An often overlooked but critical part of content marketing is the headline. The best content with a boring headline that does a poor job of giving the reader a reason to click has failed.
Studies have shown that up to 80 percent of readers never make it past the headline, making it at least as important as the content itself. Given the importance of headlines to content marketing success, we did a study at Conductor (disclaimer: I am the director of research at Conductor) that examined how distinct headline types resonate with readers.
Our findings showed that number headlines (e.g., "30 Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful") resonated most, followed by reader addressing (e.g., "Ways You Need to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful"). More on what we think that means in a bit.
Are Readers Developing Headline Fatigue?
The research shows what savvy content marketers already know: that readers have definite preferences when it comes to the headlines they click. In fact, sophisticated marketers test multiple headline versions prior to publishing to discover the one that performs best.
Deeper insight into reader headline preferences is a good thing for marketers – it means they can discover what works and what doesn't and that knowledge can be leveraged to drive clicks. But, there may also be a downside to knowing that number headlines and superlatives induce the greatest click.
How many "Amazing," "You Won't Believe!," and "6 Ways..." articles can readers tolerate before they reach headline fatigue? Are we, as content creators, in danger of immunizing readers to strong headlines because of how frequently we use them? Or, worse yet, are we in danger of alienating them entirely because of how frequently strong headlines have not delivered on their promise?
If a recent satire website launched by The Onion is any indicator, we may already be at that point. ClickHole is a...well, I'll just let them tell you in their own words what they are:
What Is ClickHole?
ClickHole is the latest and greatest online social experience filled with the most clickable, irresistibly shareable content anywhere on the Internet.
Their tongue-in-cheek self-description is a humorous shot at the sensational content that many publishers crank out in the hopes of becoming the next viral sensation on line. Their site features headlines like:
- Which One of Jonah Hill's Hands Are You?
- Find Out What Buzz Aldrin, Mark Wahlberg, and Marissa Mayer Have to Say
- 7 Gorgeous Libraries Where You Can't Be Naked No Matter What
While humorous, the site – and its rising popularity – may be a leading indicator of an underlying fatigue that readers already have for formulaic headlines and those that make promises but don't deliver. This may mean that content creators and marketers need be aware of shifting reader tolerance for headlines.
Where Does That Leave Content Creators?
If readers are developing headline fatigue but content creators continue to be chartered with driving traffic, where does that leave marketers when it comes to how to approach headlines?
Our hypothesis at Conductor when it came to why the headline types in our study resonated the way they did was that given the millions and millions of blog posts, emails, video, and social content created on the Internet each day vying for our audiences attention, readers are increasingly discerning about the headlines they click on.
The pattern the study exposed, is the clearer the headline was about what the reader will get from the article, the likelier the reader was to click on it. "30 Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful" is the most explicit of all headline types as to exactly what the reader will get from the article, and as a result, it is the most preferred.
Given what the research tells us about headline preferences and what leading indicators like Clickhole say about reader tolerance of headline, we think there are several key takeaways for marketers.
1. Headline Clarity Is Here to Stay
The volume of content vying for your audience's attention will only continue to increase so the clearer you can be about what your continue will deliver to the reader, the better the chance it will be "clicked."
2. Deliver on Your Headline Promises or Risk Losing Your Audience
The natural inclination of headline writers is to continuously tack to the sensational to induce click. This can be a slippery slope. Recently, a well-known industry personality wrote an article with a strong headline on which the article did not deliver. Readers skewered him in the comments for the misleading headline and he clearly suffered damage to his credibility. When it comes to headlines, go strong but no stronger.
3. 4 Ways to Balance Your Headlines
Although the research showed a preference for number headlines, you don't want to overwhelm your readers with listicles (or any other headline type). Be sure to strike a balance with the headline types you use.
4. Content Is a Long Play
True content marketing is about building a relationship with your audience and we must carry that trust and relationship with the respect it deserves. Avoiding the temptation to carry a headline too far will be easier if you keep in mind that content is a long play.
Tell us in the comments if you see other trends around headlines or if your headline strategy differs from the above.