In Pursuit of the Perfect Headline: What’s the Secret to Making Your Audience Click?

By Steve Rayson  

  1. Make the Reader Care

In our sample, the most powerful three-word phrase used in a headline was will make you.

Linking phrases such as “will make you” can be an elegant and effective way of connecting your content to the reader and why they should care.

This format makes explicit the linkage between the content and the potential impact on the reader.

For example: “8 Habits That Will Make You More Productive

The other key feature of “will make you” headlines is the promise: There is a clear promise that the content will make you productive or happy or sad or… Which brings us to the next principle.

  1. Clarity and Promise

Readers like to know what they will get when clicking through to your post. I think this is why list posts work well. The reader knows exactly what they are going to get…

For example: “10 Pictures That Show What Pollution Has Done to Delhi

This form of headline has clarity and a promise; in this case, you will see the effects of pollution in 10 pictures.

The nature of the promise can be more expansive, however.

For example: “27 Amazing Charts That Will Turn You Into a Baking Whiz

Of course, the content must live up the promise; otherwise, your credibility will be shot. In this case, I really don’t think any charts will make me a baking whiz, but I was probably not the target audience. Over 900,000 people shared this post. (We will talk more about the importance of the audience later.)

  1. Emotional Hooks

In consumer content, we were not surprised to find that emotional words and phrases have impact. Well-shared headlines included phrases such as the following:

  • Tears of joy
  • Make you cry
  • Melt your heart
  • Most beautiful
  • Can’t stop laughing

These emotional headlines were used far less in B2B headlines, and they didn’t appear in the top trigrams for LinkedIn or Twitter.

However, certain keywords can have a similar emotional impact in B2B headlines. For example, words such as “success” or “successful” in a LinkedIn headline typically get a lot more shares than the average.

  1. Curiosity

Curiosity is powerful. There are some things we can’t resist. It is part of that classic narrative arc of an unfolding mystery: We want to find out “who did it.”

I am disappointed to report that “what happened next” was a top phrase that plays on our curiosity. Clickbait headlines containing that phrase typically show disrespect to the reader, and they are far removed from the traditional journalistic practice of summarizing the important details in the headline. On the positive side, Facebook now categorizes headlines that withhold information as clickbait, and demotes them.

There are ways to provoke curiosity in your headlines without resorting to “what happened next” clickbait.

  1. Explanations

“This is why” was the No. 2 best-performing phrase in our sample of 100 million posts. Explanation posts can use headlines to provoke curiosity as well as provide answers. For example:

Explanations backed by research or science appear to do particularly well. A whole new “genre” of “science says” and “according to science” posts has emerged recently.

  1. Tribalism

One of the unfortunate things about recent political developments has been the increased tribalism in politics, which has in turn led to more polemical headlines that are widely shared by supporters of one political viewpoint or another.

People widely share content to show they are part of a tribe and to support their tribe.

This sort of tribalism extends well beyond politics. Headlines and content designed to appeal to a specific group of people can frequently benefit from tribal loyalty. For example:

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