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"Headlines" Are Now the Headline

Posted on Sunday, February 28, 2016 at 4:01 PM

Which headline-writing techniques are most effective? Do yours measure up?

By William Dunkerley

"You Can't Win If You Don't Play" is an old ad line for lottery tickets. Now in the editorial game there is an equally commonsense corollary: If readers don't click, they won't see the article.

Click on what? The headline, of course. More and more landing pages for online publications give no more than a headline, perhaps accompanied by a visual element, on which readers can base their decision to read or not read an article. That means there's a lot riding on the effectiveness of your headlines.

Attracting Readers

Headlines have always been important. The late Jan V. White, writing in EO for May 2010, offered advice on essentials for writing better headlines. His number one point was this:

"Curiosity is what pulls the casual reader into your story. The display is your best persuasion tool to get them to want to find out more. (The key words here are "to want to.") It often takes several words to define a complex topic and describe what you need to say so it is the honey that draws the bee. Therefore, make heads as long as they need to be to fascinate. Shorter isn't better, no matter what you have taken for journalistic gospel, or what the designer may maintain. Heads aren't just journalism, they are salesmanship."

Traditionally we editors have had little quantitative feedback on how effective our article titles have been. Surveys usually tap into the popularity of an article as a whole. But the specific contribution of the headline has been something that we could only guess at.

Things have long been different in the field of marketing. A-B tests are often conducted to gauge the relative productiveness of two different headlines. Some studies even get down to measuring the respective effectiveness of various headline-writing approaches.

For instance, in "How to Create Advertising That Sells," ad legend David Ogilvy addressed the specific point of headline length. He wrote:

"How many words in a headline? In headline tests conducted with cooperation from a big department store, it was found that headlines of 10 words or longer sold more goods than short headlines. In terms of recall, headlines between 8-and-10 words are most effective. In mail order advertising, headlines between 6-and-12 words get the most coupon returns. On the average, long headlines sell more merchandise than short ones-headlines like our 'At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.'"

So for a long time our marketing cousins have been more pragmatic about headline writing than most publication editors. They've done a lot of testing and have put together a picture of which headlines work and which ones don't.

Expert advertising copywriter Robert Bly opines:

"Many copywriters fall into the trap of believing that clever wordplay, puns, and 'cute' copy make for a good headline. But think a minute. When you make a purchase, do you want to be amused by the salesclerk? Or do you want to know that you're getting quality merchandise at a reasonable price?

"The answer is clear. When you shop, you want products that satisfy your needs -- and your budget. Good copywriters recognize this fact, and put sales appeal -- not cute, irrelevant gimmicks and wordplay -- in their headlines. They know that when readers browse ad headlines, they want to know: 'What's in it for me?'

"The effective headline tells the reader: 'Hey, stop a minute! This is something that you'll want!'"

Now apply that concept to your own headlines. How do they measure up?

Digital Insights

Digital publishing has now given us insights into what headlines readers click on. But still it's hard to ascertain which qualities of a successful headline, i.e., one with a high click rate, contributed to its success.

If you have the capability of doing an A-B test, you can home in on that. Try one head with half your readers and another with the remainder. That will be an acid test.

Chartbeat is a company that specializes in conducting headline tests. Naturally, it highly recommends the idea of conducting headline tests. But a recent Editor & Publisher article reports on observations of Chris Breaux, Chartbeat's data scientist:

"Headlines that used demonstrative adjectives like 'this,' 'that' and 'those' showed significantly higher click through rates and a higher propensity for outperforming other headlines....

"Another interesting finding was that long headlines consistently received a higher click-through rate than shorter headlines, something that seems counterintuitive in the era of Twitter and divided attention spans. Breaux agrees, and notes that editors may have actually gone too far in pushing headlines so short they lack enough details to draw readers into a story....

"Breaux examined the data and found that headlines that contain direct quotes were 14 percent more likely to win a headline test."

So what do you think? Are you ready to start testing headlines?

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

Add your comment.


"Great article -- especially the Ogilvy references to the merit of using lots of words. In the past I have judged several "Best Headline" categories for the American Society of Magazine Editors AZBEE Awards. The following shortfalls seem to be consistent among contest entries: (1) Headline/deck overlap -- identical message conveyed in both elements. Instead, deck should expand upon rather than duplicate headline wording. (2) Fondness with cute expressions, which in many cases may not register with readers. (3) Biggest shortfall of all -- absence of interesting numbers. (4) Limited length -- contrary to the Ogilvy dictate -- because graphic design only allows room for main headlines with three or four words." --Howard Rauch, Editorial Solutions, www.editsol.com.

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