What makes a great headline? Think attitude, emotion, and values

Simple changes can increase a story’s reach

Headlines matter.

Recent tests at newsrooms like The Dallas Morning News and the Texas Tribune found that the right headline increases click through rates and boosts search rankings.

But what makes a headline engaging?

The headlines that resonate most speak to readers’ experiences, beliefs, values, or emotions.

Consider The Atlantic. When the story “Why Bragging About Being Busy Is a National Sport” was published, The Atlantic seized on a feeling experienced by most people today: busyness. But the right headline had the potential to connect with feelings and beliefs beyond being busy.

The hour after the story was first published, the article was reposted on The Atlantic’s homepage with five different headlines to fuel interest in the story. Each of these headlines seized on unique values and emotions.

  • “Ugh, I’m so Busy” spoke to readers’ stress and captured the way Americans humblebrag about tight schedules. The phrase leading the headline likely resonated with such humble-braggers. It earned a click-through rate (CTR) of 2.4 percent.
  • “Why Busy People Get More Respect” lifted the egos of busy people — and led to envy and curiosity for some less-busy people. It had a slightly higher CTR of 2.5 percent.
  • “Why Americans Brag About How Busy They Are” added national identity into the mix. This headline could appeal to proud Americans or international readers with a curiosity about American culture. It reached a 2.7 percent CTR.
  • “To Americans, Being Busy is a Competition. To Italians, Not so Much” put Americans’ love of busyness into context with a comparison to the Italian approach to work. This headline spoke to Americans with a competitive spirit, a global sensibility, or an interest in the Italian way of life. It had a 2.8 percent CTR, the highest rate of the day.
What each of these headlines had in common is the ability to connect with what we call audiences’ soft identities.

Soft identities are a layer added to traditional demographics — such as “millennial” or “female professional” — that captures audiences’ values, emotions, attitudes, or behaviors, among other factors.

The most successful headline of The Atlantic’s test appealed to the soft identities of several groups, from busy workers to zen practitioners. Each group had unique motivations for reading this article.

The test we like to use at Atlantic 57 to understand the influence of soft identities is “As a ___, I feel ______.”

Here’s what this test looked like for audiences of The Atlantic, who reported a range of emotions after reading the work story.

Sympathy

A consultant at a bustling firm reported sympathy for colleagues who try to look busy just to meet office expectations. (Reddit)

Annoyance

A manager said she is annoyed by employees who equate busyness with productivity. (Twitter)

Skepticism

A reader sympathetic to the struggle of the working class says busyness is not a choice in her world. (Facebook)

Envy

A busy American longs for the Italian approach to work. (Twitter)


The lesson: organizations should experiment with how their content is presented, site-wide and on social media. Headlines, in particular, can be a tool to generate more interest in content. Try headlines that include a:

  • quote with emotional impact
  • statistic or fact that challenges traditional beliefs
  • trend that captures a popular attitude
  • perspective that reflects our lived experience

Experimenting with headlines and angles that speak to the intersection of emotion, values, attitudes, and ultimately soft identities will help you better engage target audiences.


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