An inside look at what makes a content headline compel people to click

Posted by Murray Sye

on Tue, Jun 16, 2015 @ 01:01 PM

Are you working hard to publish content on a regular basis?

Are you looking for ways to improve your CTR (click through rate) on your published content?

Your headline or title is often a reader's first interaction with your brand, so it's arguably the most critical component of your content marketing strategy. It's your first, and maybe only, chance to grab your target audience's attention.

Let's take a look at what kind of a headline works.  Your reader has complete control - they either choose to click and engage with your content or they don't. It's that simple. Interesting and relevant stories are important, but if your headline doesn't communicate value to the reader, nobody's going to see them. You can (and should!) always optimize and try again, but every dud headline costs you crucial opportunities to reach your audience.

The most important headline rule is: respect the reader experience. In this era of positive clickbait (eye-catching content whose main purpose is to attract attention), it's more important than ever to write a headline that delivers on its promise. When we say "clickbait", we mean eye-catching and attractive - not dishonest.  Always make sure that your headline is a true reflection of your content.  Don't "clickbait and switch"!  At the most basic level, you want the reader to have a good experience with your brand. when she clicks on a link, you've got to be sure she's getting what she expected and not being duped in some sort of digital shell game. Once you lose that trust, it's gone.

This blog contains data from two established leaders in this space, Outbrain and HubSpot, to help you gain insights on what makes content successful in both paid and organic distribution and amplification. Outbrain analyzed HubSpot's expansive data, drawing from a sample of more than 3.3 million paid link headlines, examining the impact of a number of headline variables on clickthrough rates and post-click engagement metrics.

What worked for HubSpot – A quick look at findings from their data analysis

  • When used in a headline, the words "photo" and "who" increase CTR, whereas the words "easy," "how to," "credit, "cure," "magic," and "free" decrease CTR.
  • Making references to the reader by using the words "you," or "you're" in the headline decreases CTR.
  • Including positive superlatives ("best," "always") in headlines decreases CTR.
  • Headlines generate the highest level of engagement at moderate lengths (81-100 characters).
  • Bracketed clarifications, which are clarifications of the type of content represented by the headline – e.g. [Infographic], increase CTR when included in headlines.
  • When used in the headline, the words "simple," "tip," "trick," "amazing," and "secret" decrease CTR.
  • Using words that convey a sense of urgency (e.g., "need," "now") in the headline decreases CTR.


What kind of headlines compel people to click?
Taking a deeper dive into HubSpot's data, they found that certain words and kinds of headlines led to significantly more clicks. These findings are based on data analysis over 2013 and 2014, so we can see that these takeaways have remained consistent.


  • People care about the whos, not the whys
    Headlines that included the word "who" generated a 22% higher CTR than headlines without the word "who." "Why," on the other hand, decreased CTR by 37%. When it comes to intriguing readers with your headlines, focus on who not why.
  • Show me, show me, show me
    Headlines featuring the word "photo(s)" performed 37% better than headlines without this word, a margin even larger than we've found previously (29% increase among 2013 headlines).
  • Brackets work
    Headlines with a bracketed clarification (e.g., [photos], [interview], [video], [slideshow], etc.) performed 38% better than headlines without clarifications, suggesting readers are more likely to click when they have a clear picture of what lies behind the headline.


What kind of headlines turn people away?
Similarly, certain words and headline concepts stand out as things people just don't like to click. One consideration in this category is saturation – once a certain kind of headline becomes popular among clickbaiters, readers no longer trust the keywords in that headline. Because of that, the "bad words" are more likely to evolve over time.


  • I'm not looking for instructions
    Headlines containing the phrase "how to" performed 49% worse than headlines without this phrase, showing that reader aversion to this phrase has not dissipated much since the 46% decrease they saw in 2013. This year HubSpot found that another instruction-oriented word, "tip," also decrease CTR by 59%. These behaviors highlight the difference between a reader in search mode and in content consumption mode. How-tos can be highly desirable to people searching for specific content, but they're less appealing to readers who are browsing. 
  • Take it easy
    Headlines with the word "easy" generated a 44% lower CTR than headlines without the word, consistent with the 46% decrease we saw in 2013. This year we also saw a 49% decrease in CTR among headlines containing the word "simple." Readers are constantly bombarded with "easy ways" and "easy steps" that start to sound spammy. Further, "simple steps" speak more to the search mode reader with a goal and less to the person consuming content.
  • Positive overload
    Headlines that used positive superlatives ("always" or "best") performed 14% worse than headlines that did not. Contrary to popular belief and their widespread use in headlines, these words do not appear to be compelling to readers. This may simply be a product of overuse, or it could be because readers are skeptical of sources' motives for endorsement. On the flip side, sources of negative information may be more likely to be perceived as impartial and authentic.
  • You don't know me
    Headlines that made references to the reader by including the word "you," or "you're" performed 36% worse than headlines that did not contain any of these words, showing a hightend distaste for this tactic since 2013 when HubSpot saw a 21% decrease in CTR among such headlines. The attempt to make readers feel as though they're being spoken to directly appears to do more harm than good.
  • Stop being so pushy!
    Headlines with language that conveys a sense of urgency ("need," "now") generated lower CTRs than headlines that didn't use such pushy language (44% and 12% lower). The negative impact of the word "need" is something they also saw in their 2013 data (it seems readers have become more amenable to the word "must," which previously appeared amongst pushy words that hurt CTR). Readers are resistant to words that demand action or attention. These words can have an advertorial feel rather than an editorial feel. Also, their overuse in headlines over time has weakened their ability to convey a true sense of urgency.
  • Readers have spam filters too
    Headlines that contained the word "magic" generated a 59% lower CTR than those that did not. Likewise, headlines with other words that often trigger email spam filters like "credit," "cure," or "free" performed worse than headlines without these words (58%, 48% and 41% lower, respectively). The negative impact of these words ranged from 11 to 27%. It appears that readers are continuing to get savvier at gaging content quality from headlines and developing refined spam filters of their own. HubSpot's data also found that words "trick," and "secret" also hurt CTR (23%, 24% and 26% decreases). 


No two audiences are alike. Take some time to start collecting and analyzing your own data to see what works – and what doesn't – for you. By experimenting and using metrics to measure the success of each experiment, you'll eventually be able to develop your own set of best practices for headline engagement. Data can be the most powerful tool in your content marketing toolbox – why not use it?

Why you need to hire an inbound marketing agency

 Pssst!  You might also enjoy our blog article - A Proven Path to Creating Good Blog Content for Your Business.

Written by Murray Sye

Murray is the CEO and Creative Director with the award-winning
Toronto HubSpot agency partner, WhiteSpace. You can
connect with Murray on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.

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