Are You Using These 11 Insights Into Wondtacular Headlines That Most Online Marketers Don't Know?

Who could have predicted that the 320-year-old art of writing newspaper headlines – a journalistic craft that gave us such classics as the Tulsa World’s "Federal Agents Raid Gun Shop, Find Weapons" and the New York Post’s "Headless Body in Topless Bar" – would become so vital to your company’s success on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Google and even in email marketing?

Popular News Headlines

Consider the role that a headline played in the story of Zach Sobiech’s viral phenomenon Clouds, which began as a folk-rock song recorded in Minneapolis by a man with less than a year to live. A music video about the 17-year-old with bone cancer was posted online last December. Then an inspiring video documentary, "My Last Days: Meet Zach Sobiech," was created. After Sobiech passed away on May 20, 2013, the content-aggregating site distributed that 22-minute documentary with the headline: “This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular.” The results were – well, wonderfully spectacular: 15 million views for the documentary (with 760,000 shares and 1.2 million Facebook likes) as Zach’s song soared to #1 on the iTunes store, generating more than $300,000 for the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund.

This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular.

So what’s with that headline? Upworthy’s co-founder Peter Koechley told BusinessWeek that their staff tested no fewer than 79 alternative headlines. But the “wondtacular” title was irresistible, because your eye is drawn to a word you’ve never experienced before. “We determined that, had Adam (Mordecai, an Upworthy staffer) not optimized that headline, that post would have gotten maybe 1 million views – not 15 million,” concluded Koechley.

How many marketing directors want to choose the perfect headline that would increase views, shares and links to their brand’s content by a factor of 1500 percent? Creating that engaging headline is critical given that every day consumers post 58 million tweets a day, share 2 million blog posts and view more than 4 billion videos on YouTube – not to mention the one million links shared on Facebook every 20 minutes. Could powerful headlines for your marketing content be the secret weapon to exploding through all of the online clutter?

Dan Zarella Inbound13 Book Cover The challenge for marketers is: some headlines are more effective if you want to get found in Google searches, others if you want to increase click-throughs, comments and social sharing on Facebook, and still others if you want to turbo-charge lead conversions, lower bounce rates and influence traffic to your website with more links. The headline you choose depends upon your objectives as a marketer. For example Hubspot’s Dan Zarrella – author of the fantastic new The Science of Marketing book, pictured at right, and recent speaker at #Inbound13 – found among the words used in the most viewed blog posts are: “insights,” “analysis,” and “answers.” But if you want links rather than views, the most linked-to words were in headlines featuring “recent,” “insights” and “soon.”

So now that you’re working in a world where Upworthy says online traffic can vary by 500 percent or more depending upon the power of your headline – what best practices should marketers follow when creating a title for their content?

1. Keep Headlines Shorter...Or Not

Online content that’s promoted by headlines of no more than eight words had a 21 percent higher click-through rate than average, according to research into 150,000 headlines that was performed by Outbrain in 2011. However in mid-August 2013, Outbrain concluded that click-through rates are now highest with headlines that are as long as 16-18 words, or approximately 60-100 characters. You’ll find a broad consensus encouraging marketers to avoid headlines that are either too short or too long, with click-through rates rising in an upside-down bell curve that reinforces medium-length titles.

2. Avoid Ambiguity

Headlines that had specific tips in them (e.g. “19 Explosive Secrets Lindsay Lohan Doesn’t Want You to Know”) resonated with readers 15 percent more than headlines that provided a reader benefit (e.g. “What You Can Learn From Lindsay Lohan’s Life”), according to surveys performed by SEO consultants Conductor. The overall takeaway for best practices: banish ambiguity in your title and make your headline explicit and specific, says Conductor.

3. Use Numbers

Corporate bloggers would be wise to use digits in blog titles (“10 Ways To . . . ”) rather than use words for numerals, as the Associated Press far prefers (“Ten Ways To...”), says Takipi, which evaluated the top 100 blogs online to figure out the most effective (e.g. the most shared) headlines.

4. Make That An Odd Number

Headlines that contain the asymmetry of odd numbers (ie. “Five Mistakes You’re Making With Your Blog”), enjoyed a 20 percent greater click-through rate compared to headlines with even numbers (“4 Reasons You Should Be Ashamed of YouTube Videos”), says Outbrain.

Use Active Words5. Get Active

Dan Zarrella’s research – analyzing 200,000 link-containing tweets – found that click-through rates improve when marketers use verbs and adverbs (e.g. action words) rather than nouns and adjectives. So the blog post “9 Ways to Quickly Barbecue Your Chicken” may out-pull “10 Delicious and Tasty Chicken Recipes.”

6. You Have a Question?

Are question marks in your headline? Well, are they? Question marks generate more click-throughs than if you used a period in the identical title, says Outbrain.

7. Relevance and Keywords on YouTube

YouTube can seem to be a vast wasteland of unseen videos titled on the order of “Frontenac Technologies Announces New Product Introduction” – a headline that no one but the CEO’s spouse and PR director would search for. That same video, re-titled to focus on keywords and viewer benefits, will be more easily found and reward you with more views and inbound traffic to your website. The Maccabee agency’s basic rule for optimizing content: never start the title for a YouTube video with your company name. Though your company might benefit from the SEO juice of using its name in the YouTube title, we believe that if YouTube users are searching for your company name, they'd be on your website. Instead, begin a headline for your YouTube video with the keywords your customers are searching for and which your competitors are using to drive traffic to their video clips.

Iris Shoor Taikipi8. Bigger Is Better

Among the best headlines for HubSpot blog posts I’ve recently seen: “55 Free Templates To Make Visual Content Creation Quick & Painless” and “39 Fantastic Inbound Marketing Blogs You Ought To Be Reading.” Online viewers respond to abundance: A blog titled “45 Ways To...” will likely be more viral than “5 Ways To,” insists Iris Shoor, pictured at right, of cloud computing company Takipi.

9. Accentuate The Negative

“Using the negative form of a noun or a verb is much more powerful than the ordinary one” in headlines, adds Takipi’s Shoor, suggesting that the words “Without,” Stop” and “No” in titles actually encourage shares. In other words, the post “5 Things You Should Stop Doing on Facebook” while be more effective than “Five Things You Should Start Doing on Facebook.” Or consider this example from a recent HubSpot blog post: “30 Terrible Pieces of Social Media Advice You Should Ignore.” HubSpot’s Zarrella is nuanced about how marketers should use negative sentiment in headlines. “Although positivity does perform better than negativity, negativity works better than neutrality,” says Zarella. “Neutrality is boring, and boring is death on Facebook.” Online, as in life, don’t be a bore.

10. Pay Attention To Word Forms

The word “photo”? It’s among the most linked to words on the Web for search (e.g. based on the number of incoming links that were pointing to the word), says Zarrella, because everyone online wants to engage with photo-rich posts. But the long form of the same word – photography? It’s among the least linked to words, because only photography geeks want to learn about f-stops, shutter speeds and lens lust. Not only must your words be chosen carefully, the form of the word you’re using should be selected with care.

11. Avoid Jargon, Use Platform-Specific Terms

Among the words in headlines that reduce performance and social shares, according to Iris Shoor, are “Announcing”, “Celebrates” and “Win” (as in the headline, “Our Company is Proud to Announce and Celebrate The Win of New Clients and Awards That You Couldn’t Possibly Care About”). On the other hand, words in headlines that do increase shares include “surprising” and “critical.” Keep in mind that the impact of headline words can be affected by which online channel you’re titling for – Shoor says the most shared blog posts have headlines with words like “Twitter” and “Google” in them; while Zarella notes that on Facebook, headlines with the words like “Google” and “Twitter” actually reduce the shareability of posts. The reason? Facebook is not where people go to learn about tech topics. “If Facebook users wanted to read about Twitter,” concludes Zarrella, “they’d be on Twitter.” So can you guess what word in headlines of Facebook posts are most often shared via Facebook? You got it – Facebook posts that are titled with the word...Facebook!

Does all this advice work in the real world? Consider this – among the MaccaPR’s most popular posts have been "7 Marketing Secrets from Houdini & the Greatest Magicians Who Ever Lived" (there's that odd number) and "Kmart's "Ship My Pants" Ad: Viral Genius or Epic Brand Fail?" (there's the question mark!).

Image Sources: Meemes / The Guardian / Upworthy

About the Author

Paul Maccabee

Paul Maccabee is president at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.

Topics:  Content Marketing

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