We delve into industry-leading research on what goes into an effective headline for articles distributed via search engines and social media. We’ll discuss tactics for headlines to stimulate social media engagement, best practices for attracting search traffic, and how headline-writing fits into a content marketing team’s operations. You’ll leave with lots of actionable insights into what makes certain article headlines more engaging and effective than others.
One of the best pieces of research we’ve found on this topic comes from BuzzSumo, the content marketing SaaS provider. BuzzSumo’s researchers analysed 100 million article headlines to learn how the composition of a headline can affect the levels of engagement content is likely to receive.
BuzzSumo’s research identified certain trigrams, meaning three-word phrases, which attracted high levels of likes, shares and comments when used in the headlines of articles shared on Facebook. Here are the best-performing trigrams observed in the study, along with the average number of engagements:
If you’re a Facebook user, there’s a good chance you will recognise some of these trigrams from posts you have seen on the platform. It seems that within the context of Facebook, the most engaging trigrams used in headlines often refer to an emotional response the user can expect to experience, or to something they can expect to be revealed.
Even if you don’t use these exact trigrams in your own headlines aimed at Facebook users, there is still lots you can learn here. The message to take away is that the most engaging headlines seem to be those which tell users something about the emotional or intellectual payoff they will receive after they click through.
Key learning: mention emotional and intellectual payoffs in headlines to maximise Facebook engagement.
As well as looking at high-performing phrases, BuzzSumo identified the phrases which seem to attract the lowest levels of engagement on Facebook. Here are the worst-performing trigrams commonly used in headlines shared on the platform, along with their average engagements:
Key learning: avoid these phrases if the aim of your headline is to attract engagement on Facebook
Another interesting part of BuzzSumo’s study into engagement with headlines was its research into headline engagement on Twitter, which revealed some interesting differences with the equivalent data on Facebook.
Here are the three-word phrases which seemed to attract the most engagement when used in headlines shared on Twitter, along with their average engagements:
The best-performing trigrams on Twitter often refer to current affairs, developments and insights. This surely has a lot to do with the fact many people use Twitter as a channel for professional development, sharing insightful posts in order to build their own status as a thought leader.
Key learning: best tactics for engagement differ between social channels. References to breaking news and insights seem to work well on Twitter.
Knowing what motivates people to share content can be very helpful when it comes to constructing headlines aimed at attracting social shares. It’s especially important to get the headline right if shares are the objective, as a significant amount of social users have been observed to share content based on the headline alone, without having read the content itself.
A survey by the New York Times Customer Insight Group identified the following key reasons people give for sharing content:
In order to maximise the potential for shares, publishers need to do what they can to figure out which motivations its content fits with best, and also what motivates its own readers in particular to share content.
The motivations listed above are mainly associated with B2C content and personal use of social media. The motivations of someone using social for business-related reasons such as professional development or marketing will likely be different. Common motivations for businesses to share content include increasing brand visibility and establishing a brand as a thought leader in its industry.
Once you have determined what motivates your readers to share content, and which attributes of your content lend themselves well to motivating readers to share, you can use that knowledge to finetune your headlines.
For example, if you have determined that your readers like to share news about worthy causes, you could focus on the cause-related content of an article in its headline. So, if a retailer had just launched a new product involving an initiative where 5% of profits from that product go to a charitable cause, you would prominently include the cause-related angle of the story in the headline.
Key learning: understanding what motivates your readers to share content can help with writing shareable headlines.
In the context of web search, the true headline of an article is the meta title of the content page, also known as the title tag. This is the text you’ll see at the top of a search result listing, or when you hover over a tab in your web browser.
There are two key elements to optimising a title tag for attracting search traffic:
Let’s address element #1 first. The best practices for adding keywords to title tags haven’t changed much in recent years. According to Moz, the following principles currently apply:
Remember, the headline/title tag you use must be an accurate match for the content it links through to. Otherwise, search visitors will soon navigate away from the page when they realise the content is not what they are expecting, leading to a high bounce rate and the potential for the website’s content to be made less visible in SERPs by search algorithms.
Moving on to element #2 of headline optimisation for search, we need to ensure our title tags are tailored to encourage search engine users to click through to the content. Backlinko identifies the following best practices for optimising a title tag to increase its click-through rate:
Key learning: to maximise search traffic, a headline/title tag should include search keywords and be optimised to encourage users to click through.
If you could use some help getting started on writing article headlines for your website or blog, we suggest looking into free online headline-writing tools and templates. Copyblogger offers some great templates and guidance, including:
10 sure-fire headline templates
9 proven headline formulas that sell like crazy
How to write magnetic headlines (ebook download)
You might quite reasonably assume that the person who writes an article will usually write its headline. As a matter of fact, this often is not the case.
At newspapers and magazines, headlines are usually written by a sub-editor, section editor or editor-in-chief, rather than the reporter who wrote the article. This approach helps tie the whole publication together with a consistent editorial tone-of-voice.
Digital publishers, such as an online journal or a brand’s blog, can benefit from a similar division of duties. The content writer might suggest potential headlines for the article, but the final decision should be made by the person responsible for the publication’s content strategy and tone-of-voice. This person should be able to access data on reader engagement with the publication’s content – information which is crucial to making good headline-writing choices. They should also have a strong ability to identify whether a given headline is in-keeping with their publication’s brand. Of course, in some cases the person who writes the article and the person responsible for content strategy are the same person, in which case it is okay for that person to write both articles and their headlines.
Key learning: the best person to write the headline for an article is often the editor or content manager, rather than the author.
What we most want you to take away from this guide is that the best headline to use with an article will vary according to the publisher’s aims and the channel used for distribution. For instance, if an article is intended to attract shares on social media, the ideal headline might be very different to the ideal headline for the same article if it were intended for attracting new readers via search engines.
The first step in writing an article headline is defining two key factors: what is the point of the article and where will the article be published. Once these points are set in stone, we can refer to best practice on the relevant tactics and distribution channels and write an effective headline.