There was a part of me that used to think that people cared deeply about how good a piece of content looked, how it was written and what it had to say. I’m sure some people still do care about these things, but let’s not kid ourselves that they are a majority. 

My experience at various publishers is that, increasingly, people are looking less at what is contained within a piece of content and reacting more to the limited information that is shown around it. 

There are at least five reasons for this: 

  1. People don’t generally read webpages and never have done. They scan and react accordingly. This behaviour has likely increased recently due to point 2. 
  2. There’s too much stuff. No one has time to read and engage with it all.  
  3. Social media designs engender responses before deep understanding. For example, retweeting before reading.
  4. Infographics got overdone and became less exciting (generally speaking). 
  5. Mobile makes everything look similar, and rich multimedia less usable.

Disclaimer: Before I get comments like, ‘But that’s not true for video!!!’ I’m largely talking about non-moving image formats like articles and infographics. Video headlines and lead-ins are still important (very much so on YouTube), but a monkey video is rather different to an article about monkeys.  

What do people see before they click through to a piece of content? On Facebook, you might get a bit of lead-in text, an image and the headline. On a publisher’s website, you might get an image and the headline, but most often just the headline. On Google you will probably get a headline and a text snippet which is likely to be the meta description.


Presentation of a clickable area on The Telegraph and Google - both have the headline present.  

The consistent feature for these different platforms is that the headline will always be shown. You do not have content without the headline being displayed elsewhere. People will only click on the headline if they have a high level of interest and will probably only share it if it gives them a high level of emotional response combined, perhaps, with supporting context from the content itself. 

On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.

That was written in Confessions of an Advertising Man, published in 1967. I’d argue that in a world of scanning and too much stuff, headlines are even more valuable than that. In short, to stand out, your headlines need to be really, really strong. 

quote about headlines

An excellent quote - accompanied by two very useful books for headlines - from my Search Leeds presentation. 

Headlines aren’t given the attention they deserve

But I’ll get to my great lament. Most headlines on company blogs and articles are not really, really strong. Often they are weak and occasionally really, really bad. I’ve also noticed that more companies are abandoning pursuing a regular article feed lately, probably because they didn’t perform very well – and that’s probably because the headlines were weak or worse. Many company blogs are indeed ghost towns of bad headlines. It doesn’t have to be this way. 

We might spend hours crafting a 500+ word article with its associated imagery and links but spend only two minutes giving thought to the headline. When headlines are now worth more than the 80% that they were in the 1960s, this is a terrible waste. The article will get published, we’ll post it to social media, and it will get little response. And we’ll move onto the next one. Meh, didn’t work again. This must stop! 

But what do we need to do?

Eliminating things that never work in headlines

Writing good headlines should have nothing to do with clickbait, which promises more than it delivers. Good headlining means getting people to read your things in a huge ocean of information. It doesn’t mean being disingenuous. 

I have analysed thousands of headlines and found the golden rule of Jakob Nielsen always held true for the most successful headlines: 

Headline text has to stand on its own and make sense when the rest of the content is not available

If it doesn’t make sense, then people won’t understand it, and they won’t click it. This means on social media, search engines, your own site or any other platform where users could come across your content – essentially anywhere on the web. 

Getting things to make sense is best served through clarity and the stripping away of any ambiguity. Do I read your headline and instantly feel that I know what I will be getting from the article? If yes, I may well click, and read on. If not, you have made me think outside my impulses, and I may go somewhere else. 

In the following headlines (which I discovered when writing Econsultancy's Fashion Ecommerce and Content Marketing report a couple of years back). Unfortunately, I haven’t got much of a clue what the writer is talking about:


Too vague or bafflingly ambiguous. The sort of thing you can get away in print with a large swathe of supporting contextual information. No so online. Be clear, e.g. "10 of the best transitional jackets to transform your Autumnal look."

Prefixes are usually your enemy

Prefixes are nearly always confusing and create ambiguity. Sometimes they can add impetus and helpfully front load keywords, but in my experience they generally cause more harm than good.

Firstly, the front loading of keywords can become habitually overdone, and actually less clear than writing the headline out properly. They can look particularly confusing when shared on social media. Worse, they are normally written in as part of a ‘series’ of content (which few, if any, online readers will follow). This sort of sentiment prevails: “We’re creating a new series of articles about ‘Behind the brand’ so on every article needs to be prefixed with Behind the Brand: My reply to this would always be, “No. No. No.” 

One of the prefixes’ main problems is that they add needless and often meaningless words, which adds complexity. Headlines using them are statistically likely to perform lower. 

Take for instance:

Celebrity style steal: Suki Waterhouse

Which is okay – it’s not completely ambiguous. But the prefix ‘Celebrity style steal’ does little but create ambiguity. What exactly is this article telling me? It would be better served by the far more active: 

10 style steals from Suki Waterhouse’s wardrobe

‘Steal’ is potentially a tricky word here, so we may prefer something more specific like this:

How to get Suki Waterhouse’s best monochrome looks

Simpler. Flatter maybe? Why not write out ten different ways you could present this article before publishing it? You may as well spend that time, given its 80% more important than the other time writing your article.

Do this and win more

Losing ambiguity must be the number one goal. There are three rules to follow with rigidity to ensure that it is eliminated:

  1. Omit needless words
  2. Remove complexity where there is a possible clearer expression
  3. The headline must stand on its own, making sense when the rest of the content is not available

These are not my opinions. They are based upon clear guidelines in books like Confessions of an Advertising Man, The Elements of Style and Tested Advertising Methods. I have taken what they had to say and observed their successes many times over. They work. 

Adding things that often improve headlines

We’ve moved through needless words and complexity, but then there are those words you can add which add clarity, momentum and the desire to want to click. What are they? How can we do this at the same time as avoiding disingenuous clickbait?

Time and time again, adverbs win online. You are statistically going to win with headlines that state who, what, where, when, how than you would with headlines that don’t include them. Why? Because they add clarity. Because they make headlines make sense when the rest of the content is not available. As stated, these are winning factors.

Having waded through multiple statistical analyses of headlines, it is quite clear that the adverbs how and why make headlines perform well. More people click them, more people read the articles, and more people are going to move onto a further action, like share or register for email.

Who, what and when are baser adverbs. They still work, they just do not perform as well as how and why. 

Let’s compare these possible headlines:

Why an open economy is good for Britain


An open economy is good for Britain

These could easily be the same article, but the second headline is simply a flat statement. I read it and either nod in agreement or disagree. I do not feel nearly as curious and compelled to click as on the first one. Interestingly, you could switch ‘why’ with ‘how’ for a similar effect. 



There are, of course, many more adjectives than there are adverbs, so saying which adjectives generally work best is a little unspecific – it really depends on the subject matter. This could easily run into another long article and I would recommend performing a specific analysis according to your vertical. However, at a very general level, there are some notably consistent performers:

Best, good, great(est), best, big(gest), ultimate, new 

Defining generations in a positive way can also work well: young (exciting and prodigal) and old (when highlighting a sense of mastery). E.g: 

England’s young centre backs are learning well from the old masters

It’s worth taking some advice from John Caples' Tested Advertising Methods on this (see a summary at The 35 Headline Formulas of John Caples).

TL;DR – what’s the summary? 

A long article, but a topic that needs more discussion. If you didn’t read it all, then here are some key points:

  • Headlines are incredibly important – they demand writers spend more time on them, so they can better attract audience attention 
  • The headline must stand on its own, making sense when the rest of the content is not available
  • Avoid prefixes – they create complexity
  • Omit needless words and ambiguity – do not make the reader think about potential double meanings
  • Create more intrigue through using clear adverbs that support proper nouns
  • Read: Confessions of an Advertising Man, The Elements of Style and Tested Advertising Methods. They are excellent books for this topic – particularly the latter if you can get a copy, it’s out of print :(

Now you’re armed with more information on crafting better headlines, it’s time to think about the winning formula for the article copy. I’ll summarise: 

  • Does your article fulfil the reader’s desire for information? 
  • Does it make them feel as if you are an authority?
  • Is it error free typo, grammar and web formatting wise? 

Simply answering those questions will take you a long way. But more on how to write better long form articles is a whole other article. 

James Carson

Published 13 March, 2018 by James Carson

James Carson is a content strategy consultancy based in London and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.

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Comments (1)


Ralph du Plessis, Founder at Red Mud Media Ltd.

This is a must-read for anyone responsible for writing company blogs and content marketing pieces.

7 days ago

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