What makes you read an article?
The Headline. People often brush through content that is found online. Capturing the attention of the audience and converting them into your audience is possible only when you have a captivating headline.
Let’s look at a few tips and strategies that Bufferapp has for us on the science of headlining.
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.