Scientific Studies on Headlines in Media: The Must-know Things

WARNING! This article has the potential to shatter illusions and uncover fallacies. Serious headline testing has become even more serious.

Scientific studies on headlines in media

A cleverly worded headline can prime visitors for sharing, reading more of the article and navigating deeper into a website.

But how do you do that?

You create headlines that pay off their respective articles. A headline should always rest upon article content that can appropriately meet the expectations initially set out by its front-page title. Otherwise, loss of trust with the readership is most certainly assured.

A headline is a promise. That’s how readers see it, and that’s how you should see it too.

If the reader’s expectations are not met once a headline is clicked, that’s a subtraction from the ‘trust bank.’

Do that enough times, and lost trust with the readership will accrue.

So, what does the science say about headlines?

  • Properly worded headlines are a gateway to building trust with readers. Trust that materializes in readers’ staying on the website to read for longer, clicking on more suggested articles and making return visits sooner.
  • Lack of clicks on a headline does not mean that a headline is bad, since people often skim through headlines just to stay up to date with the news
  • A neuroimaging study at CalTech found that people are significantly less likely to be interested in something they know absolutely nothing about
  • Similar to how people are more drawn to reading depressing news, people are actually psychologically drawn to negative words in headlines. Words like teract, murder, poison, sickness tend to attract readers more
  • Recording electrical activity in the brain, researchers have found that our brains process words with negative connotations in just 100ms instead of the average 200-300 ms
  • A major study by the Poynter Institute, Eyetrack and The University of Denver has shown that bold wordings in headlines are even more important for capturing attention than graphics
  • 59% of things shared via social media are not actually even read beyond the headline, according to Columbia University and the French National Institute’s research.
  • Readers share headlines according to their pre-existing beliefs, and furthermore, "headlines are one of the most powerful contributors to [article] performance"

For more tips on headline testing, refer to this article.

When a person ‘consumes’ a headline, the following happens:

  1. relevant existing knowledge gets activated
  2. reader’s mood gets set
  3. reader’s attitude towards an issue or a topic gets formed
  4. article-related behaviors get pre-programmed, such as time spent reading

How to choose a proper headline testing tool

The ultimate, final objective of every publisher rests in deeply connecting to its core and extended readership. There has been a move towards testing headlines for their impact on engagement metrics rather than CTR. Yet clicks, for the most part, still occupy a central place in A/B headline testing.

How does that happen when it has already been known for years that headlines can actually improve average time on page and recirculation?

It’s a legacy thing, that’s all.

Decades of clickbait-centered revenue models in publishing have distorted the way headline testing is perceived and done. In a comic way, users now almost expect to be baited. CTR has for a long time been, and continues to be, majorly overvalued.


Doing A/B tests on headlines to achieve higher click-through rate is a completely wrong way to do it. CTR earned that way will become damaging (think bounce rate) and unsustainable really fast.


Tips on choosing a headline testing tool that will work:

  1. Look to test beyond CTR. That is, test headlines for their impact on post-click metrics, not just CTR
  2. The first part is to work with A/B headline testing tools that have shallow learning curves. Only the best article headline testing tools are made with editors’ preferences in mind.

And remember

Headline testing can help with managing levels of reader trust only if headlines are tested for their impact on post-click metrics and not just CTR.

Our product

IO has an in-house developed, proprietary formula that ‘catches’ the impact alternative headline wordings have on recirculation and time spent reading as well as CTR.

The new approach to assessing headline qualities makes it possible to stimulate more far-reaching consumption behaviors, such as clicking on more of the website, staying on pages for longer and reading beyond headlines … attention … using only headlines and an intuitive overlay.