By Daniel Burstein published May 25, 2014

How Headlines Can Help Your Online Content Find its Audience: 3 Tips

newspaper image-big announcementHere’s a quick quiz: Which of the following two headlines do you think would be more effective at drawing readers’ attention?

  1. Red Sox Gear Up for Spring
  2. Oh Yeah: Time for the Sox

I’ll share the correct answer in just a bit (Don’t just cheat and scroll down. Commit to a headline choice first.), but first, let me set up the underlying challenge this quiz relates to in content marketing terms.

No words are more important in your content marketing than your headlines:

  • Headlines entice your audience to read articles and posts on your website and blog.
  • They are what get shared on social media, through syndication, in your email newsletters, or in the related resources section of other articles.

To help you write better headlines, here are three lessons I’ve learned throughout my career, which has spanned both traditional marketing copy and editorial content creation.

Lesson No. 1: If you don’t know which headline will work best, ask your audience

I shared two headlines at the beginning of this blog post and asked you to guess which one performed the best. And the winner is: Oh Yeah: Time for the Sox.

This headline generated 117 percent more readers for its publication, The Boston Globe.

How does the Globe know this?

“We have producers A/B testing the headlines live,” says Peter Doucette, Vice President of Consumer Sales & Marketing for The Globe, in his Optimization Summit 2013 case study.

If you’re not familiar with A/B testing, also known as split testing, it’s the practice of randomly segmenting your audience and assigning each group a different treatment of a variable you want to test, such as a headline, a layout, a logo, etc.

While Doucette mostly discussed A/B testing of the marketing surrounding The Boston Globe‘s launch of a two-site strategy, he acknowledged that A/B testing has changed the company’s culture and has spread from its marketing department to its newsroom.

So using our previous example, half the audience sees Red Sox Gear Up for Spring and half sees Oh Yeah: Time for the Sox. By measuring the results, writers and editors could see that the second headline was more effective.

Unlike opinion-based research, A/B testing doesn’t rely on you asking potential audience members how they think they might act in a hypothetical situation. It shows how members of your audience actually act when they don’t know they’re being tested.

Lesson No. 2: Just because it works for Upworthy…

If you’re not familiar with Upworthy, the site is known for using link bait-y, curiosity-driven headlines to great effect — it’s the online content equivalent of the superlative-laden, teaser-driven television promos that entice you to watch the evening’s local news or a network’s slate of Thursday night programming (e.g., “You won’t believe what happens in the most shocking ‘Must-See-TV’ event ever!“).

Just like the Globe example above, Upworthy has relied on a significant amount of split testing to identify headlines that have the best potential to engage its readers. In fact, the company has practically built its successful business model on this test-and-tweak strategy.

But here’s the problem: Just because this tactic works for Upworthy and its tabloid-y brethren does not mean it will work for your unique audience — particularly if you are focused on B2B marketing. While Upworthy (a media property) does seem to have reach working in its favor, this type of benefit doesn’t necessarily drive readers closer to achieving a brand’s business goals. For a brand’s content marketing to be considered successful, it needs to build influence and ongoing engagement that, in turn, drive a desired action.

As Joe Pulizzi said in a recent CMI post, “A growing number of websites, including BuzzFeed and Upworthy, claim to have over 100 million unique visitors. Robert [Rose] and I agree that the key for content marketers isn’t building a ginormous, ho-hum audience, but rather the right, engaged audience that will help you grow your business.”

Consider this headline test we ran for a MarketingSherpa case study, using email subject lines:

(Control): How Blockbuster Express Grew Its Email List 300%

(Curiosity-driven treatment): If Alfred Hitchcock Wrote Emails, Could He Grow an Audience by 300%?

The curiosity-driven treatment generated 12.7 percent more opens than the control (a statistically significant difference, with a minimum level of confidence of 95 percent).

However, the curiosity-driven treatment also generated a 23.7 percent lower click-through rate (95 percent level of confidence).

Sure, we lured our audience into opening the email. But we didn’t get the right people to open the email.

And the ones who did open might have felt tricked — which is why we do not use curiosity-driven headlines for MarketingSherpa case studies. We may get more views, but we do not achieve our key marketing goals of increasing our influence and further engaging our target audience.

Lesson No. 3: Don’t serve the dessert as an appetizer

Despite the above, I wouldn’t say curiosity should never play a role in your content marketing.

Successful content marketing, like most marketing techniques, requires the audience to go on a journey with a business. This likely requires more than one step, and sometimes several. But if you give away all your information up front, few will stick around long enough to become deeply engaged in the story.

Let’s use the Star Wars trilogy of films as an analogy. What if, in the first few minutes of the first movie, George Lucas said, “So… the princess is his sister. And on top of it, the bad dude is actually his dad. Weird, huh?” I’m guessing we probably wouldn’t have followed the story long enough to end up with Jar Jar Binks Pez dispensers floating around in our utility drawers.

To make this idea more actionable for you, here’s another example: I was trying to optimize the headlines in a Chart of the Week newsletter email when I realized we were placing the chart itself right in the middle of the email, but we weren’t including the analysis behind the chart data. So when our subscribers opened the email, they’d see data, but no context to make it meaningful. In essence, we were giving them the dessert first, so by the time the main meal arrived, they had already paid the check and were ready to move on.

marketing research bar chart

We then A/B tested an email newsletter with the chart and one without. Without the chart, we achieved a 25 percent increase in click-through rate (at a 95 percent level of confidence).

Remember, no headline is an island. Factor in everything else that’s involved as well, from supporting images to where in the reader’s journey they encounter your content. Because no matter how wonderful the online content, if the headline isn’t right, it’s not going to achieve the readership it deserves.

Do you have additional tips for creating headlines that will attract a target audience? I’d love to see your suggestions in the comments below.

For more great ideas, insights, and examples for creating content that drives business success, read Epic Content Marketing, by Joe Pulizzi.

Cover image via Bigstock 

Author: Daniel Burstein

Daniel Burstein is Director of Editorial Content at MECLABS. Daniel oversees all editorial content coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the editorial direction for MECLABS – working with our team of reporters to dig for actionable information while serving as an advocate for the audience. Daniel is also a frequent speaker and moderator at live events and on webinars. Follow Daniel on Twitter.

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  • Justin Belmont

    Great article, Daniel! Without attention-grabbing headlines, the content won’t be read. At Prose Media, we always try to come up with engaging headlines, and this really helps with social media marketing as well, because it gives a quick way to attract readership. Here’s a post about headlines from our blog that we like to share with new bloggers:

  • Storewars News

    article! Found this very interesting: Unilever CEO Paul Polman Makes a Case for
    Sustainable and Equitable Growth. Read it here

  • Peter @

    Really good article Daniel. Titles are essential for the readers to sort the huge quantum of information. We all are so busy, that we cannot check every single email/article. We are becoming more and more picky. Even a bigger challenge for marketers to think their headlines over at least twice.

  • Nikko

    I think one can get away with a quirky, catchy title as long as the content serves the audience the same way. I’d make sure to use a similar tone all throughout the article to make sure that the audience doesn’t feel “tricked”. One cannot underestimate the effect of reader confidence, that’s why it’s important to generate quality content, as highlighted in this hubstaff blog –

  • Bruce Koren

    One thing to consider is that people don’t have time to read everything. When I write headlines and subheads, I’m doing two things. 1. Trying to tease or inform people enough to get them to read the copy. 2. Trying to tell the whole story with the headlines. I believe most people ONLY read the headlines. They are skimming the material. If they want more info, they can read the copy. But as copywriters, we might try to target the skimmers by telling the whole story in the headlines.