The D and two Cs (and another C) of crafting irresistible headlines

No post on headlines would be complete (so let’s just start with it) without the following quote by David Ogilvy: ‘When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar’.

Headlines compete for our attention everywhere we look online, from search engine results pages, to email subject lines, to Facebook statuses. Your opening gambit has to be stellar, if you want to stand out from the competition.

1)Social shares

2)Search engine result pages

3)Subject lines

4)Aggregation/feeder services like Feedly or Prismatic

A forest of headlines: does yours stand out?

But why? Why is the headline such a crucial element to get right? The answer is simple (but not without depth): a headline is the first thing that people will see. Until someone clicks through it, your headline is your content, representing it in its entirety.

D is for decision-point

Content marketing has a lot to do with decisions. The decisions you make as marketer, of course, but also the decisions you present to your customers.

For the customer, it’s decisions all the way down, from headline to CTA. Sometimes, when a searcher has a very clear idea of what they want, a decision in your favour means a sale or a new client. Sometimes, particularly in the softer-sell arena of content marketing, many, many decisions will have to go your way before sale is made.

A client might subscribe to your mailing list, access your free webinars, join a hangout, all before actually purchasing goods or services from you. Every decision point must be carefully managed and presented at the right time - i.e. someone who is just finding your business might not be the best candidate for technical in-depth webinars, hence the need to appropriately tailor your content to the customer or client’s stage in the lifecycle.

Headlines have a privileged position in content marketing because they are the decision-point upon which all other decision points hinge. If your headline isn't persuasive, then the rest of your efforts - finely-tuned primary and secondary CTAs, carefully designed layout - will be moot, the marketing equivalent of a tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear it.

C is for Click-Through-Rate

CTR is simply the number of people both view and click and your headline as percentage of the number of people who view your headline as a whole.

Many, many factors will influence this measurement. Some of these will be controllable or influenceable by you. To name just a few:
  1. Platform: The CTR on Facebook marketing is generally lower than the CTR on Linkedin.
  2. SEO: Your position on the search engine results page - vastly more people click the first entry, or one of the first three, than any of the others.
  3. Time of day: Early mornings are best for clicks; evenings are best for retweets and favourites - though you are, of course, promoting and re-promoting your stuff.

Whenever you promote something, be it through social, or a google adwords campaign, you should be tracking CTR (and other metrics of engagement: mentions, retweets, likes, recommends, etc.). Set up your blog or website to work with Google analytics and webmaster tools - the latter is particularly useful for tracking which pages, including individual blog posts, are performing the best in rankings. 

For example, you might discover a blog post which has excellent CTR but a low ranking, suggesting you have written an effective headline but your keyword optimization and link-building need work. Conversely, a link to your content might rank very high but the CTR is poor, suggesting your SEO is paying off but your headline/title is just not resonating with searchers.

But can the phrasing of a headline, in whatever channel it appears, search or social, affect CTR? An analysis of 3.3 million paid link headlines by outbrain and hubspot last year, discovered some uncomfortable truths about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to headlines and CTR.

C is for CTR killers

The use of superlatives or negative words or specific genres of headline, like the question headline (Do question headlines still work?), to the eternal "how to" headline (how-to avoid decreasing your CTR with how-to headlines), can significantly affect CTR.

In fact the phrase “how to” can decrease the CTR of your headline by an average of 49 percent.

Words that create a sense of urgency - need (-44%), now (-12%) - and modifiers and superlatives - easy (-44%), free (-41%), best (positive superlatives -14%) - can also be detrimental to your CTR.

But what can give you a boost? A solid increase - an average of 38% - can be gained through the use of bracketed qualifications in your headlines,  like [video] or [infographic]. Clarity is the ultimate clickbait: bracketed qualifications serve to further define what someone can expect from clicking your headline. The word “photo” averages a 37% increase, while the word “who” increases it by 22%.

Character length is also crucial for CTR, not least because titles are truncated by google and past a certain width in pixels - desktop: 428px, mobile and tablet: 550px - they will fail to display completely in google’s rich snippets). The data suggests that titles with between 81-100 characters do best for CTR, but titles between 21-40 characters are best for conversion rate.

With content marketing, it pays to bare in mind where and in what form elements will ultimately appear.

C is for Clichés

The how-to headline is an example of how overuse can affect everyone's CTR. The fresh tactics of yesteryear - click-baity headlines jammed with superlatives like “best”, “always” and “easy” - are the interest-deadening clichés of the present. The same fate may await the bracketed qualification as has befallen the question headline and the how-to headline.

Again this is why tracking CTR along with everything else is so important. The marketers best positioned to avoid the negative impact of faltering trends will be those who are closely tracking the CTR, conversion and social engagement of their content.


Your content marketing is a joke. And how is a good joke structured? Set-up then punchline. Your headlines are the set-ups. Your CTAs are the punchlines. Set-ups and punchlines that are unrelated make for bad jokes: no one laughs, no one wants to hear more. Similarly, headlines and CTAs that are unrelated make for bad content marketing.

It pays, quite literally, to try and mimic the phrasing of the headline in your CTA.

“Curiosity” headlines are always at risk of being misunderstood. These headlines risk deceiving the visitor as to the nature of what follows from the title; the headline veils the content in (hopefully intriguing) mystery. This can work just fine if traffic is the goal - this is the headline style upon which upworthy founded its success (though it may be moving away from this) - but isn't so great if you are trying to elicit a particular action from a visitor.

Take an holistic view of your content marketing, every element, every decision point should be part of a coherent whole. When you write headlines, think about the offer that you will be pairing with it.

There is no gospel...

These discoveries are not to be adopted, as Outbrain and Hubspot suggest in the conclusion of their research, as inviolable content creation rules. You needn't go back and rewrite every single one of your headlines to better match these findings. Despite the negative impact, 'how-to' headlines are going nowhere because the phrase remains a supremely natural way of framing a search query. In fact, the diminished CTR of the term is down to its popularity, as whole sites have sprung up trying to dominate every possible permutation of the phrase, thus filling serps with content that is often on the lower end of the effort and quality scale.
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