Proof: Headlines Are Crucial


Should you spend as much time polishing the few words of your headline as on the hundreds of words that comprise your news article or blog post? The answer may well be, “Yes!” according to a new study by OTOInsights. In an unusual combination of neuromarketing and social media research, the firm looked at how users responded to Digg entries using eye-tracking and physiological signals (heart rate, breath rate, body temperature, skin conductance) as well as traditional survey methods. What users focused on, and what they mostly ignored, make interesting reading:

The study looked at the four major components of each Digg listing: The “digg button” (showing the number of diggs), the headline, the description, and the associated image.

The digg button and the number of diggs associated with each study are the least important criteria for viewing or promoting content. Only in the rare cases where the number of diggs reaches an extreme high (4000+) did users consider it to be a valuable criteria. For the vast majority of stories, participants spent no time considering the current number of diggs. Additionally, the image component, while regularly viewed, was considered to be of minimal value by all participants when evaluating content.

Headlines and descriptions were more important to users and commanded much more
of their eye tracking time. Interesting, headlines and descriptions were almost equal in the amount of viewing time received…

The most compelling part of the eye tracking data is the fact that they are so similar considering how descriptions contain much more textual content than headlines. All participants spent dramatically more time looking at each headline word compared to each description word. Participant self-reports upon viewing their eye tracking data confirmed the claim that headlines were the single most important factor for influencing their behavior. Additionally, participants identified the critical role of headlines
in setting expectations for the associated content. [From Social Media for Marketing: An Analysis of Engagement and User Behavior by Jeffrey Bardzell, Shaowen Bardzell, and Tyler Pace.]

Successful headlines had some common characteristics:

Our analysis of headlines suggest users prefer short, direct and revealing headlines. Underestimating the importance of headlines on almost guarantees the failure of your submission. As one participant, a very successful user and web development blogger, stated “I spend almost as much time researching and writing my headline as I do my entire post!” [Emphasis added.]

Clearly, for social media success, good headlines are absolutely critical. Of course, this isn’t news to those who have been involved in writing compelling articles for the Web. At the last Pubcon in Austin, many attendees were lucky enough to catch Brian Clark (@copyblogger) presenting Top 10 Techniques for Writing Headlines that Rock. For even more specific advice, be sure to check out Brian’s Magnetic Headlines series of tutorials.

Even though SEO and social media pros have long known how critical good headlines are for generating clicks, the OTOInsights data provide some additional understanding of how users visually process them.

  1. Phil Novara says

    This is great research.

    Suggestion to write compelling headlines:

    Scroll through Digg for a week. You will begin to notice a PATTERN of the tops headlines that are bookmarked. Most of them follow this pattern every time!

    Great article, keep up the work!

  2. ?zzet Emre Kutlu says

    I think it is not a good idea to compare numbers(digg numbers) with text (title), if you measure the time looked at.
    I wonder what will be the result if the digg numbers was presented like “two hundred seventy six”, not “276”.

  3. Al Mccray says

    I have been writing for about fifteen year. I have alway believed that the title of any article is everything when it comes to writing.

    The hardest thing for me to do when writing an article is always, “what is the title going to be”?

    The title should reflect the essence and soul of the article. The title show be a dynamic calling card to get attention to the article.

    Al Mccray

  4. Yuki Chow says

    This is great practical advice backed up with neuroscience proof. Not only on Digg, micro-blogging services such as Twitter and Facebook Status Updates constantly remind us it’s ALL about the headlines. There aren’t that much room left other than being direct, brief and revealing…

  5. The Persuader says

    Nice to see that modern research continues to prove the validity of learnings from the DR greats like Claude C Hopkins, John Caples & David Ogilvy.
    Chapter 5 of Hopkins’ ‘Scientific Advertising’ (written almost 90 years ago!) highlights the importance of headlines. It’s no longer published by easily found in pdf form via google. David Ogilvy believed no-one should work in advertising without reading it at least 7 times!
    For more detailed view on Headline learnings, you should check out John Caples ‘Tested Advertising Methods’…genius stuff! Back to the Future indeed!

  6. Roger Dooley says

    Great point, The Persuader. I didn’t state it here, but in many of my posts I’ve pointed out that often neuromarketing studies are confirming what skilled marketers already knew.

    Indeed, my main defense against that idea that neuromarketing will lead to ads that turn consumers into mindless drones is that if such a thing were possible, Ogilvy, Caples, et al would have done it long before brain scans.


  7. Sheryl Young says

    Great info. The title creates the picture, and a picture is worth 1,000 words.

  8. Blaise M. says

    Great information!

    Here we can see how important it is to choose the best words for a title!

    And I personnaly think that it’s very important to have a community mamanger or a “SEO master” to choose the best words and “sell the product” in the best way!

  9. Ken Donaldson says

    Not brain science…or is it?

  10. Glenn says


    Great post, thanks for taking the time to share it.

    I would think that as more and more bloggers try to get their content ranked highly there is a chance that they will go for the more ‘creative’ titles and headlines.

    Unfortunately in an increasing number of cases these titles seem to be bearing less resemblance to the actual article content itself.

    Its a shame but maybe as this continues, less and less importance will be placed on the title itself.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.