a Dog (1 superlatives)
The 27 Best Ways Ever to Train a Dog (2 superlatives)
The 27 Best Ways Ever to Train a Perfect Dog (3 superlatives)
The 27 Best and Smartest Ways Ever to Train a Perfect Dog (4 superlatives)
The data shows more than half of respondents (51%) like the understated approach, preferring to click headlines with 0-1 superlatives. Interestingly, tolerance for superlatives tailed off until the headline packed with 4 superlatives, which had a full quarter of respondents stating they preferred it. These findings suggest readers prefer an understated approach or that the author shoot for the stars and tell the reader in strong terms why their content is worth reading, but the middle ground is to be avoided.
Follow the advice of The Times of London (who know a thing or two about headlines)