5 Characteristics Of High Converting Headlines

5 Characteristics Of High Converting Headlines

Back in 2001, Consumer Reports put out a study that revealed the average American was consciously exposed to roughly 247 marketing messages daily, yet only really noticed around half of them.

While other “expert analysis” put that exposure to marketing anywhere between 500-5000 messages, this is the most sane explanation of what we’re actually aware of.

I bring this up, because to get “conversions” you must first grab attention. To grab attention, you must not only understand the needs of your market, but also the noise that goes along with it.

Of course, you can learn about how to speak to these problems & understand the noise, through customer developmentfeedback loops, qualitative studies, and smart social media marketing strategies, but even then, you might still need some help getting the market’s attention.

Now, to be clear, it’s only once you have the core understanding of why people are clicking that you should look into adding these characteristics. All to often, people employ these techniques while failing to understand the deeper reasoning as to why they work.

The information you’re about to read is very powerful, but I need to offer two disclaimers.

  • All these techniques don’t work all the time in every situation. Nonetheless, the data does point to these characteristics as being effective most of the time.
  • Different techniques work better for different audiences. Studies may say one thing, but your mileage may vary. You know your audience best.

 

Characteristic 5:  They Have Numbers

Numbered list headlines can have astronomical click-throughs. You probably see dozens of articles like this every day.

There have been plenty of studies, split tests, and discoveries that dig into the data. Headlines with numbers are clear winners every time.

Overall Headline Preferences

image source

As I wrote this article, I went over to Twitter. Sure enough, ten entries from the top, here was what I saw:

Neil's friend on Twitter

I went over to Facebook. Same thing. Seriously, my friends are sharing stuff like this?

why babies need pets

As it turns out, numbers plain work. Just ask Jonah Peretti. He’s the guy responsible for starting Buzzfeed, and wasting approximately 2.8 hours of every professional’s time each day.

10 Classic Movies Every Parent Should Watch With Their Kids 17 TV Criminals 15 youths you'll vote into office one day 7 problems only people with babyfaces would understand image02

Numbers are everywhere.

The Content Marketing Institute reports that headlines with odd numbers have a 20% higher clickthrough rate than headlines with even numbers.

Highrise tested their landing page headline, and came up with these results:  The headline with a number had 30% higher conversion rate:

No number in main headline:

no headline

Number in main headline (winner):

headline

Images from http://signalvnoise.com/posts/1525-writing-decisions-headline-tests-on-the-highrise-signup-page

Heck, I even used this technique for the article title you’re reading now. But… the question is, why are numbers so effective?

This is actually a way more complicated question with a whole branch of psychology & behavioral economics studying the effects of how numbers influence perception.

What it mostly comes down to is the context and how the numbers are used. For example, many cultures around the world are conditioned from a young age to infer that larger numbers means more of something.

90 day warrentee 80 point inspection

This is why you see “90 day” warranties, “600 minutes” & “80-point” inspections.

These numbers are way more appealing than “3 months”, “10 hours”, & “we push every button, swipe the screen in every direction, and make sure the camera & flash are working”

However, there is also the effect of unitosity, where larger numbers are more comforting in future-oriented or abstract contexts. A loan payment of $100/month for the next 180 months might be more agreeable than paying the same loan for the next 15 years. Researchers Monga & Bagchi of the University of Chicago have published a paper on their findings, you can check it out here.
100 items for 5 bucks a piece

Another interesting thing about numbers that researchers Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman found was that the order in which you present them can influence perceptions.

In their study, they found that when the larger benefit was presented first, it “anchored” the viewer’s perception in that benefit. In other words, 100 albums for $5 each would be perceived as a better value than $5 albums out of the 1oo hand picked by the editors.

The reason for this is because the brain perceives the larger benefit first & assigns a larger value to the rest of the sequence. A similar effect is found in count-downs (going from 10-1) instead of count ups (1-10) as it builds anticipation for the best thing to come last in the sequence.

While these number characteristics aren’t necessarily headline specific, they can certainly be effective in creating long form sales pages.

Hans Villarica of The Atlantic has a great piece that goes into more detail on how numbers influence our perceptions.

Characteristic 4:  They Have Between 5-9 (or 16-18) Words

The Guardian reported that headlines or titles with eight words performed the best.

Our research showed titles with eight words had the highest click-through rates with these headers performing 21% better than average – so consider the length of your title if you want to get clicks.

Why eight? Why not seven? Or thirty-five?

I don’t know. My hypothesis is that is has something to do with the limits of the human brain. One of the most highly-cited works in psychology is the 1956 research work by George A. Miller of Princeton.

The name of the paper is “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.” The whole point of his research was that “the number of objects an average human can hold in working memory is 7 ± 2.”

99U-headlines-highlighted

Combined with the usability research by Jakob Nielsen that has found that users typically scan the all web content, therefore pay the most attention the the first & last 3 words of a headline.

Moreover, it’s the first 2 words & specifically the first 11 characters that make the most difference in getting people into the content.  In an analysis of the BBC website in 2009, he had this to say:

World s Best Headlines  BBC News

But, this isn’t always fool-proof, and there may be some effect on whether or not that headline is paid for or not.

In an earlier study by OutBrain, looking at only paid links within their network, it was found that the number of words increased to 16-18 words.

English-Headline-Length-Words

Though the “ideal length” changed, this was a trend that repeated itself across other languages as well:

Italian-French-Headlines-Words

But the question is, why are the top performers for paid using nearly double the word count?

Outbrain Recommended Content

My guess is because promoted content in the Outbrain network is clearly marked & that many users may have an inherent click fear that comes with visiting a site they don’t instantly recognize.

More words however gives paid advertisers more “real estate” so to speak, to describe the content & reduce friction that comes with earning the click.

It may seem minor, but if you’re trying to attract people who have no idea who you are – longer, more descriptive headlines are worth experimenting with.

Characteristic 3:  They Are Negative

For a long time, headline writers assumed that positive was better as far as clickthroughs, shareability, readability, and conversions.

It turns out, that’s not quite true.

To make sure you understand this point, the following are considered “positive” and “negative” words:

  • Positive:  Always, most, best
  • Negative:  Never, worst

How do they perform in testing? Here’s Outbrain’s findings:

Positive vs negative graph

Negative superlatives in titles perform 30% better than the control, and more than 60% higher than positive ones!

Why is this the case? Seems a little twisted, doesn’t it?

Here’s how Outbrain summed it up:

Audience aversion to positive superlatives may simply be a product of overuse, or it could be because readers are skeptical of sources’ motives for endorsement. On the flip side, sources of negative information may be more likely to be perceived as impartial and authentic. Whereas positive superlatives may have become clichéd through overuse, negative superlatives may be more unexpected and intriguing.

It gets worse. Startup Moon research has found that words like “lose,” “kill,” “fear,” “dark,” “bleeding,” and “war,” outperform their more innocent or positive counterparts.

Positive superlatives don’t sell. A Moz/Conductor study came up with the same findings:

positive vs negative superlative graph 2

So, the takeaway is this: you can be dismal, or you can be neutral.

Just don’t go frothy and Pollyanna with a title.

Characteristic 2:  They Have Two Parts

Successful headlines are an act in two parts. They have a beginning and an ending — a thesis and antithesis, a head and a tail.

CMI claims that “A colon or hyphen in the title — indicating a subtitle — performed 9% better than headlines without.”

Peep put it this way:

A good headline alone is not enough – it needs help…Include a sub-headline to boost clarity.

I’ve done this on a page for Neilpatel.com. Instead of a stand-alone headline with no support, I provide a two-part model:

Headline & Subheadline

The same thing is happening on CrazyEgg:

Header and subheader 2

Personally, I believe this is because the sub-headline acts to re-affirm the reason why your reader is on the page, and acts as a primer for the story that the page is going to tell.

This “second” headline isn’t anything new either. It’s the meta description in the search engine:

meta-description-serpThe “microcopy” on magazine covers:
Allure magazine cover 2011 ashley greene 26180827 1200 1632.jpg  1200×1632

And the extra bit of description on books that can make or break our interest:

Amazon.com  Why Do We Say It   The Stories Behind the Words  Expressions and Cliches We Use  9781555210106   Castle Books  Books

 

Think this is arbitrary stuff? The team over at Timetrade.com might have too, if they hadn’t tried switching their main headline with their sub-headline – which was more benefit driven anyhow – and saw it contribute to a quick increase in conversions by 85%

Before:

time trade email

 

After:

time trade 2

 

Characteristic 1:  They Are Very, Very Clear

Great headlines leave no ambiguity as to their intent.

Questions, as it turns out, aren’t all that appealing. Sure, there might be a bit of curiosity, but it’s not exactly the most convincing method of engaging or converting.

One study surveyed the five most common title types, and discovered that the more clarity the headline had, the more appealing it was.

headline clarity

Here are the five headlines types that were tested in the above-cited study:

  • Normal (Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful)
  • Question (What are Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful?)
  • How to (How to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful)
  • Number (30 Ways To Make Drinking Tea More Delightful)
  • Reader-Addressing (Ways You Need to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful)

Jayson DeMers’s Forbes article discusses the importance of benefits in a headline, and writes this:

“They have to be specific – as specific as possible to your audience. For example, “How to Write for Social Media and Double Your Click-Through Rates in Thirty Days”. The headline’s focus and promised benefit are clear. As a reader I am able to form an expectation of what’s to follow. The benefit is also crystal clear: develop a skill and get more visibility.”

Nobody craves ambiguity or uncertainty, especially if looking for answers, solutions, products, or are about to spend money. People want clarity.

Be as clear as you can possibly be.

Conclusion

If you want to immediately improve your value, worth, contribution, and impact, please do this:  Get really good at writing headlines.

Here’s what works:

  • Use numbers.
  • Use around eight words if people are familiar & between 16-18 if they’re not.
  • Use negative words, or at least few positive superlatives.
  • Use a two-part model.
  • Be very, very clear.

The better your headline, the better your marketing. Use these five characteristics, and I’m very confident that you will improve your conversion rates.

What are some other characteristics of high-converting headlines?

Join the Conversation Add Your Comment

  1. There’s no debate, everything starts with the headline. I tested a few of your headlines using the http://www.aminstitute.com/headline/ headline analyzer, some of the assumptions needed a bit of tweaking to score above 50%.

    My best scored headline 62% I created in my unscientific mini case study was this “5 tactics to dramatically increase your headline appeal”

    1. Thanks for sharing Henneke! What a great resource :-)

  2. A small add on negative headlines. Through some qualitative experimentation, I’ve seen that negative headlines that don’t offer a benefit (or implied benefit) tend to fare a lot worse than Pollyanna-happy headlines. For example, a title like “7 Ways You’re Losing Customers” is vague and doesn’t give a sense of the benefit of reading the article. But “7 Customer Service Mistakes to Avoid” goes into the negative, but is more specific and hints at a positive outcome.

    1. Oooh very good point Elliott! Thanks for adding that ;-)

  3. I learned a lot from this article. Thanks Elliot for adding that experiment too!

    I am sure that by appliying this tips will increase the conversions in my headlines. I never would have thought about the negative headline tip, but thinking it through negative headlines give the reader a “must read/do” sensation.

    Regards

    1. Just make sure to keep it balanced Diego, I’ve found with other sites there’s can be a blowback when everything is framed negatively.

      Know when to go in for the right hook!

  4. While I agree with the overall message, some of the examples here don’t support your claims, Neil.

    The 30 Day Free Trial for Highrise is obviously more benefits and more customer oriented than the “do what we want” headline that preceded it, e.g. Start a Highrise Account

    The TimeTrade landing page changed the headline – it didn’t just switch things around. The new one included a clear benefit whereas the old one was empty bluster. (“revolutionize”? how? with armed militias?)

  5. This post has opened my eyes to so many mistakes I am presently making when writing headlines even though I know some of them and use them often in my headlines.

    I’m going to follow this to the Tee and report back on some of the improvement I notcie. Great post.

  6. The negative slant, never thought of it, but we run a How To site, and being positive kind of guys we are all, hey you can do it, this is how… But just writing the title “Never paint a door this way”, is already much more interesting to me than “How to Paint a Door”. Pretty much same content as the How To, just a different slant to the intro paragraph. That’s the theory any how! I need your A/B testing guide now.

    This is such a great site btw, so pragmatic and very confident in what you share.

  7. I am presently redesigning my website and would like to get my headlines rewritten. Is there anyone who has a proven track record on writing good headlines that I could hire?

    1. Not sure anyone out there has a proven track record. Most agency/studios create great headlines, but may never know the end results once the client’s work is completed. I have work with agencies/clients and never knew the end results of a campaign if the client didn’t need a further services.

  8. Being a creative in the advertising/marketing business for many years I have found that numbers have always brought in more replies. Figured out that people always want something more and being clear is even more important. Great article and I even learned something new about negative words.

  9. Hey Peep

    I am interested to know what your personal test-results have been regarding the suggestions you shared in the section about the length of headlines: ” They Have Between 5-9 (or 16-18) Words.”

    I agree that our brains can only comprehend a limited amount of information (which, interestingly, is the reason our social security system was created to have only 9 digest) I have never specifically tested the length of my headlines so I am curious to know what you have found. I usually focus on the content and messaging of my A/B tested headlines.

    There are obviously famous headlines from advertisers like Ogilvy and Hopkins where the length of a headline is in the 15-18 word category. Examples: “They laughed when I sat down to play the piano… but then I started to play” (16 words). “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock” (18 words).

    Now I am interested, I’ll have to think about this one and run some tests.

    Thanks for the article. It was a lot of fun to read.

    -Bryant Jaquez

  10. Number is always good to attract readers or customers but the word-number is a bit new to me. Neil, I have an SEO question. We know that a page title can contain max. 70 characters (sometimes even 50). And the article titles go page title after publishing. So if we write article titles with 15-18 words it may not fit into the actual length of page title. People won’t be able to see those words on SERP. Then how that many words can matter in organic traffic. If we do not get huge organic traffic how will we make good conversions? Yes for Social Media that can surely boost the clicks but can we completely rely on social media, especially if the business/brand is new and small?

  11. Very good and interesting advice, you need to be a fine psychologist to win in the advertisement market.

  12. Very insightful article, I am sure that this will help web designers, developers and SEO experts alike improve their results. Thanks!

  13. Amazing article. Here you suggest that how to attractive headlines in between a small characteristics. A creative headlines gets huge traffic on a websites.Thanking share with us.

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5 Characteristics Of High Converting Headlines