It has been a long-standing belief of mine that writers need to create headlines that sell, in order to persuade people to click. 

A descriptive headline isn’t good enough, despite what the SEO Class Of 2006 might tell you, and neither is a clever pun, which will no doubt horrify traditional sports journalists all over the world.

Adding a punchy or emotive word to a headline is absolutely vital to enticing that all-important click, and it can really help encourage sharing.

This is where adjectives and verbs come into play.

Some history

Advertising legend David Ogilvy was of the opinion that a headline was the single most critical element in ad copy.

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.

Another ad man, Leo Burnett believed that verbs are more powerful than adjectives, though he wasn’t comparing apples with apples when comparing ad copy and the speeches delivered by the greatest Englishman in history. Nevertheless, the truth is that both have their place, and both are effective. If you’re a fan of verbs then Burnett has more than 100 that are worth bookmarking.

While both of these advertising gurus were referring to ads, they could just as well have been talking about headlines for other forms of content. For example, blog posts.

So what works? Which words help to make posts stand out from the crowd? I thought I’d analyse Econsultancy’s top posts over the past few years to try to find out.

The sample

I set an arbitrary date range of four years, during which time we’ve amassed more than 22m page impressions on this blog.

powerful adjectives

I then looked at the top 100 articles to find the most common verbs and adjectives used. These articles accounted for about 10% of total impressions, so they’ve vastly outperformed.

So here are 28 words that we’ve used (multiple times) to convey emotion in our headlines. You can be sure that these words played a part in the success of these posts.

  • beautiful
  • best
  • brilliant
  • epic
  • essential
  • excellent
  • fails
  • fantastic
  • free
  • gorgeous
  • great
  • horrific
  • horrifying
  • important
  • inspire
  • kickass
  • killer
  • know
  • lousy
  • mindblowing
  • most
  • persuasive
  • simple
  • success
  • ultimate
  • useful
  • valuable

What kind of posts work?

I also found it interesting to explore the types of posts that work best.

Econsultancy’s readers love to have their questions answered, and to have light shed on a subject, so it comes as no surprise that posts containing query words such as ‘how’, ‘why’ or ‘what’ appear frequently in our top 100 posts.

Many headlines use words to describe the contents of an article, and I think this helps to set expectations. If the post delivers on the headline’s promise then readers are likely share and recommend it to their networks.

Here are 16 words that we commonly use within our top-performing headlines as labels for the type of post. I don’t think you need to use words like this, but they can definitely help.

  • approaches
  • benefits
  • case studies
  • checklist
  • examples
  • guidelines
  • help
  • KPIs
  • learn
  • measure
  • presentations
  • reasons
  • statistics
  • things
  • trends
  • ways

What else?

I created a list of 34 blog post templates that our writers refer to if they’re in need of inspiration. Take a look at them if you’re stuck for something to write about.

Econsultancy deputy editor David Moth recently outlined 10 tips for optimising headlines. One of those tips is my 65-character rule for headlines, which is largely about leaving enough space for sharers to add a comment in a tweet (which makes the retweet much more powerful).

Finally, if you’re fairly new to writing for the web then check out my 23 guidelines, which will hopefully steer you in the right direction.

Content Strategy: Best Practice Guide (subscribers only)