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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.

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. 

Think you can write for Econsultancy? 

As an aside, I am looking for a junior writer to join our editorial team in London. If that sounds like you then please prove that you’re passionate about the subjects we write about, and that you can write well. To apply email editor@econsultancy.com, with ‘junior writer’ in the subject line, attach a CV, and tell us why you are a good fit.

Chris Lake

Published 20 August, 2013 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

582 more posts from this author

Comments (17)

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Geoff

There's not a lot a of science behind this?

almost 3 years ago

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Alconcalcia

Silly article. Meaningless. Headlines depend all upon what it is you are trying to sell or say.

almost 3 years ago

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Cliff

Thanks for sharing. I will write a several ad for my adwords with some of the words and see how it performs.

almost 3 years ago

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James Crothall, Digital Content Specialist at Hargreaves Lansdown

@Alconcalcia Disagree that the article is silly or meaningless. Of course headlines depend on what you're trying to sell or say but in terms of content creation the 16 types of posts are extremely useful.

@Geoff This is something you could put science behind, e.g. What were the top 10 kickass Econsultancy posts in August (and why)?

almost 3 years ago

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Richard Good, Marketing Manager at tuOtempO

I liked this article very much, thankyou.

Headlines are just so important. I was recently working on a site redesign and the page just didn't look right, but we couldn't work out why. In the end, we changed the headline text and that transformed everything - it wasn't the design that was wrong, it was a content issue.

almost 3 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Geoff - I don't tend to A/B test headlines as it's rather difficult to do so. Best practice for email subject lines suggests that you should use verbs / actionable language, presumably because it works. I think the same theory applies to headlines. Certainly the amount of verbs and adjectives used in our most popular posts goes some way to proving that they're effective.

@Alconcalcia - I like to use herbs and spices when I cook. Makes the food smell / taste better. Maybe you should read the opening few paragraphs again.

@James - Science is tricky, as there are so many other factors at work, but maybe we can run a test of some kind.

@RIchard - It's amazing how many times people think they have a design issue, when really they have a labelling / content / information placement issue. For example, firms that redesign their checkouts due a high abandonment rate, when shipping information is buried in the checkout (it should be on the product page).

almost 3 years ago

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Alconcalcia

Sorry Chris, but you could have just written an article saying be sure to use verbs and adjectives in your headlines. To randomly suggest words such as 'kickass', 'lousy' and 'horrific', when included in a headline, make that headline worked better is, frankly, bizarre.

almost 3 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Alconcalcia - Well, that's pretty much what I've done. It's just that I chose to use some real world examples to show readers how it's worked out for us. I looked at our actual data, segmented the top 100 posts, noted the amount of verbs and adjectives used within the headlines, and listed them for your viewing pleasure (or otherwise).

I'm not saying these are specifically the *best* words to use, only that these *types* of words are prevalent in our best performing posts. You could use synonyms, but I'm quite sure that if you removed these verbs and adjectives from the headlines then the posts wouldn't have performed as well as they did.

almost 3 years ago

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Colin McDermott

Chris - boy you've got yourself a tough audience here. I enjoyed the article as a useful reminder/prompter.

almost 3 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Colin - You can't please everybody, and I don't actually mind if people disagree (I'm not always right!). Anyway, rule #1 of blogging is 'grow a thicker skin'. I now have a hide.

almost 3 years ago

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Geoff

Hey Chris, a/b subject may be tricky depending on how you guys do your emails (we used to do this manually with two datasets) but it would be cool to run MVT copy tests. Would be interesting to see which of these words convert highest as you test them against each other, but then also how this varies as the subject changes.

almost 3 years ago

Andrew Stuart

Andrew Stuart, Marketing Officer at International Football School

It's a hard article to be right with! We are all experts, I'm sure we have all done a little copywriting in our careers.

At the end of the day content is king especially when it comes to headlines.

Interesting stuff, ta.

almost 3 years ago

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Paul Booth

Its good to see this debate about the role of the craft of copywriting.
The art of creativity will, I believe, start to play a greater role in AdWords. But we have to be careful as AdWords is a unique medium, where usually the audience is actively searching for what is being promoted and so a different kind of "sell" is required compared to what is required in a more passive medium. This impacts on word selection but this is a challenge understood by professional, seasoned, copywriters.

almost 3 years ago

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Andrew

Thanks for the post, Chris. To be honest, I always find headlines tough to write. I have saved this post for future reference.

over 2 years ago

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Mac James, Manager at Mac James Motors

Hi Chris, thanks for the post. Often times when writing articles and headlines, I tend to create stuffy adjectives that seem to take up space and not give proper descriptive power. I'll be more aware of what I'm writing from now on.
Thanks again.

over 2 years ago

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SARGON Odisho, PM at castax

a very powerful words indeed, I think if you use these words in your writing your essay, resume, or article will have a better impact.
I may uses these words in my marketing program to promote the following website:

www.ecommercelocal.com.au
www.ecommercelocal.com
www.ecommercelocal.co.uk

over 1 year ago

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shan whatever, vice mayor at axesmark

I think this kind of headlines work in magazine website such as
http://www.top5stories.com/
http://listverse.com/

In my opinion if you have a eye catching title you can attract readers and customers so this article help us a lot if we have magazine website or blogs

over 1 year ago

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