Here's how to write headlines |

Good digital writers know how important the headline is for grabbing the readers’ gaze. You just have a few seconds to capture their interest before they move to something more engaging. Indeed, advertising great David Ogilvy once said: “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.” Brian Clark of Copyblogger painted a similar picture when he observed that “Eight of 10 people will read your headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest.”

How to write headlines that engage your readers is the key message within a 4,000-word fascinating article written by Steve Rayson of BuzzSumo, the online software (SaaS) that helps companies analyze content and monitor brands.

In an exhaustive study, the company analyzed 100 million headlines and reported their findings in the article. BuzzSumo mostly measured engagement by total numbers of Facebook shares, but it also examined what headline types are more effective with Twitter posts, and in a B2B context.

For every writer and content marketer who is on a perpetual quest to improve their game, this article is a must read. Here are my top takeaways from the article and research:

Top headline phrases

Out of the millions of headlines the study examined, these three-word phrases, called trigrams, had the highest averages of Facebook engagement (likes, comments, and shares.)

  1. Will make you
  2. This is why
  3. Can we guess

See all 20 results in Figure 1., below. Mr. Rayson offered this explanation for the popularity of the phrase will make you: “One of the interesting things is that it is a linking phrase. It doesn’t start or end a headline; rather it makes explicit the linkage between the content and the potential impact on the reader.

“This headline format sets out why the reader should care about the content. It also promises that the content will have a direct impact on the reader, often an emotional reaction. The headline is clear and to the point which makes it elegant and effective.”


Top headline phrases measured by average Facebook engagement |

Figure 1. Top headline phrases measured by average Facebook engagement.

Top phrases starting headlines

  1.  X reasons why …
  2. X things you …
  3. This is what …

BuzzSumo’s data validates findings from other studies that have codified the effectiveness of numbers in headlines—often formatted as listicles—(Figure 2). Like many writers, I like to use numbers in headlines I write for clients. Incidentally, these articles usually get read and shared at higher numbers than most. Here are just a few examples:


Top phrases starting headlines |

Figure 2. Top phrases starting headlines.

Most engaging numbers in headlines

Speaking of numbers, the study also identified the most effective numbers to use in headlines (Figure 3). And, yes, the winning number was 10. The worst performing number: 30. Here are the top five numbers:

  1. 10
  2. 5
  3. 15
  4. 7
  5. 20

    Most engaging numbers in headlines |

    Figure 3. Most engaging numbers in headlines.

    The best B2B headlines

    BuzzSumo concedes that headlines that appear to work well on Facebook don’t have the same effect in a B2B context. “For example, in industries such as higher education, health, and legal services we have found that numbered list posts perform significantly below average,” said Mr. Rayson.

    The top five headline phrases that played the best in a B2B context were:

    1. The age of
    2. The impact of
    3. The rise of
    4. The future of

    Parting advice

    As is always the case, don’t allow a single study to overly influence how you write. Every article or post is unique, therefore, don’t let a single formula or template dilute your creativity. Content marketing leader Ann Handley echoed this sentiment with these closing tips:

    1. “Spend as much time writing the headline as you do an entire blog post or social post. Why? Because the headline matters. (Really matters.) (I do this, by the way.)
    2. Test what resonates with YOUR audience. (Not mine. And not your co-working neighbors. And not your dog sitter’s uncle’s audience. YOURS.)
    3. Burn some brain cells getting a little creative with your headlines. This research hopefully inspires you to rethink headlines, because it tells you what kind of headlines have worked for 100m posts in the past. But of course, it’s just a measure of what has worked, not what will work. Think more deeply: What does it suggest? What might it inspire? Use this data as a kind of guidepost to inspire your own, new, never-before-trodden path.”

    This comprehensive BuzzSumo study is jammed with data points and multiple takeaways that’ll help you become a better headline writer. Read the entire article for much more detail: “We Analyzed 100 million Headlines. Here’s What We Learned (New Research)”

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