Savvy marketers are well aware that, in this day and age, content is king. According to a 2017 study by Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs, the use of content marketing is on the rise, with companies allocating vast resources and over a quarter of their marketing budgets to content marketing.

But all that hard work and spending are for naught if your titles and headlines aren't compelling enough to generate clickthroughs, engagement, and conversions.

We've gathered some tips to help you create titles that not only get noticed but also drive engagement. We'll dive into research we conducted together with HubSpot to share headline best-practices for both organic and paid campaigns so you'll know what works, what doesn't, and what to avoid.

Of course, you know your audience best, so if any of these tips feel unnatural to your brand voice or mission, don't use them! Which brings us to our first tip...

1. Be authentic

Readers can smell inauthenticity from a mile away. Words that we once thought of as traffic drivers have become so overused that readers immediately put their guard up upon seeing them.

For content to be effective, you need to think beyond just the click. So make sure your headlines never mislead readers and always accurately describe your content.

In collaboration with HubSpot, we at Outbrain analyzed more than 3.3 million paid headlines (headlines of content being advertised or promoted) and found several categories of terminology that perform poorly in titles:

  • Positive superlatives, such as "always" or "best"
  • Words that imply urgency, such as "now"
  • Words suggesting a shortcut, such as "simple," "easy," and "trick"
  • Instructional words, such as "why" and "how to"
  • Spammy words, including "magic," "cure," "credit," and "free"

To remember which words to avoid and other tips on what make for effective headlines (at least in the case of Outbrain's content-amplification solution), see our infographic at the end of this article.

2. Offer concrete value

Although you don't want to overpromise and lose readers' trust, titles do need to suggest enough specific value to elicit interest.

Our research found that titles with bracketed clarifications (e.g., [photos], [interview], [video], [slideshow]) garnered 38% higher click-through rates than those without. And bracketed clarifications significantly improved engagement and conversions, too. The bracketed word that performed best for our B2B content was "template."

3. Keep it short

The ideal headline length depends a great deal on your goals. Looking for social shares? You'll want to keep your title to 280 characters or less so it's tweetable (but remember to account for characters in the call to action and URL as well). Looking to rank high in search results? Aim to keep your headline under 65 characters so it's not truncated by search engines. It's also important to optimize titles for content-recommendation widgets, which often cut off titles after 40-80 characters.

No matter the length, front-load your titles with the most important keywords, as eye-tracking research by Nielsen Norman Group has found that readers pay the most attention to the first two words when parsing link titles.

4. Keep it simple and direct

Clarity is essential to titles, especially when you're writing for the Web: Online, titles are often seen completely out of context—in search results, news feeds, widgets, and social shares—so it's vital that your title makes sense when it stands alone.

"New times call for new decisions," for example, is a headline with "low information scent," according to Nielsen Norman. That means the headline contains little information to suggest what the story is about.

Instead, you'll want to treat titles like microcontent: short, scannable phrasing that gives a clear idea of what your content is about.

5. Target your audience, but tread carefully

Targeting your audience is always important, but titles that reference the reader using the words "you," "your," or "you're" are a turnoff, performing 36% worse than titles that do not include these words, according to our study.

Take the headline "9 Chemicals That May Be in Your Food" as an example. It seems the attempt to connect with readers here actually does more harm than good, whereas "9 Chemicals for Pregnant Women to Avoid" makes the targeted audience clear without pushing a false sense of intimacy with the reader.

Demonyms (such as "New Yorkers" and "Londoners") can also help you connect with your readers in an authentic way while avoiding "you" language.

Final Thoughts

Even with the plethora of research available, there's no one-size-fits-all solution in content marketing, and A/B-testing your titles is key to discovering what's right for your individual brand.

Strong titles that have been tried and tested are a powerful tool in creating winning content marketing that meshes with your audience and your brand. 

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Five Tips to Help You Level-Up Headlines and Titles

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image of Liraz Postan

Liraz Postan manages the SEO channel at content discover and marketing platform Outbrain.

LinkedIn: Liraz Postan