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The Science Behind High-Performing Headlines

by Sherice Jacob

Crafting great headlines is as much art as it is science.

You have to intrigue people on an emotional level, and then back up your statement quickly with the logic that your piece is worth their click.

Fortunately, the number crunchers who analyze these things in great detail have provided us with some fascinating data on what makes those headlines “click” with readers. Let’s take a look at some examples, and why they work.

The Golden Child of Viral Headlines: Buzzfeed

These days, you can’t even talk about headlines without making a reference to Buzzfeed, a site that has experienced unprecedented social growth since its launch in 2006. Buzzfeed has a science to their irresistibly clickable headlines — something that TrackMaven reviewed in-depth in a case study last year.

Here’s what they found:

The Biggest Social Shares Come from Asking Questions

From “Which Mythical Creature are You?” to “What Kind of Car Should You Drive?” these light-hearted quizzes are passed all over Facebook and Twitter.

What’s more, people can’t resist learning something interesting or entertaining about themselves, so they click and share to get a chuckle. The semi-customized nature of answers and Facebook comments at the end of each results page just fuels the sharing.

buzzed mythical

Buzfeed’s most shares came from question-oriented headlines

The Science Behind the Question

There’s more to the question format than mere introspection or curiosity building.

TrackMaven’s study discovered that, in an analysis of over a MILLION blog posts, nearly 95% of the headlines did not contain a question mark — but those that did accounted for over 46% of social shares for that particular data set.

Coincidence? Not likely. Questions are obviously a smart way to title your blog posts for more shares.

question marks

It’s All About the Numbers

The list post: Exceedingly easy to write and understand, it has become a staple of the modern website. But where most sites are content to offer up a measly 5, 7 or even 10-count list, Buzzfeed and many similar sites tend to double that number:

big lists

Double your distractions with (mostly) odd-numbered list posts!

These higher numbers promise more entertainment value for your click. For many people with a few extra minutes to spare, that’s an enticing incentive.

Plus, our brains are instinctively wired to understand that “more” usually equals “better,” which is why studies have proven again and again that we’re really drawn to numbers in headlines:

numbers

Moz took the science a bit deeper and looked at things like:

  • which headline types were preferred by each gender
  • use of superlatives (and how much: from one to four superlatives)
  • even the use of capitalization: all-caps v. intial caps in the headline

headline clarity

A few interesting finding:

If you’re wondering why questions in the headline got such a bad score when I was showcasing it earlier, it likely has to do with the phrasing of the question in the survey — a headline about different ways of drinking tea. If you read, “What are Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful?” it just doesn’t sound that interesting.

In other words, don’t ask just any question. Ask a question that matters to your audience.

If you’re curious as to how the writers came up with those magic numbers for the list post, it turns out that we focus on odd numbers, and eight word titles get the highest clicks.

Word Usage Matters

The words you use in crafting your headline are just as important as the numbers that make up your post. Here are the most frequent words that appear on Buzzfeed’s headlines:

words

Notice any patterns here? Words like You/Your, This, Who, How and Reasons all make numerous appearances in headlines. It’s even said that Buzzfeed has their headline writing down to a Madlibs-style science with this unique formula:

Number + Adjective + Noun + Descriptive Clause

Peppering in emotional clues with your adjectives (Outrageous, Insane, Unbelievable…) just piques our curiosity that much more.

We’re Secretly Attracted to Negativity

Hidden in the secret pockets and dark corners, our itchy clicker finger can’t help but be drawn to negativity. Startup expert Iris Shoor did a study back in 2013 about the Dark Science of Blog Posts in which she analyzed over 100 different blogs with post titles dealing with negativity.

The surprising common denominator in all of these were that the posts dealt with technology, not black magic or voodoo dolls.

She found that using words like “Kill,” “Death,” “Bleeding” and “War” got many more clicks and shares than less negative-focused posts.

Titles like “Oracle Makes More Moves to Kill Open Source MySQL” and “Oracle Bleeding at the Hands of DataBase Rivals” were top shared posts on TechCrunch, even though other articles, such as “For Oracle, It’s About the Machine, Not the Fantasy of a New World” were just as interesting but had markedly less social reach.

The study also showed that the things we’re NOT doing attracted more clicks than the things we SHOULD BE doing. This is likely because we’ve had it drilled into our heads about what we should be doing our entire lives, so knowing where we might be messing up has a bit of a draw to us.

Don’t Forget, Science Isn’t Always Etched in Stone…

Although these tips and ideas will definitely get you thinking about creating psychologically enticing headlines, don’t forget that too much use of any one tactic will eventually overwhelm rather than engage your visitors.

That’s because people are drawn to change and are delighted by suprise. Once they figure out your methods, they often begin to ignore you.

What’s more, your own results may be different from the case studies presented here, which is why it’s always worthwhile to test and determine the best formula that works for your business, your offer and your audience.

Share Your Experiences with Us!

Have you used these types of headlines on your own sites? What have your results been like? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Read other Crazy Egg articles by Sherice Jacob.

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Sherice Jacob

Sherice Jacob helps website owners improve conversion rates with custom design, copywriting and website reviews.  Get your free conversion checklist and web copy tune-up by visiting iElectrify.com.

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  1. Dustin Grant says:
    May 28, 2015 at 10:39 am

    Very interesting about being secretly attracted to negative words.

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