Writing headlines that get traffic: What I’m learning at Reason magazine

I started at Reason magazine in April, and one of my responsibilities is helping to increase traffic to the site. I recently began evaluating our headlines to see which drive the most traffic for us. Because a good headline can make or break traffic for a story, it’s a really important thing to get right. It’s terrible when no ones sees a great piece of writing due to a poorly written headline.

So here’s what I’ve learned, which I think can be helpful for any blog or news site.

Methodology

Every week my co-worker and I look at which stories received the most traffic and which received the least traffic for each day of that week. Every day there’s a best-performing story and a worst-performing story. We look for patterns to determine which factors Reason’s best performing stories’ headlines mostly seem to have, that the worst-performing stories don’t have.

Findings

We find consistently that headlines that are between 9-12 words get the most traffic. There are various reasons why that might be, including that after about 12 words Google either cuts your headline off in search results (if your title tag and headline are the same), or replaces it with something else entirely.

As far as content, for maximum traffic, your headline needs to be:

Clear
Jokes that require reading the article to understand do not do well at all. Your headline should accurately convey exactly what your story is about. People want to know what they’re clicking. Examples from Reason: “TSA Agents at Louisville Airport Steal Deaf Man’s Candy, Call Him ‘Fucking Deafie,’” and “3 Accounting Tricks the Obama Administration Uses to Hide the Cost of the Drug War.”

Contextual
If you can explain why your subject matters right now, it’s much more likely to get traffic. A news or current events angle is extremely helpful, so if your story has one, get it across in the headline. Examples from Reason: “The Real Problem With Fareed Zakaria Isn’t His Plagiarism” and “Mayor Bloomberg Says Cops Should Go On Strike Until Americans Give Up Their Guns.”

Compelling
People need a good, compelling reason to click on your headline or they’re moving on to the next 15 links waiting for their attention. And your publication name is not enough. There’s a reason you chose to write about the subject, what is it? Why do you care? That’s what your headline should convey. Examples from Reason: “Prosecutor Defeated by Glaring Stupidity of Pot Laws,” and “How a Single Oxycontin Pill Nearly Ruined One Man’s Life.”

My favorite trick for headlining is reading your headline out loud to someone who doesn’t already know what you’re writing about. After you read the headline, ask your friend whether they understand what the story is about, understand the news angle and feel compelled to read that story.

So, how’d I do with my headline? Keeping these tips in mind, or any others you might have, let me know how would you rewrite it in the comments.

Cathy Reisenwitz is the Digital Publishing Specialist for Reason magazine. She blogs about politics and current events at Anarcho-capitalism Blog and (infrequently) about internet marketing at DC SEO Blog.

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