The Horrible Truth About Headlines

headlinesA piece written in the Chicago Tribune detailed a fun little prank played by a satirical news site called the Science Post. They put a story up on their site with the headline “Study: 70% of Facebook Users Only Read the Headline of Science Stories Before Commenting.”

Almost 46,000 people shared the post and here’s what’s interesting about that:

Below the headline was a brief introductory paragraph followed by over 1,700 words of meaningless “Lorem Ipsum” text. Maybe some of those 46, 000 shares came from readers perpetuating the joke, but you can bet that more than a few people shared the piece in earnest without reading past the first few sentences.

This past year Columbia University conducted a study that revealed that 59% of links shared on Twitter had been re-tweeted without the reader having even clicked to open them.

That should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the nature of content marketing.

Copyblogger says that on average 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest.

So what’s the takeaway? This piece isn’t about how important it is to write a good headline or the ins and outs of headline psychology. That’s been done already by people who have applied a ton of time, effort and analysis.

Instead, let’s take a look at the bigger picture. From a branding perspective, to the 80% of the people who will see your headline without clicking through to read the content the words in the title serve as a clear measure of your message.

If you go back and look at the headlines for pieces you have published, what do those headlines say about your brand? What do they say about your message and your tone? Are they fun and playful? Are they smart and authoritative? Edgy and controversial? There is no right answer, but be aware that the tone they carry is the tone that readers will associate with you.

In addition, the content of your headline can go a long way in establishing (or harming) your brand. Take one of your headlines and paste it in a Google search box. Do a lot of very similarly titled articles appear? Would your headline just blend in with all of the noise rendering it invisible? 

The headlines you use can also help you to determine the type of content you should be creating.

Using this concept you can build a mini-strategy for a handful of content pieces. Consider the stages of your buyer’s journey:

  • Awareness – the prospect realizes they have a problem that needs a solution.
  • Consideration – the prospect is searching for solutions to their problem(s).
  • Decision – the prospect makes a purchase and hopefully they choose your solution.

Now write 3 headlines that your buyer’s persona would identify with at each stage of the journey. Write some great content for each of those headlines and you now have a solid handful of pieces designed to guide the buyer through your funnel. Rinse and repeat and you will find yourself with a robust collection of content that can capture and convert new visitors in various stages of their buyer’s journey.

It’s nearly impossible to know who will click on your content based on your headlines. One thing you can control is what those headlines say about you and your message.