Study: Are You Optimizing Headlines Properly?

HeadlinesIf you’ve been a writer for more than a few minutes, you have undoubtedly heard dozens of people’s opinions about what makes a GREAT headline.  We all know that headlines can help to drive traffic, or they can also drive people away, but the trick is to figure out how to write the attention grabbing headlines that works well for you.

Well, up until this point, most people who claimed to know how to write the perfect headline were relying on little more than their own anecdotal evidence.  I just read, however, about an academic study that was done at the BL Norwegian Business School in Oslo Norway (it’s a legit school, not one of those made up ‘universities’ that people have just to lend credibility).

The study looked at a variety of different types of headlines, and figured out which ones performed the best.  They ran the study on an auction site (similar to eBay) for one test, and on Twitter for another.  On the auction site they posted sales ads with the following headlines:

  • For Sale: Black iPhone 4 16GB
  • Anyone who needs a new iPhone 4?
  • Is this your new iPhone 4?
  • We all do agree that iPhone 4 is the best phone available?

Ignoring for the moment the obvious grammar issues (I am hoping/assuming that the problem is related to the fact that these ads were run in Norway), you can see that these four ads are all trying to sell an iPhone 4, but are displaying it differently.  The first one simply displays what is being sold, the second is a question without any self-referencing cues, the third is a question with a self-referencing cue, and the last is a rhetorical question headline.

The study found that option #3, the one that asks a question while referencing directly to the person reading it performs the best.  (You can see I used this in my headline for this post as well).  It consistently and significantly outperformed any of the other options, which is quite interesting.

The Twitter study looked at similar phrased headlines (with and without self-referencing cues) and found the same results.  Questions that include a reference to the reader (typically, “You”) perform better than other types of headlines.

The study acknowledges that there could be some cultural bias at play here.  For example, if the study were repeated in Japan, the results may be quite different.  While Norway is far from the United States, the culture is fairly similar, so I would expect similar results.  There is need for further study in this area, but at least this academic look at headlines gives writers (and marketers) a good baseline to go from.

You can see the rest of the study HERE.

What do you think about headlines?  How do you write them, and what seems to work the best for you?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

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  1. says

    I think including the word YOU or YOUR makes a big difference in how popular the headline is and how often people will click on it to see if they are included in the reference made with the wording. People like to be a part of something, so it’s only natural that they would click a headline that references them through the words YOU or YOUR. 🙂

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