Most people don’t read content online. In fact, eight out of ten people will only read the headline.
For content writers, that fact is alarming. But it also places extra importance on the headlines we choose for our content, as headlines have the power to influence readers even if they don’t read any more of the article.
I don’t believe the perfect headline exists, though. Not anymore, anyway.
The evolution of social media and search has also complicated the playing field. When we write a headline, we no longer think only about driving clicks from a single channel like our homepage; we now need to think about search and social, too.
In this post, I’d love to share with you what I’ve discovered about headlines, how they’ve evolved and what makes a headline stand out on Facebook, Twitter, and search.
Let’s dive in.
What makes an irresistible headline
One of my favorite headlines of all time is:
“How to Win Friends and Influence People”
This headline helped to sell millions of copies of Dale Carniegie’s book of the same name. It’s brilliant. Short, simple and intriguing and makes me want to know more. However, if it were to be written again in 2016, it may sound a little different.
The evolution of headlines
It’s pretty safe to say that a headline determines how many people will read a piece. But, the evolution of social media has led content publishers to rethink their approach to headlines completely. As a result, the perfect headline no longer exists and we now must craft an eye-catching, clickable headline for almost every channel where our content can be discovered.
We now have to craft an eye-catching, clickable headline for almost every channel where our content can be discovered
It’s important to think about all the various places people may discover your content: search engines, Facebook, Twitter, your homepage, etc. And it’s very rare that one size fits all when it comes to headlines. What stands out on Facebook might not get any clicks from a Google search results page.
For example, in 2016, the famous “How to Win Friends and Influence People” headline may look something like this:
12 Life Lessons to Help You Win Friends and Influence People
Life Lessons: How to Win Friends and Influence People
On a homepage:
How to Win Friends and Influence People: 12 Lessons to Live By
Headlines change the way we think and set our expectations
First impressions matter. Even with the articles we read online. And just as we choose to make a good impression offline through the way we dress and our body language, the headline of an article can also go a long way to shaping the reader’s perception of what is to follow, as Maria Konnikova explains in The New Yorker:
By drawing attention to certain details or facts, a headline can affect what existing knowledge is activated in your head. By its choice of phrasing, a headline can influence your mindset as you read so that you later recall details that coincide with what you were expecting.
For instance, the headline of this article I wrote—”A Gene That Makes You Need Less Sleep?”—is not inaccurate in any way. But it does likely prompt a focus on one specific part of the piece. If I had instead called it “Why We Need Eight Hours of Sleep,” people would remember it differently.
Headlines affect our memory
Ullrich Ecker, a psychologist at the University of Western Australia has completed a couple of studies on how headlines that are even slightly misleading can affect how we read content.
In the first study, Ecker and his team discovered that misleading headlines affect readers’ memory, their inferential reasoning, and behavioral intentions. Essentially, if a biased headline influences you, that tends to be what you’ll remember no matter what you’re subsequently told in the rest of the article.
In the second study, Ecker had people read four articles (two factual, two opinion). What’s interesting in this study is the difference Ecker discovered between headlines in factual and opinion-led pieces. Misleading headlines in factual pieces were easier to ignore, and readers were able to correct the impressions left by the headline. However, in the case of opinion articles, a misleading headline impaired the reader’s ability to make accurate conclusions.
In summary, the headline of your article can greatly affect what your reader takes away from it.
For example, if I had titled this article “The evolution of headlines” it’s likely that you may remember more about how headlines have changed as the internet has evolved. And the headline “How to write headlines for Facebook, Twitter and Search” would likely put the reader’s focus on the section below, hopefully putting more emphasis on the actionable takeaways you can use from this piece.
As writers and content creators, we have a great duty to ensure our headlines best reflect the content of our articles. And give readers the best possible chance to remember the key points of our piece.
8 strategies to help you write great headlines for social and search
Writing great headlines is hard. And in this section, I’d love to share 8 headline strategies to help you craft headlines for Facebook, Twitter and search.
How to write great headlines for Facebook
Facebook is a huge traffic driver for many websites. (It’s been our number one or two social referrer for the past three years.)
And after recent algorithm updates, we’re now likely to see a lot less clickbait stories sticking around in our news feeds and seeing sustained engagement. This feels like a good move, but also raises the question: What kinds of headlines perform best on Facebook?
In order to dig a little further into what works on Facebook, Newswhip studied the various types of headlines that resonate with users on Facebook and that consistently receive high levels of engagement.
Here’s a quick summary of what they found to work:
- Conversational and descriptive headlines
- Headlines focused on personal experience
- Headlines that aren’t misleading
1. Conversational and descriptive headlines
Newswhip found that many of the most successful stories they analyzed had extremely descriptive headlines, or used language that reads in a conversational tone. For example:
These types of headlines tend to perform well because you are letting the reader know what they will gain from reading your content.
At Buffer, we also like to accompany our content with a descriptive status:
One trick I like to use for writing descriptive, conversational headlines is to think about how you would describe this story to a friend in a coffee shop and use the same, warm, friendly tone in your headline.
When it comes to writing in a conversational style, it often means forgetting a lot of what your English teacher may have taught you, too. If you’ve ever looked at a transcript of a conversation, you’ll notice it’s full of grammatical mistakes, half-finished sentences, and similar faux-pas. Writing in a conversational tone doesn’t necessarily mean writing as you talk. But instead, writing so that it doesn’t sound like writing.
2. Headlines focused on personal experience
Facebook has traditionally been a place for personal stories and blogs, opinion articles, and other personal angled stories to flourish. And Newswhip found that first person posts and unique viewpoints tend to get people sharing heavily, especially if it’s a topic that they can relate to personally.
Here’s an example of a recent headline from our Open Blog that focused on personal experience:
3. Headlines that aren’t misleading
In the blog post accompanying their latest algorithm update, Facebook explained that there are two specific criteria they use to determine whether a headline is misleading:
- If the headline withholds information required to understand what the content of the article is
- If the headline exaggerates the article to create misleading expectations for the reader
For example, the headline “You’ll Never Believe Who Tripped and Fell on the Red Carpet…” withholds information required to understand the article (What happened? Who Tripped?). The headline “Apples Are Actually Bad For You?!” misleads the reader (apples are only bad for you if you eat too many every day).
This means the “You’ll never guess what happened next” headline formula will no longer be as successful on Facebook. And instead, we should switch to more detailed headlines that inform the reader what they’ll be reading about once they click.
How to write great headlines for Twitter
Tweets are just like headlines.
They need to attract attention and get the reader to read to click on the link. And while there’s no guaranteed formula for success on Twitter, we’ve found the best headlines and Tweets are the ones that state a benefit and generate curiosity.
Twitter is also a great place to share content multiple times and test out various headlines to see which ones resonate most with your audience. This approach helped Tami Brehse to increase her traffic by nearly 50% in just 30 days.
To give you an example of what’s working for us, here are a couple of our most-clicked tweets:
— Buffer (@buffer) July 23, 2014
— Buffer (@buffer) January 15, 2014
Both of these examples have clear images to convey the message within the tweet, making it more eye-catching for people as they scroll through their feed. The images also give the reader a great idea of what the content within the article will be.
Both tweets also create curiousity and a knowledge gap for readers. This entices readers to click on the link and feed their curiousity.
How to write great headlines for search
Standing out in search is a completely different game to standing out on social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. With social platforms, you’re trying to grab the reader’s attention and stand out in their timeline. Whereas in search, the user is specifically looking for content focused on their search phrase.
Here are a few tips that have worked for us:
1. Front-load your title
Google puts more weight on the words at the beginning of your title tag. And if you’re trying to rank for specific keywords, a good strategy is to place those keywords at the beginning of your headline.
If you wanted to rank for “social media tips”, then chances are that this headline:
Social Media Tips: 10 Ways to Grow Your Social Media Audience
… would be seen as more relevant to the topic “social media tips” than this headline:
Grow Your Social Media Audience with These 10 Awesome Social Media Tips
Of course, there’s much more that comes into play when it comes to Google rankings, but keeping your keywords as near to the beginning of your title as possible can help.
Here’s a real-world example. If you search Google for “Instagram stories” you’ll notice many of the results will have those keywords right at the front of the headline:
Keep it short (between 50-60 characters)
SEO experts Moz explain:
Google typically displays the first 50-60 characters of a title tag, or as many characters as will fit into a 512-pixel display. If you keep your titles under 55 characters, you can expect at least 95% of your titles to display properly. Keep in mind that search engines may choose to display a different title than what you provide in your HTML. Titles in search results may be rewritten to match your brand, the user query, or other considerations.
Use your brand name
If your brand is well-known within your target market then attaching it to the end of your headline can lead to more trust and clicks. A study from Engaging New Project found that people react not only to the type of headline but also to the source of the headline.
If you’re a trusted source, it can be beneficial to share your brand name in search results.
How to create multiple headlines for your content
At Buffer, we use a really handy tool called Yoast SEO which allows us to set various headlines for different channels. This means every post we write can have up to four separate headlines at any one time:
- Headline on our homepage
- Headline for search
- Headline for Twitter
- Headline for Facebook
Here’s an example of Yoast in action:
To write a custom headline for search, Facebook, and Twitter, you can toggle between the different Yoast SEO tabs by clicking on the icons at the left.
Over to you
Headlines are fascinating and probably the most important part of any piece of content. Right now, it feels like we’re in the midst of another evolution and moving away from some sensationalistic headlines that become popular with the rise of social media and towards more descriptive and detailed headlines.
Do you create multiple headlines for your content? What have you found works for each channel?
I’d love to continue the conversation in the comments below.
There’s No Perfect Headline: Why We Need to Write Multiple Headlines for Every Article