One of the shocking truths about content marketing headlines is that even people that share your content probably haven’t read it – read on to get the research behind this.
“On average, Only 1 out of 5 readers gets beyond your headline.” – David Ogilvy
So 80% of people never see your content. It’s not good enough to just add in a headline as some last minute thought. You need to write great headlines that draw in your target audience.
A study by Upworthy has caused them to shift from the normal metrics of unique visits and page views.
The study showed that people who spent 25% of the average attention minutes on an article actually shared it more than those who spent 100% of the average attention minutes on the article.
Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat, which measures real-time traffic and sharing data confirmed these results.
You not only have to contend with the other masses of content on the internet but also the fact that those people that click through to you site might not read it (at least not all of it.
Upworthy has been the fastest growing site in the history of the Internet, a remarkable achievement, but how did they do it. If you take a look at the infographic by Marketo you get an idea of some of the tactics they employed. Upworthy co-founder Pete Koechley, in a Wired magazine interview, said that they see as much as a 500% uplifit in readership by switching headlines. The key point being that unless your headline is enticing people will not read the article.
As an example last year a story about Zach Sobiech was covered by Foxnews.com and People.com. Zach Sobiech, at only 17 year old, produced a video about how he decided to live the last days of his life as his rare form of cancer was incurable. Foxnews.com and People.com covered the story based on the video title My Last Days: Meet Zach Sobiech. However, when Upworthy got hold of the story they pushed it out with a new title This Amazing Kid Got To Enjoy 19 Awesome Years On This Planet. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular. The result was millions of YouTube views.
According to CEO Eli Pariser the UpWorthy team is so fanatical about headlines, that editors must assemble at least 25 headlines for every new article that is published. So if they are that obsessed with content marketing headlines shouldn’t you be?
Another good example of how a change in message changes results can be seen in this video (emotional end be warned!).
A change in words can make a huge difference.
The Science Behind Headlines Part 1
Jonah Berger, a Stanford graduate and now Professor at Wharton, spent many hours in his early years trying to understand why some articles were read and shared more than others. Fast forward to a few years and he conducted research on this very subject with his colleague Professor Katherine Milkman. They analysed around 7000 articles from the Times in 2008 over a 2 month period.
The key research findings
- Amusing stories that are positive and arousing are shared more frequently than less amusing ones.
- Anger-inducing stories were shared more than moderate takes on the same events.
- For a story positive framing made a piece far more popular.
Since then Berger has written a book called “Contagious: Why Things Catch On.”
- You need to create social currency. This involves passing on communications that make people feel that they’re not only smart but in the know.
- Use memory-inducing triggers. We share what we’re thinking about and often that is about the things we can remember most or easily.
- Use lists. This is because they off practical value and are easy to read and consume.
- Quality stories with a strong narrative. If you use great headlines but the story isn’t up to the promise of the headline people will be disappointed; so quality content counts.
If you have time you can see Jonah Berger talking about why ideas catch on below – great talk
The findings have since been replicated by several independent research teams and in fact relate closely to other research by Karen Nelson Feld (Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing) and Karin Nohan & Jeff Helmsley (Going Viral).
The Science Behind Headlines Part 2
So having found out that emotions play a critical part in how we react to headlines it is important to get into more detail so that we can learn how to create those winning headlines. No guess then that we have to get into the psychology of the written world and how the mad men of advertising use psychology.
Chip and Dan Heath, wrote a great book called Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, and in it they explain what makes content sticky.
They found that breaking people’s patterns of thought captures attention, but it works in two parts: first of all surprise which gets our attention and then interest keeps our attention.
So headlines that create surprise stand out because our brains love novelty. The brain quickly tunes into unpredictable pleasant things, compared to expected pleasant events.
Now another piece of research comes from Daneil Kahneman who wrote the excellent book Thinking Fast and Slow. In the book we learn that the brain has two ‘ways’ of working a quick responsive way and a slower way. The slower way is triggered by questions for example. Questions make us curious if asked in the right way. If something appears to hard though we will skip it. But if it is easy to think about/answer we will react to it. So the best questions are those that we can easily relate to or would like to see answered.
Upworthy’s success can also be attributed to the psychological phenomenon called the information gap or curiosity gap. Professor George Loewenstein coined this term to describe the gap between what we know and what we want to know. If we realise there is a gap in our knowledge, it produces a feeling of deprivation, so look for the missing information so we can stop feeling deprived. However, we are not curious about something we know absolutely nothing about.
The last point is that we naturally seek structure. We are more at home when things are familiar and likewise when things are unfamiliar we look for structures to help us – signs, maps, lists, guides and of course how to’s. The Moon tech headline study found that the viral spread of a post titled “The beginners guide to Android SDK.” Outperformed the original title “How to use Android SDK”. The point is that it not only indicated structure but specifically target who it was for.
The Science Behind Headlines Part 3
Conductor researched what made headlines effective.
They tested five different tyes of headlines:
- Normal – example: Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful
- Question – example: What are Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful?
- How to – example: How to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful
- Number – example: 30 Ways To Make Drinking Tea More Delightful
- Reader – example: Addressing (Ways You Need to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful
The results from the different content marketing headlines
In a study of 65,000 titles, Outbrain compared positive superlative headlines, negative superlatives headlines and no superlative headlines.
One reason for this goes back to our previous point that negatives are pique our curiosity because they’re unexpected and surprise us. Also words like “stop,” “avoid,” and “don’t” often work because they hit an alert in us, it is a basic crowd function to alert others about possible danger, and so everyone wants to find out if there’s something they’re doing that they should stop.
Moon’s study of 100 tech blogs, also found that aggressive or violent-sounding words like kill, dead and fear actually encouraged more social shares.
Tips On Creating Great Headlines
OK we have hit upon a lot of research which is great but we need to apply, make it actionable and useful
So here are the top tips from the research so that you can make some great content marketing headlines:
- Spend time on the headline – be creative jot down different headline titles critique them, invite others to help and then choose the best.
- Choose emotions that match your audience? – even corporate blog posts can use emotion, why? – well your readers are human for one thing and chances are others aren’t using it very well. However, put the emotion that you want to arouse in context to the content and audience.
- Make your audience think but not too hard – make then curious or ask a question e.g. why CEO’s never lose any of their nine lives
- Structure – provide lists and structures in a blog as well in headlines works. People like to be guided through content – use How to’s for example
- Make titles obvious – avoid the flowery words and make it easy to understand. KISS, Keep It Simple Stupid, is another acronym used for this, in other words check that it accurately reflects the content, isn’t misleading and people ‘get it’ quickly.
- Use keyword phrases in your titles – this is important for SEO. Although you need to write for humans you also need to make sure it matches the keywords that people use when searching.
- Answer WIIFM (What’s in it for me) – this follows on the last point. Make sure you match what people are looking for not just what you want to write about, preferably you do both.
- Check out competitors titles – review competitors and/or other popular sites. Jonah Berger in his early days used to read the Wall Street Journal.
- Measure which titles perform best – Any good scientist tests their ideas. They conduct experiments, measure them until they get the best results. So produce, rinse and repeat. Use Google analytics or other tools to measure the performance of your content and what does well and why. If you are using any any promotional mechanics e.g. promoting a post through Facebook take that into account.
- Headline length – Readers absorb the first three words and the last three words of a headline. These numbers come from usability research via KISSmetrics. The ideal length for Google is 55 characters to appear in the search result.
It is well worth reading some of the books mentioned in this post to help not only with content marketing headlines but also to get a better understanding behind the what makes content go viral.