Are You Writing Intriguing Blog Headlines? 5 Ways to Mind the (Curiosity) Gap

Comedian Tig Notaro had a particularly rough few years. But as a comedian, the mantra that kept her upbeat during her battle with cancer wasn’t a Buddhist saying. It was a headline from The Onion. This headline:

Image via The Onion

Image via The Onion

There are many reasons why this headline is perfect: the imagery of a seagull flapping wildly in intestinal distress, the crowded beach of unsuspecting sunbathers, the desperation-then-release implied by the word “barely”…

For the most part, though, content marketers don’t have the satirical freedom with headlines that has propelled The Onion to fame. Content marketers have to optimize for targeted SEO keywords, after all, and there’s plenty of popular wisdom out there that says you should keep your headlines snappy and to-the-point.

Preeminent among the “shorter is better” camp is Jakob Nielsen. Nielsen, whom The New York Times described as “the guru of Web page usability,” found in his seminal 1997 report, “How Users Read on the Web,” that 79% of web readers scan web pages, while only 16% read word-for-word.

More recently, Nielsen aka “the usability pope” (Nielsens’s epithets go on and on) gave kudos to BBC News for writing the “World’s Best Headlines.” According to Nielsen, BBC New’s headlines were laudable for being: “short,” “rich in information scent,” “front-loaded with the most important keywords,” and “predictable,” allowing each headline conveys the gist of the story on its own, without requiring you to click.”

But you’re a content marketer. You want people to click, you want people to read, and you want people to share. So how can you use your headlines to do just that?

The art of headline writing is a balancing act – you want to intrigue your readers without revealing too much. For the content marketer who doesn’t think headline writing should be an exercise in dull proclamation, here are some tips and tidbits of data to help you mind the curiosity gap when writing your headlines.

More is Better (Up to a point…)

In our latest analytical foray, The Colossal Content Marketing Report, we studied 4,618 blogs, 1.2 million individual blog posts, and their combined nearly 2 billion social shares to find out what drives blog post engagement. We took a look at headline length and found that while 40-character titles were the most frequent, social shares peaked for posts with 60-character titles.

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 3.46.09 PM

Those added 20 characters offer an opportunity to fine-tune the specificity of your long-tail keywords. That said, don’t overdo it – blogs with titles beyond the 60-character length saw a sharp decline in social shares.

There’s power in intrigue

Researchers at the University of Athens conducted a study based on readers’ responses to newspaper headlines in the U.S. and U.K., and found that readers were not only drawn to headlines that were more intriguing than informative, they also responded that they were more likely to read the corresponding articles. The headlines in favor with readers left much to the imagination, such as “The Smell of Corruption, The Scent Of Truth” or “Face to Faith.” While those headlines don’t offer much in the way of search volume, they do pique your interest.

However, not all blogs have the luxury of being completely esoteric with their headlines. If you fall into this camp, try phrasing your headline as a question.

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 4.55.43 PM

We also analyzed the effectiveness of blog titles with question marks in our Content Marketing Report and found that while only 5.01% of headlines used a single question mark, those that did accounted for 46.30% of the social shares for the data set, nearly double that for titles without question marks.

Lists incentivize completion

List headlines are everywhere these days, and there is good reason for that from a marketing perspective. Lists give our brains the taxonomy they crave. They also specify a clear end point. There’s nothing our brains appreciate more than a reduction of the “paradox of choice,” or the sense that with more options comes more stress. A list with clearly enumerated points gives us both a means to an end (finishing the article), and the satisfaction of completion.

There are many articles out there that enumerate the power of lists, but for a closer look at the power of the paradox of choice in our behavior, take a look at psychologist Barry Schwartz’s Ted Talk on the subject:

Make it personal

While lists, longer descriptions and keywords, and inquisitive headlines can all entice a reader, there’s one thing we’re all innately interested in: ourselves. For our report, we also analyzed the most common narrative headline words, and “you” and “your” topped the list by leaps and bounds, accounting for 38% of narrative title words in our study.

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 5.17.14 PM

Using the 2nd person point-of-view’s “you” and “your” directly addresses the reader, making your topic that much more applicable to his or her daily life. A team of researchers from the BI Norwegian Business School found that, in addition to question headlines, headlines that referred to the reader also boasted higher click-rates than their declarative counterparts.

Roger Dooley highlighted this example on his blog: “One would expect, ‘Are Bosses All Jerks?’ to draw more clicks than the declarative version, ‘Bosses Can Be Jerks Sometimes’ but not as well as one that references the reader personally, ‘Is Your Boss a Jerk?'”

Writing blog titles is a “Dark Science” 

Irish Shoor and her company, Takipi also did and analysis of blog title effectiveness, and their results show that there is a “dark science” to naming a blog post. Shoor’s analysis found that blogs with titles with somewhat violent terms like kill, fear, dark, bleeding, and war correlated with more shares.

And Shoor wasn’t analyzing some macabre corner of the web – all of her research was centered around tech-related blogs. Here are a few examples:

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 3.06.38 PM

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 3.07.57 PM

Shoor also found that using the negative forms of words in headlines lead to more shares than their positive alternatives. For example, according to Shoor, “5 Things You Should Stop Doing” performs better than “5 Things You Should Start Doing,” and “The App You Can’t Live Without” outperforms “The App Which Will Improve Your Life.”

While sites like Upworthy have famously cashed in on the shareability of positive messaging, when it comes to headlines, we’re more intrigued by what’s left out.  Stephen King beautifully elucidated the power of the unseen in his nonfiction history of the horror genre, DANSE MACABRE:

“Nothing is so frightening as what’s behind the closed door. The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. ‘A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible’, the audience thinks, ‘but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall’.”

King’s point about the power of the unseen is tailored to horror tropes, but coupled with Shoor’s findings it’s a perfect reminder for content marketers to craft headlines that harness the power of audience anticipation.

Interested in more content marketing insights? Check out our Colossal Content Marketing Report here!

Kara Burney is the Content Marketing Maven at TrackMaven, the Competitive Intelligence platform for Digital Marketers. Have content marketing questions or topics you'd like covered on the TrackMaven blog? Tweet her your ideas! See more of Kara's posts