Can online tools really help you write better headlines?
When people ask us for headline writing advice, we always say the same thing: “Stop tweaking the same line. Start adding more variety.” We have our own way to do this – cracking out the fantabulous Thousand Monkey headline generator. However, there are now nifty online headline writing tools to do it for you.
But are they any good? Will they help you write an award-winning headline?
I decided to put one of these tools to the test. Monkey vs. machine. I picked Headline Studio by CoSchedule, but there are plenty more out there, including Sharethrough Headline Analyzer and Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer by the Advanced Marketing Institute.
The immediate downside for wannabe award-winning headline writers is you need an idea to start with. These tools don't generate anything from scratch, but instead analyse what you already have, providing a score and suggesting areas where you can improve. No need for expert support from copywriters!
What do they measure?
Headline Studio and many other similar tools consider a number of factors:
Word count and character count
Type of headline
Reading grade level
I was immediately sceptical about some but liked the additions of others. For example, they define skimmability as testing, “whether your headline is easily understood at a glance”. Seems sensible.
But is measuring this small handful of factors enough? I had a lot of doubts, but I put them aside.
Testing famous headlines
Instead of writing any new headlines, I thought I’d be savvy and borrow some famous headlines. Alongside the score from the headline tool, I've also included my own feedback on each line.
Here’s how it went:
Headline Studio feedback: Your headline is too light on words. Try increasing the length of your headline by 5+ words to grab attention and drive engagement.
ATM feedback: Short and punchy. Excellent use of a command which is bold and puts emphasis on the brand. It’s not just any sauce – it’s Heinz.
Headline Studio feedback: You wrote a Generic headline. Generic headlines drive less engagement than other types of headlines. Try rephrasing your headline as a question, list, or how-to statement to increase clicks and shares.
ATM feedback: Contrary headlines catch people by surprise. Showing something in a negative light can be a positive sell when they find out how great it is.
Feedback: Your headline is missing several types of words that readers look for. Add them to your headline to increase your score.
ATM feedback: Picking a small detail (in this case size of the car) can make a powerful point.
Feedback: Your headline would be more effective with a better balance of common, uncommon, emotional, and power words.
ATM feedback: So you probably wouldn’t get away with this now because of sexism, but it’s a great headline nonetheless. Finding the story is often an excellent technique for making an impact. Sometimes telling the truth is enough.
Can I do better?
I’ll confess. I tried a lot more than those four lines, but it got rather tedious as no headline scored under 34 or over 70. The vast majority scored around the 60 mark.
Let’s see what it takes to take these lines to the next level (according to the magic headline tool).
After: It picks up five times more old lovely ladies than a Lamborghini does
Bingo. My version scored 89. I couldn’t get it above this as it was then above the optimal word count. All I needed to do was add in some uncommon words.
I tried another one...
Before: Pass the Heinz
After: Pass the Heinz, please
Just by adding the word ‘please’, I take the score from 34 to 53. The problem is it’s still too short. It’s definitely not measuring impact, but takes manners into account.
Can I write a headline that scores 100?
Simple answer: no. I tried my best, but my take on the Lamborghini ad seemed to be the best I could do.
The tool started penalising me for the length (apparently the optimum is 12 words) and said I wasn’t using enough of their uncommon words including “Facebook”, “baby” and “want”. I’d love someone to explain to me what makes these words uncommon.
Also, it considered the readability. Should we be worried about the readability score for one sentence? Also, readability is for checking how easy something is to digest. Are headlines always easy to digest? Or should they make you stop and think?
Did the headline tool help me improve these lines?
Definitely not. I feel guilty for even trying to make these brilliant lines “better” by butchering them.
Where has this tool gone wrong?
Of course, there are two major flaws in this tool. The lack of insight and the lack of context. It doesn’t know about the product or service. It doesn’t know who I’m talking to. And it doesn't know what I’m trying to achieve.
As for the famous headlines I tested, it doesn’t see that these lines are pure genius. Often very simple ideas have a big impact. It certainly wouldn’t appreciate the famous headlines from Swiss Life which are some of my favourites.
I think it should also scrap looking at the word count. Of course, if a headline is too long, people might not read it. But saying a headline is too short is ridiculous. Short sentences are used for impact all the time in the world of copywriting.
As for categorising words as common, uncommon or emotive, that isn’t particularly helpful either. Many brands have shown us you don’t even need to use proper words. So we can scrap that too.
If I was going to measure a certain category of words. I think sensory language would be a good place to start. I love this bus ad I saw because of the word “squidge”.
However, “squidge” alone wouldn’t be effective. It’s the contrast with “science” and the alliteration. This is something the tool wouldn’t pick up on or score highly.
A dash of humour can work well too. See this Ricola ad. Can an online tool understand that? Again, probably not.
What would I want it to measure?
For me, a useful measure would be persuasive power. A prediction of the impact on people. Does it get the right reaction? Does it stick in people’s minds?
However, I don’t think this is possible as there are too many factors to take into consideration like people’s moods or where it’s seen. But maybe the robots and their algorithms will prove me wrong in the future.
It’s not all about the words
But have you guessed the biggest flaw at all? The one that really bugs me. Tools like the ones I’ve tested look at lines in isolation, which is rarely how they work in the real world.
Words rarely stand alone. Even the colour can add to its impact. See this headline on a bin from Dorset Police. The copy is great, but it probably wouldn’t have had as much impact if the copy was black and the background was white.
This example from the Economist shows how a sentence has a completely different meaning when paired with a simple image.
And what about this ad from Elvie?
“Leaks happen” is very matter of fact and the image adds context. However, what’s brilliant about it is the ad leaks. Not wee. At least I hope it’s just water. Elvie want to tackle taboos around incontinence - and they’ve definitely started conversations with this.
Ads like this reassure me that online tools (or robots) can’t replace copywriters. So it looks like my job is safe for a little while longer and people will still need us to lend a hand when they’re stuck when writing headlines.
Long live the monkeys and their methods
Until online tools can appreciate copywriting techniques, humour and design, I think we’re safe. My verdict is that this tool would simply confuse someone more, and I’d hate to see what atrocity they end up following the tool’s questionable suggestions.
My recommendation: learn headline writing tools and go back to pen and paper for coming up with lots of ideas (ask us about our Headline Generator).
Online tools can’t help you write better headlines as they don’t take enough factors into account (including context)
Design and copy work together to persuade
Machines aren’t replacing our headline writing methods quite yet
Need help with headlines? We'd love to chat - email us at email@example.com.