Write Better Headlines: What You Need To Know Based On Research

Want to know how to write better headlines?

Of course you do since headlines matter, a LOT

This isn’t a marketing newsflash.

During the glory days of the Mad Men era, David Ogilvy famously said:

On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.  Tweet This

This applies regardless whether you’re creating content marketing, social media shares, advertising or digital or print media.

Bottom line:

After investing precious resources info lovingly crafting content and social media shares, don’t just slap any headline on it that pops into your head at the last minute.

Headline darling Upworthy recommends cranking out at least 25 headlines before selecting the best option. Tweet This  Their editors write even more test headlines for attention-worthy content.

To maximize the reach of a video biography of Zach Sobiech, a young musician dying of a rare bone cancer, Adam Mordecai produced 75+ titles over a period of 2 days before selecting the optimal one. He chose it because the word “Wondtactular” stopped readers and captured their attention.


Upworthy Curates Zach Sobiech Video With Better Headline & Drives 10+X Results

While it improved the video’s results over tenfold, Upworthy invested 16+ man-hours into this curation effort—something many marketers might not do.

To help you write better headlines, let’s assess BuzzSumo’s recent headline analysis to show your how to improve yours. (This research builds on earlier headline research and hacks.)

Write Better Headlines Based On Research

BuzzzSumo analyzed 100 million headlines shared on Facebook and Twitter!


  • Skews towards B2C and media entities based on the Facebook and Twitter usage data. BUT B2B marketers keep reading. You can still learn from these results. Adding real human feelings breathes life into your content!
  • Doesn’t necessarily work the same for other platforms, such as your blog, website or email. This is key since email is a major initial content distribution platform according to NewsCred.

    Content Marketing Metrics

    Best Primary Content Distribution Source Based on Pageviews-NewCred-Chart

  • Don’t just use the same headline formulas. Your readers will get bored. Also, marketers are like lemmings: they’ll all use the same top combinations causing them to be less effective.



Top 5 BuzzSumo Findings To Write Better Headlines NOW

If you want to write better headlines, study these 5 key findings from BuzzSumo’s research.

Don’t just use these recommendations without assessing how they’ll work in your content’s context. Make sure your content delivers what the headline promises!

BuzzSumo found these 5 tactics characterized the best performing headlines.

Write Better Headlines with these phrases

Top Headline Phrases – BuzzSumo Analysis -2017-Chart

1. Use trigrams to give readers a reason to care

Surprisingly the top headline performers contained groups of 3 words, or trigrams, that appeared in the middle of a title. It’s not what most writers think when they want to write better headlines.

The top 4 headline trigrams found were:

  • Will Make You (8961 shares)
  • This Is Why (4099 shares)
  • Can We Guess (3199 shares)
  • Only X In (2398 shares)

Note how the share counts fall off significantly amongst the top 4 trigrams.

These trigrams work because they tell readers why they should care about your content and how it’ll directly impact them.

This finding is similar to Hubspot research which showed that brackets in the headline  improved results because they clarify the content.

Headline attributes that make people click-Hubspot-Outbrain-Chart

Headline attributes that cause readers to click-through – Chart via Hubspot and Outbrain

2. Show Extreme Emotion

People are looking to feel something. To write better headlines, you need to convey extreme emotion.

Specifically they want your headline to grab them out of the feed induced daze and pull them into your content. Your readers want to feel different; changed somehow after reading your content.

Your headline needs to cause their partially engaged mind to come to a screeching halt to read the content. It must stand out and signal that your content meets their needs.

This includes B2B marketers. Just because you’re making a business to business sale doesn’t mean that you’re not appealing to real people who have other interests.

Since the majority of readers are millennials and GexXers interested in extreme experiences, it’s no surprise they actively gravitate to extreme emotions.

Among the top emotions were:

  • Tears of joy
  • Make you cry
  • Give you goosebumps
  • Is too cute
  • Shocked to see
  • Melt your heart
  • Can’t stop laughing

Further, the research found these titles had either videos or images associated with them. This makes sense since people take in visual information faster than text. Also, it appeals to a broader audience of visual learners.

Caveat: Don’t exaggerate your title out of proportion with your content! Facebook doesn’t want clickbait titles that pull readers in to low value content.

3. Arouse curiosity and voyeurism

Social media is built on egobait and monitoring what others have and are doing. So it’s no surprise the next sets of phrases build on curiosity and voyeurism.

When you generate your 25 titles, try to arouse curiosity to write better headlines. Check your social media feeds for inspiration.

Before using these phrases, be careful: Facebook is working to reduce clickbait. Instead use other words to describe or tease out these emotions.

Curiosity headline elements to consider

  • What happened next
  • Talking about it
  • Twitter reacts to
  • Are freaking out
  • Top X songs

Related to curiosity are explanation headline elements:

  • Explanations
  • This is why
  • The reason is

Quizzes are also arouse curiosity; even better, they can be converted into interactive content. Based on 2015 BuzzSumo data, quizzes yielded 1,900 shares on average.

  • Quizzes
  • Can we guess
  • Only X in

Promising an explanation arouses curiosity. Give readers a tidbit to grab their attention and remember you by (they may share your content even if they don’t read it themselves.)

4. Add a Number

Using numbers definitely helps you write better headlines but take care.

While some numbers are arguably better than others for headlines, unless you’ve got the most comprehensive list ever, skip the big numbers. (Yes, I’ve used them too.)

In today’s information crammed ecosystem, your big numbers translate to “I’ll read it later.” (aka, Never! ) Think about all the content stored on your computer or mobile device.

Your best content strategy is to simplify your concept into 5 or 10 points. I didn’t pick those numbers out of thin air. Rather, they’re based on data. BuzzSumo concludes the best number is 5 for B2B communications and 10 for B2C.

How To Decide How Many Items To Spotlight In Your Headline – BuzzSumo-Chart

Unless you’ve got a website like List 25 (hat tip: Syed Bahki), vary your headlines.

Roundup Recurring Content Column

Every post on List25 has 25 items

5. Make Titles Consistent With Content

Don’t slap a sexy drive-tons-of-traffic headline onto content that’s not related to the headline.

You can’t fool your audience! They’re smarter than you think, possibly smarter than you!

Deliver on your headline’s promise or your traffic is gone. Even worse they may never return.

Worst Headline Phrases – BuzzSumo Findings

The worst performing headline phrases tend to focus on negativity and avoidance. Bear in mind, this data is based on Facebook and Twitter data!

Worst performing headline words-BuzzSumo-Chart-2017

Worst performing headlines – BuzzSumo Research – Chart

This is worth noting since it reveals that people gravitate to positive and upbeat content, especially on Facebook and Twitter.

Translation: Where possible recast pessimistic content to constructive terms. No one actively seeks to get depressed. Face it – They’ve enough problems in their own lives.

Note that BuzzSumo’s worst headline findings are consistent with analysis by Hubspot and Outbrain.

Write Better Headlines-Avoid negative words

Worst performing headline words as determined by Hubspot and Outbrain analysis-Chart

The worst preforming headline phrases on Facebook and Twitter have the potential to perform well elsewhere. For example, DIY content on Pinterest.

Consider this if you’re creating what Andy Crestodina calls “Evil Twin Content” – A piece of successful content approached from the opposite perspective. It’s often used for guest posts.

5 Ways To Improve Your Headlines

Like any other aspect of content creation, your headlines can improve over time. Here are 5 actionable headline creation tips to speed up your headline skill acquisition.

1. Study high quality headlines

BuzzFeed and Upworthy are masters of breaking through the non-stop social media stream.

By contrast, many magazines and newspapers live and die by their newsstand sales. They’ve got dedicated experts who just work on their front page headlines and callouts.

Want a cheap education? Get a year’s subscription to Cosmo (even if you’re male!)

Headline resources every marketer needs:

BTW-It’s helpful to have a list of power words to inspire you. While there are a number of valuable lists including Morrow’s and Co-Schedule’s, I’m a fan of Henneke’s power word list. (Also check out Henneke’s writing tips.)

2. Practice writing headlines every day

Stephen King advises writers to show up at the page every day to write. More specifically, he said.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

The same holds for building your headline writing skills as well. Select 5 articles from your daily content diet and write 5 different titles. Even better carry your practice around with you and edit the titles to improve them.

Keep your title practice and assess it weekly. Don’t just use the same 5 fill-in-the-blank formats.

Think of this activity as morning pages for headlines. The objective is to build up your headline writing muscles. Like going to the gym, it requires repetitions over time.

3. Include your headline in your first content creation pass

Big Bold Branding’s Pamela Wilson recommends start writing by creating a backbone for your piece. Specifically she means the headline and main point subheads. Wilson purposely avoids calling it an outline due to the elementary school-related baggage the word is associated with.

I like Wilson’s approach since your writing must appeal to scanners. This exercise ensures you’re on track.

To support social media distribution and minimize social media creation time, evaluate the shareworthiness of section callouts. Bear in mind that no matter how great your headline is, you still need other versions to continually repromote your content across social media.

Include an image with each headline (to attract visual learners and shares) and keep the words per section to 300 (for search-ability.)

4. Invest in A/B testing your headlines.

To increase your social media reach, especially on Facebook, supplement your content distribution with paid promotion in the form of advertising. This is a page straight from Priceonomics and Larry Kim’s playbooks.

Start with a small buy (under $50) to A/B test your best titles. If you’re trying to reach a broader cross-section consider running these tests for different audiences.

Note: BuzzSumo invested in Facebook advertising to maximize their recent research’s reach.

5. Optimize your headline for search.

Search is content marketing distribution long game compared to social media.

To this end, include the keywords in your headline, preferably towards the beginning of your title.

BuzzSumo found that an average of 15 words and 85 to 100 characters. This is higher than the recommended 60 characters for search.

How many words to put in headline

Average Number of Words In Headline – BuzzSumo -Chart

Write better headlines with optimal number of characters

Average number of characters per headline-BuzzSumo Chart

By contrast, Hubspot and Outbrain analysis, which is tied to outcomes, stays within search and social media recommended lengths.

Headline Length – Hubspot and Outbrain Data – Chart

How To Write Better Headlines Conclusion

Headlines can make or break your content’s success. This is true of your big rock content, blog posts, social media shares and email.

While you must deliver on your title’s promise, write better headlines based on BuzzSumo’s finding to improve your results.

Resist the urge to slap a less-than-optimal headline on your content.

Factor time and resources into each step of your content creation and distribution process to assess the quality of your headlines.

Keep a cheatsheet of headline hacks and power words. Just be an artist when you use them and make the headline yours, not theirs!

Practice crafting titles to write better headlines. Make it into a game where you try to improve your skills rather than writing the same thing over and over again!

Remember you’re not doing detention in school. You’re helping your work attract a broader public.

Master headline craftsman aren’t born. It takes practice.

Each headline or subhead your write helps you get better.

Go on. How long can it take to write 15 words or less?

Happy Marketing,
Heidi Cohen

Heidi CohenHeidi Cohen is the President of Riverside Marketing Strategies.
You can find Heidi on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.


Editor’s Note: This article was first published on Jul 26, 2017 based on 2017 BuzzSumo research. It was extensively improved with updated research.

Photo Credit: https://www.pexels.com/photo/jetty-feet-sign-wooden-128299/  CC Zero

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