Increasingly, people are looking less at what is contained within a piece of content and reacting more to the limited information that is shown around it.

There are at least five reasons for this:

  1. People don’t generally read webpages and never have done. They scan and react accordingly. This behavior has likely increased recently due to point
  2. There’s too much stuff. No one has time to read and engage with it all.
  3. Social media designs engender responses before deep understanding. For example, retweeting before reading.
  4. Infographics got overdone and became less exciting (generally speaking).
  5. Mobile makes everything look similar, and rich multimedia less usable.

What do people see before they click through to a piece of content?

On Facebook, you might get a bit of lead-in text, an image and the headline. On a publisher’s website, you might get an image and the headline, but most often just the headline.

Then consistent feature is that the headline always will be shown, no matter where the article shows up. People will only click on the headline if they have a high level of interest and will probably only share it if it gives them a high level of emotional response.

The above quote was written by David Ogilvy in 1967. It’s still just as true today.

I’d argue that in a world of scanning and too much stuff, headlines are even more valuable than that. In short, to stand out, your headlines need to be really, really strong.

Headlines aren’t given the attention they deserve

We might spend hours crafting a long article but spend only two minutes giving thought to the headline. When headlines are now worth more than the 80% that they were in the 1960s, this is a terrible waste. The article will get published, we’ll post it to social media, and it will get little response. And we’ll move onto the next one. Meh, didn’t work again. This must stop!

But what do we need to do?

Eliminating things that never work in headlines

The golden rule of Jakob Nielsen always held true for the most successful headlines:

Headline text has to stand on its own and make sense when the rest of the content is not available

Getting things to make sense is best served through clarity and the stripping away of any ambiguity. Do I read your headline and instantly feel that I know what I will be getting from the article? If yes, I may well click, and read on. If not, you have made me think outside my impulses, and I may go somewhere else.

Have a look at these headlines. Do you know what the articles are about?

Prefixes are usually your enemy

Prefixes are nearly always confusing and create ambiguity. They generally cause more harm than good.

One of the prefixes’ main problems is that they add needless and often meaningless words, which adds complexity. Headlines using them are statistically likely to perform lower.

Example:

Celebrity style steal: Suki Waterhouse

It’s not completely ambiguous. But the prefix ‘Celebrity style steal’ does little but create ambiguity. What exactly is this article telling me? It would be better served by the far more active:

How to get Suki Waterhouse’s best monochrome looks

Do this and win more

Losing ambiguity must be the number one goal. There are three rules to follow with rigidity to ensure that it is eliminated:

  1. Omit needless words
  2. Remove complexity where there is a possible clearer expression
  3. The headline must stand on its own, making sense when the rest of the content is not available

The result may be simpler headline, and maybe a little less dramatic, but definitely much more effective.

Adding things that often improve headlines

There are words you can add which add clarity, momentum and the desire to want to click.

Time and time again, adverbs win online. You are statistically going to win with headlines that state who, what, where, when, how than you would with headlines that don’t include them. Why? Because they add clarity. Because they make headlines make sense when the rest of the content is not available.

The adverbs how and why make headlines perform very well. More people click them, more people read the articles, and more people are going to move onto a further action, like share or register for email.

Who, what and when are baser adverbs. They still work, they just do not perform as well as how and why.

Let’s compare these possible headlines:

An open economy is good for Britain

and

Why an open economy is good for Britain

These could easily be the same article, but the first headline is simply a flat statement. I read it and either nod in agreement or disagree. I do not feel nearly as curious and compelled to click as on the first one. Interestingly, you could switch ‘why’ with ‘how’ for a similar effect.

Adjectives

There are, of course, many more adjectives than there are adverbs, so saying which adjectives generally work best is a little unspecific – it really depends on the subject matter. However, at a very general level, there are some notably consistent performers:

Best, good, great(est), best, big(gest), ultimate, new

Conclusion

  • Headlines are incredibly important – they demand writers spend more time on them, so they can better attract audience attention
  • The headline must stand on its own, making sense when the rest of the content is not available
  • Avoid prefixes – they create complexity
  • Omit needless words and ambiguity – do not make the reader think about potential double meanings
  • Create more intrigue through using clear adverbs that support proper nouns
  • Read: Confessions of an Advertising Man, The Elements of Style and Tested Advertising Methods. They are excellent books for this topic.

Now you’re armed with more information on crafting better headlines, it’s time to think about the winning formula for the article copy:

  • Does your article fulfill the reader’s desire for information?
  • Does it make them feel as if you are an authority?
  • Is it error free typo, grammar and web formatting wise?

Why your headlines are worth almost all your content marketing efforts (and how to improve them)

PS. Now you know why I’ve included “why” and “how” in the title.