The ideal length of a headline.

Insight over the debate of short or long headlines.


Throughout my career, I’ve had the constant debate with stakeholders about the most effective length of a headline. Most times people refer back to the concept of us only having three seconds to get the attention of the audience, which means we should only employ headlines that are only a few words, right? Because reading too many words would push you past that three second window and you will lose a customer.

I believe in the philosophy of restraint. It’s the whole bed of nails analogy. If we have too many messages, rather than one, we won’t penetrate the walls of resistance.

So I agree that an economy of words, like good poetry, can create a huge emotional response. But sometimes, I would come across a good headline and it may take more than four or five words to express an idea. But stakeholders would kill it because it looked too long.

Then I met Dan Greenberg, and found an interesting answer to this question. Dan is a successful entrepreneur and he built a company based on an interesting point of view about words and how they affect our engagement.


Words and the brain.

Greenberg’s company, Sharethrough, is focused on native ads and how they engage more than traditional ads. But what makes his company unique from others in Silicon Valley is how he started the company. Before he started building a product or selling anything to customers, he first started with several studies in neuroscience.

He believed that native ads worked better. But it was a big bet and he wanted to make sure it was true. To Greenberg, product development and understanding the brain are inseparable. So one of the first employees he hired at Sharethrough was a neuroscientist.

When I asked him why this was so important, this was his explanation:

“The reason why we started our company in the first place is based the notion that foreign objects can’t be sustained as a business model forever. At the very beginning, we hired a full-time neuroscientist to prove our business model—that people will read native ads more than traditional ads. People are used to being interrupted with banner ads or video pre-roll. But we believed that when the ads fit in, then some interesting magic happens.[i]

In a typical experience, when you see an ad, your brain sees it as the other. Your brain sees that as a foreign object that doesn’t deserve the same kind of cognitive activity that the core user experience should have. The hypothesis of our company is that if the ad fits in naturally to the user experience, then it will be processed the same way that the underlying content is processed. The brain will perceive the native ad with the same neural activity and process it as respectfully as the main content.

When we focused on the neuroscience, we were able to prove our business model. And we discovered the kind of connections that people make with reading and how it’s a really important mechanism for delivering meaning.”

Once he had proof that his business model was going to work, he didn’t walk away from neuroscience. From startup to established company, he continues to place a high value on making sure his work meshes with how the brain works. Sharethrough is constantly conducting brain studies to ensure their business is going in the right direction.

And it’s paid off. Sharethrough has found unknown insights that continue to help their business grow. Insights that can give us more context on the right length of a headline.

"One of the things that we discovered out of our neuroscience work that actually surprised us, is that there are a specific set of words that when these words hit your brain, you're more likely to stop and pay little bit more attention. And these aren’t click bait, where we’re trying to trick you into clicking, such as saying “surprising results” or “you’ll never believe this.” It’s not that, it’s actually more about triggering your brain to stop and read the one word and then to read the next few words. We call this set of words “context words” because they demand more context when you read them.

These words trigger micro attention, and once you have micro attention, you earn a little millisecond of engagement as customers read your content, and then it’s up to the rest of the headline to grab the rest of their brain’s attention. It doesn’t force attention, but it makes your brain say—Ok, I’ll give you a bit of micro attention. I’m with you now, so give me something interesting to read.”

So what are context words? Greenberg’s research isolated many keywords that have a higher probability to immediately stimulate your brain. Context words are packed with existing emotions. According to Greenberg, there are several categories of context words, such as connecting meaning with time, creating insight, relating with our physical space, and experiencing a feeling of motion.

Take the word falling, for example. It’s a motion word, and when we read that word, our brains quickly look for more context because it’s an action that brings up a lot of emotion. What’s falling? Why is it falling? It’s a word that connects with past emotional experiences and our brain instantly wants to fill in the next part to satisfy the action.

Sharethrough has categorized thousands of words that have a higher probability of containing built-in emotion. It may not be an absolute science because each of us have unique experiences with certain words. But it certainly gives us insight into searching for the right words for our messaging.

This search for meaning or context in language is the path that writers travel each time they stare at a blank page. And while seasoned writers have more experience in knowing which words evoke more meaning through trial and error, this type of research can help all marketers create better messaging.

Using words with more built-in emotion will drive better engagement. Context words can instantly disarm our defenses. This is important in initial engagement with a customer, as we need to not only inspire them, but we have to disable all of their internal filters in order to make an impression.

In terms of how this relates back to brain functionality, certain key words quickly map back against our database of emotions and relay a positive association back to our conscious brain. These context words are like mini catalysts that add meaning and create more neural pathways.

Greenberg explains how context words are the secret to attention. “Reading stories is a much deeper and more effective way to impact the brain. Reading changes the brain by creating new associations or connections. And context words are the quickest way to access these deeper associations.

If you can get someone to read content, you have a better chance at holding their attention. Because when your brains read it, you have a much stronger connection with the messaging than when we see an image on a page, when we’re driving past a passive billboard, or even when leaning back and watching a video. Your brain is trained to constantly make connections between the words.”

Our brains are a massive conglomeration of neural networks connecting billions of neurons. With everything we read and learn, our brains are constantly making new associations. As we try to persuade customers to believe in our brand, we are trying to make new associations and memories that connect positive emotions with the words and language we use every day.


Back to headline length.

Here’s where context words help us understand the ideal length in a headline. From several studies about headlines, Greenberg claimed that longer headlines often result in higher engagement.

What Greenberg meant is that the key indicator of engagement had to do with the number of context words in the headline. A longer sentence with several context words pulled more than a short sentence with just one or two. To be fair, the sentence can’t just be a jumbled mix of context keywords. It must be a singular thought or coherent idea that creates an experience.

Your brain stalls for a micro second on a context word, and if the next few words can offer more context, engagement increases. When your headline has several context words, your chances of holding attention also increases.

Think of this in terms of SEO. The more keywords that are found result in a higher position in the search results. And if we like the short description around that keyword, we click.

Digital has changed how we use keywords. Take digital resumes. In the past, a one-page resume was required so that the recruiter could process and understand your qualifications without be overwhelmed and lose interest. But with digital search algorithms for recruiting, a LinkedIn profile can be several pages long and packed with all the right keywords.

If you follow the paradigm of the past and create a LinkedIn profile that resembles a one-page resume, you are hurting your chances of being discovered. To increase your chances, you should use as many context words as possible, while maintaining a solid story of your experience. Because after the initial search, a real person is going to review your profile and a page of unconnected keywords will suddenly ruin your chances of recruitment.

This is how context words work with your subconscious. Like a recruiting algorithm, your subconscious can quickly scan headlines in search for emotionally charged words.

The length of the headline isn’t as important as the content. If your brain finds a context word, it’s more engaged and keeps reading. If it finds several of these context words tied together in a big idea, it will be more engaged.


But people scan headlines.

In a separate article by Kissmetrics,[ii] they found that the ideal length of a headline is all about scan-ability. Here is what they had to say about headline length.

“A headline you can read in a single glance obviously communicates its content more effectively than one you cannot. Usability research shows that people not only scan body copy, but headlines as well—and they tend to take in only the first and last 3 words. This suggests the perfect length for a headline is 6 words.

Of course, that’s seldom enough to tilt the specificity-meter into the red. And I have it on good authority that some of the highest-converting headlines on the web are as long as 30 words. As a rule, if it won’t fit in a tweet it’s too long. But let me suggest that rather than worrying about length you should worry about making every word count. Especially the first and last 3—and if that means using the passive voice, so be it.”

People certainly scan headlines, and their advice to make the first three and last three words count is fantastic. If we get all those context words into a nice scannable length of six words, all the better. But that’s not always realistic when dealing with expressing a good idea.

When we combine the advice of scannability with the value of context words, you can see that engagement is more about the choice of words and content.

So the debate shouldn’t be about length or the number of words in a headline. Or the amount of time it takes to read it, for that matter. There are times that a longer headline is the more effective answer because it has more emotionally-charged words that are easy to scan.

Rather, we should change the conversation to what really matters. The conversation about headline length needs to transition and focus on the emotional content, including context words and ideas that engage audiences.

It’s not always about how many words, but about using the right words.

This lesson from neuroscience can help in many areas of marketing. It seems like teams are constantly testing whether longer or shorter emails work better. Longer or shorter subject lines. Longer or shorter web pages and copy chunks. The answer is more about the context and content than the length. If people are engaged, they will give you time. If your content is boring, they will move along, regardless of the length of copy.


[i] Author interview with Dan Greenberg. 2016.