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A stack of newspapers with headline "Social media: Taking over the world". Isolated on white.What’s your favourite newspaper headline of all time? I have several that I love. One, in The Guardian newspaper read “Boy’s life in ruins after fatal car crash” – well, I thought on reading that, it would be wouldn’t it. Then there was the Daily Mail’s headline in 1912 which read: “Titanic Sunk, No Lives Lost“, somewhat optimistically as it turns out. And there is always the Sun’s sports headline which ran in 2000, when Celtic lost 3-1 to Inverness Caledonian Thistle. You have to sing that headline to a well-known tune from Mary Poppins: “Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious“.  Newspaper headline writers are nothing if not inventive.

New research, however, implies they may not be as good as we think. A study comparing factual headlines with question-based equivalents has shown that when questions are used on website headlines the click-through rate is much higher. The research also found that the clicks were even higher when the questions were “self-referencing”, in other words they asked about you as an individual.

For instance, in a comparison of “For Sale: Black iPhone4” with “Anyone want a new iPhone4?” and “Is this your new iPhone4?” the two question style headlines had a much higher click rate. However, the self-referencing question led to 257% more clicks than the statement headline.

At first sight this suggests we should all be asking questions in our headlines. But think how boring the web would become if it were just a sea of self-referencing questions. Eventually we would all get fed up.

The crucial thing about a self-referencing headline is that it triggers emotions. And it is emotion that leads to click throughs, rather than questions themselves. They are just one way of producing emotional connection.

If you are a good headline writer you will be using emotive words in your headlines. Indeed that’s what The Guardian headline did – “Boy’s life in ruins after fatal car crash” is more emotive than saying “Boy hurt in car crash in which another person died“, which was what the story was really about. The Super Caley headline triggers the humour emotion, of course. Wherever you look in newspapers, the headline writers have been playing with our emotions.

Yet wherever you look online the headlines are dull, dull, dull. That’s why the self-referencing questions stand out, because they are the ones that trigger an emotional response when so much around us on the Internet is “so what?”

What can you do about it? Well you can learn to write emotive headlines – newspaper sub-editors had to learn, after all. Joe Vitale’s book, Hypnotic Writing: How to Seduce and Persuade Customers with Only Your Words, is a good place to start. You can also learn good headline writing by cutting out headlines from daily newspapers – keep a file of examples and use them for inspiration.

Or you can check out the emotive value of your proposed headlines on the Headline Analyzer. This shows that in order to start getting buy-in from your readers you need to score more than the average emotive value of 20% for normal writing – as if luck would have it, the question headline on this page just scrapes in at 22.22%. And it is a self-referencing question.

But if I hadn’t written a question, but rephrased it as a statement, Emotional headlines attract readers to your website, then that would have scored 42.86%, an emotional level only achieved by the best copywriters.

So you have a choice. If you are in a hurry or you cannot write good headlines, then asking self-referencing questions is a good way to go. Alternatively, if you have the time and you want to learn headline writing, then use the Headline Analyzer to check your suggestions. Either way, you are bound to get more visitors and clicks compared with sticking to factual, rather straight, headlines seen so commonly around the web.