The 1,072 Words That Will Change How You Write Headlines Forever

Technical Level
July 1, 2015
Contributing Authors & Industry Leaders

Read more about these findings in Quartz's article, "These are the words people can't resist in a headline"

Download the Context Words Dictionary here.

Creating a great headline can feel like a science experiment.

Whether you're in advertising, marketing, PR, or journalism, all forms of digital communication revolve around crafting words for a desired effect.

If you're like me, you're often left making unsubstantiated guesses about the best combination of words or ideal headline style. Do I write for the curiosity gap? Is this a how-to post or listicle? Should I put a number in the headline? Or is this an SEO-play, and I'm writing for Google?

From search to social to editorial and even print, each channel is different. That's why it’s important for content creators, marketers and brand advertisers to know the right tricks for the right channels.

This post won't help you with search or social, which are all about clicks. Because if there’s one truth every reporter, writer or advertiser knows: the vast majority of people who read that perfectly manicured, curiosity-gapped, click-optimized headline will simply scroll by.

As the New York Times' technology columnist Farhad Manjoo said while he was still at Slate: we're in the age of skimming — Manjoo's headline, by the way, cleverly captured my attention: "You won't finish this article: Why people online don’t read to the end."

In traditional advertising, a good tagline makes or a breaks a campaign. "Got milk?" or "Just Do It" anyone? With native advertising, the headline is the new tagline.

Because advertisers never get the full picture on what's happening with every ad they buy, Sharethrough used neuroscience, the study of the subconscious, to help understand how native advertisers can optimize the one thing that matters on both sponsored content and in-feed ads: the impression.

A Subconscious Study

In partnership with Nielsen Neuro, we hooked up 226 people to EEG machines for a non-invasive scan of electrical activity in the brain and measured brain activity in response to text (in science-speak, an EEG measures voltage fluctuations resulting from ionic current within the neurons of the brain).

Specifically, we were interested in the measure of emotional engagement, which neuroscientists describe as a measure of how drawn we are to information.

Increasing emotional engagement is akin to increasing a person’s interest in a message, whether that person realizes it or not.

The findings provided a foundation for a new dictionary of sorts — a set of words that will change the way you write headlines forever.

Context Words Dictionary

Introducing Context Words

The key to an emotionally engaging headline?

Context Words: a group of 1,072 words in the English language that can increase a person’s interest and attention in a specific message.

Context Words were uncovered through EEG testing and something called the Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient, a way to measure the correlation between two variables. In this case, we were looking to understand the relationship between word choice and the brain's emotional response.

We've split the Context Words into four categories: insight words, time words, space words and motion words.

Insight words provide more detail, i.e. closure, admit, inform, think. Time words refer to a point in time, i.e. after, fast, long, prior. Motion and space words help us understand where something is happening, i.e. appear, replace, arrive, enter.

Download the Context Words Dictionary.

Simply put, headlines with more time words produced a higher emotional engagement score on the EEG. The formula for what that means is equally simple: More emotional engagement = more attention = more valuable impression for your native ads.

The findings are preliminary, but clearly surface a fascinating relationship between Context Words and our brain's ability to emotionally engage with a message.

It isn't hard to find examples of Context Words in both popular culture or brand messaging. The bolded words below are Context Words:

Once upon a time
• Happily ever after
Think before you act

Context Words are in taglines too:

Always Low Prices - Walmart
Turn On Tomorrow - Samsung

Rule #2: Write long. Really long.

The second portion of this experiment focused on headline length. Our research validated what many headline writers already knew: longer headlines drive more engagement and deliver greater impact.

What surprised our research team was just how long a headline has to be to maximize engagement.

How long? 21-28 words!

Longer headlines matter.

Sites like Buzzfeed, Business Insider and Upworthy are known for distinctly long headlines that almost feel like a full sentence. Count the words yourself: they tend to fall between 15 and 20 words.

The ability to tell a story with your headline helps make your native ad dollar go further.

Putting Context Words to Use

When it comes to using Context Words in your headlines, turns out there's a magic number — or at least percentage: 17%.

Sharethrough platform data reveals the ideal amount of Context Words in a headline.

Let's take a look at this in practice:

The Recent Release of Sharethrough's Native Advertising Neuroscience Report Has Publishers Immediately Thinking About Building A New Strategy for Headline Optimization.

Not bad, right?

This 21-word headline uses the time words "recent" and "immediately" to emphasize the importance of the news and leave a lasting impression.

So What Now?

While these learnings are an incredible first step to creating headlines that maximize the value of an impression, there are several other takeaways that I didn't reveal here. Keep an eye on more Sharethrough neuroscience findings to be released soon.

Whether you are a brand, an editor or an independent content creator, your mastery of creating emotional engaging headlines will go a long way to building a lasting connection with your audience and delivering messages that are able to tap into the subconscious.

Contributing Authors & Industry Leaders

About the Author

Sharethrough is made up of inspired forward-thinkers with first hand knowledge of the industry, who support the business & help the company flourish.

More from this author