8 Ways to Use Numbers in Headlines

bingo card

I sympathize with blog readers who hate numbers in post titles. “10 Ways to X” is a classic headline formula, but it’s being worked to death online.

Up to 86% of the time, it’s a lazy way to drum up a post without putting too much thought into it.

64% of sophisticated blog readers believe that using a number in a post title is so pathetically obvious that it couldn’t possibly still work.

I recently got a big rush of new readers from a post called 50 Things Your Customers Wish You Knew.

Now I didn’t have a way to run a split test against a headline “Things Your Customers Wish You Knew” (wouldn’t that be a cool WordPress plugin?), but a quick look through my stats shows that posts with numbers consistently bring in between 2.5-8 times more traffic (and more referrals from sites like Digg or Stumble) than posts without.

Numbers are a time-honored trigger to get us to pay attention. When you use a number in a headline, whether it’s in a blog post, an email subject header, an ad or even in a face-to-face conversation*, you immediately hook the other person’s interest.

Numbers reach directly into our unconscious and say, “this message is important.”

(By the way, according to Jakob Nielson, numbers as figures work better on the Web than numbers as words.)

How to write a “numbers post” without being cheesy

First, tempting though it may be, don’t put a number into every headline. (Unless you’re using the convention of Stuff White People Like, which actually would work beautifully for a lot of serious topics.)

Second, realize that number posts are inherently likely to pull in more traffic–so capitalize on that. Make them meaty. Make them relevant. Put your best thinking and writing into them. These are the posts that will bring you new readers, so put your best foot forward.

It doesn’t seem logical that a simple (and overused) trick could be so effective in conveying authority and reliability, but generations of advertising and headline writers can confirm that it works. So don’t fall into the trap of avoiding number posts because they’re overdone. Use them intelligently and on posts that deserve the extra attention numbers can bring.

* Of course face-to-face conversations can have headlines. In fact, I just bought a brilliant audio workshop on this very subject–more on that later.

(P.S. Did I make up all the boldface statistics in this post? Of course I did. But don’t make up numbers in your own stuff–it makes the FTC cranky, and only Dilbert ever really gets away with it.)

(P.P.S. Yes, putting “8 Ways” in the title was a pathetically transparent attempt to get you to read this post. A little sad, isn’t it?)

(P.P.P.S. Got a “numbers post” you’re proud of? Post a link in the comments and we’ll all come admire it.)

Related reading:

Flickr Creative Commons image by hownowdesign

Comments

  1. James Hipkin says:

    The “obvious” is only really obvious to the people who are looking for it. The vast majority of consumers just want you to make their lives a little easier. Do that, and they will reward you. CopyBlogger has riffed on this regarding “Click Here.” A super obvious, some would say cheesy CTA but it really, really works.

    I looked for posts with numbers in the titles in my blog but I’m afraid I’m old school. I spell them out. Must go back and change that.

  2. I enjoyed this post, thank you!

    I am testing your theory out. I changed my post “Paraben Free Bath and Body Products” to “51 Paraben Free Bath and Body Products”

    We shall see =)

    Anyway, I am enjoying your writing – thanks!

  3. Mark says:

    Well done! I especially like the bingo card as I have ‘retro-bingo’ on the brain for a fundraising opportunity.

    Fundraising seems to be my life these days — my son got accepted into a Japanese exchange program (yay!) and now we have to pay for it.

    Which is a long way of pointing you to a recent post of mine that incorporates both a numbered headline and ‘game changing.’ Why go half way? :-)

    I think if you click on my name it’ll take you to the post.

    I love what you do, Sonia!

  4. GirlPie says:

    You always add a new POV to a routine topic Sonia, nice post.

    I’m my field, we always write ages, prices and counted amounts as numerals since eye/minds still grok them best this way.

    I wonder if any of your readers do this: I let the number in the headline tell me if I have time to click & read. Any post promising over 25 items will get dumped (depending on the text in the header) or starred or printed for later reading (STILL haven’t gotten through your small 50-ways post!)
    because I just don’t have time right then.

    Anything headlined under 25 (and odd numbers are stickiest) gets scanned for usefulness.

    Headlines promising 9 or fewer let me know they’re serious tips/tools/facts to use today without a cheat sheet and I open asap.

    Does the number in the headline affect the open rate? I wonder… thanks for getting us thinking.

  5. Suzanna says:

    Love it! And I’m never put off by them, they’re fun. Like anything, if you’re too repetitive, you’ll lose readers. Here’s mine, since you asked!!

    http://greatadaptations.org/top-5-brain-numbing-habits

  6. Evan says:

    I’m glad you’ve noticed this too – I wondered if I was just having myself on.

    I’ve got a few numbers post I’m proud of. The one I think is most generally useful is:
    http://wellbeingandhealth.net/psychological-health/three-steps-to-a-new-life/

    Hope it’s useful to you.

  7. Timely article, as I just this week put up my first number post. It’s actually a three part series:
    http://tuleydocs.com/2008/05/13/7-business-lessons-from-the-wiggles-whom-i-hatepart-1/

    Another great post!

  8. Anima says:

    I didn’t realize numbers still made such a big difference. So far, I’ve only written one post with a number in the headline:

    http://www.artbyanima.com/blog/2006/11/8-ways-to-add-height-to-your-room.html

    But there’ll be more to come now.

  9. Kelly says:

    Sonia,

    I used this in a recent post which was full of numbers:

    Handwritten sign outside a local café: “You can use 90% of the statistics to mean anything you want 50% of the time.” I think you could use it here.

    My second most-trafficked post does have a number in it:
    http://maximumcustomerexperience.typepad.com/mce/2008/02/7-secrets-of-mc.html

    However, since it gets a ton of search engine traffic, this seems to have little to do with the number in the title.

    That post has overtaken another post with numbers in it, which was second before:
    http://maximumcustomerexperience.typepad.com/mce/2008/03/whats-hot-now-3.html

    My most-trafficked post has Seth Godin to thank for its popularity, though I’m sure he doesn’t know it. No numbers in the title.

    I’ve heard that number titles done well are good drivers, but for me it’s about a wash. Which means either I write good enough titles to compete well with my own number-titles, or I don’t get large enough stampedes to be sure, or, probably, a combo of the two.

    Oh, yes, and my post today has a number in it, too. I’m giving away a prize, so the number-title probably won’t be the driver there. :)

    GirlPie: I do that, too. I have bookmarks for 92-inspiring-this and 108-of-that, but I know I will never get around to reading them as thoroughly as I wish. It doesn’t mean I want the post any shorter, just that they’re always going to be skim-and-come-back things for me. I never realized I was doing that, but it’s true!

    Regards,

    Kelly

  10. Sonia Simone says:

    That’s a great point, that the mega lists are probably more passed-around and bookmarked than they are actually *read*.

    @James, I do the same thing. I’m about halfway through retraining myself–old habits are hard to break. (I’ve almost broken the habit of two spaces after a period, but not completely.)

    @Connie Brooks, very cool, let us know how it does!

    @Mark, congrats on your son! That is so exciting.

  11. Sonia Simone says:

    Oh, one more thing–Kelly, remember that search engine traffic also depends on the user *clicking through* to the result that seems most interesting. Titles matter a lot in search engine results!

  12. Sonia,

    True. In the case of that particular post, however, the kicker is the word “McDonald’s.” I thought it would be ruled by “7 Secrets” when I wrote it (a totally on-purpose numbers-title), but my blog stats are overrun by searchers who find all three times I’ve mentioned McDonald’s in various posts and are utterly fascinated. This, to me, is strange… all these people wanting McDonald’s secrets?

    Cheap hamburger, people.

    (Oh, and the stuff I said in my post.)

    Regards,

    Kelly

  13. I hesitate to put my one little number containing post up here, but here goes:

    http://cartierpaintingaday.blogspot.com/2008/05/72-million-and-ball-of-twine.html

    It fit that day. I was reeling from an art auction story on the latest shopping spree by Qatar. Media continues to push the recession default story every chance it gets, but here Peter Brant, on the heels of the Qatar 72 MIllion throw down is putting his Lichtenstein Ball of Twine on the auction block to raise acquisition capital for a new paper mill. As I looked for a title for the post, it was simple…I remember smiling slightly, thinking well, let’s see about this Brian…It is not my top most traffic getting post, but it’s way up there. The top one is a recent: The Function of Form. Go figure. Yes. I am thinking the ” (Fill in the number under 9) Functions of Form ” could be in my future. :)
    It’s hard to know, in my field where the fine line is between effective attention getting and the “taint” of “too much commercialism”. In the world of the White Cubes as galleries are sometimes called, the front room is supposed to be far from the taint of money,all the while the back room is selling the hell out of everything.

    Thanks for this post Sonia. (Love the Bingo card too…lots actually)

  14. James Hipkin says:

    @Sonia I do the double space after a period thing as well. Twitter’s 140 character limit is helping break the habit.

  15. Sonia – I’m a little disappointed. I wanted a list of 8 ways. Oh well, this was good too.

    I don’t use numbers in titles as much as I should. Here’s the most recent:

    “3 Web-based Tools That Are Worth You Attention”

    http://postcardperfect.com/blog/?p=90

    Note: I just changed it from “three” to “3″. I won’t make THAT mistake again.

  16. Kelly says:

    Janice,

    I loved that post! And I admit, it, it may have caught my eye when I first read it because of the number in it, even though I like to think number-posts are a big yawn.

    Sonia,

    By the way, whether large numbers are a problem or not, your 50 Things post rocked. I printed it to put in my huge binder of posts to keep forever the day you posted it. Highlighter all over the best ones and everything.

    I wonder, does a number-post catch our eye just because the figure stands out from all the letters we’re reading, and our eye has to pause a moment?

    Jakob has probably figured that out.

    Later,

    Kelly

  17. Kelly thanks. I learned something there. And it was an interesting post I thought..so glad I wasn’t alone…noted.. :)

  18. Man, I felt like you were writing this just for me. Curse you for being so right! Now I shall write a post with a killer number headline!

  19. Sonia Simone says:

    @David, you really really have to do the “3 Things Marketers Can Learn from the Macarena” post. Pleeeeeease?

    @Michael, I think maybe I was writing this just for you! Was it not you who said you would gnaw off your own leg and beat yourself to death with it before doing a numbers post? I may be paraphrasing.

    When you write one, it will rock, because you care and you take the time to write great posts. The number in the title will not make you crappy. :)

  20. Bryan Kress says:

    One of my favorite post that I used a number in was called “The 4 ‘New’ P’s to Marketing: Priceless, People, Pennies, & Purple Cows!” For Business on the Mound (http://tinyurl.com/6o7wnc)
    Not only did I catch attention from the four new p’s, but also the statement about purple cows. This was a reference back to Seth Godin, which is huge in the marketing world right now.
    Sonia, thanks for the constant streams of genuine information. I enjoy reading your blog! Nice Post!

  21. Bryan Kress says:

    For some reason the link is bad above try this link:
    “The 4 ‘New’ P’s to Marketing: Priceless, People, Pennies, & Purple Cows!” For Business on the Mound http://tinyurl.com/6o7wnc
    I am sorry about that. Thanks again for your insight.

  22. Fascinating. I’ve always heard about this, but never put much credence in it. I may have to give this a try.

  23. Sonia – Interesting post and something I will absolutely try on my blog and report back on. I will say when I do public speaking or teach classes, numbers are equally effective. I use numbered lists to help people follow along, but I also add statistics whenever and whereever I can. My disclaimer during one recent lecture was ‘as you can see there isn’t any source to this statistic, but you pay attention more when you see a percentage, so here is a number that I made up. I have you listening now don’t I?’ The concept seems to work -I get chuckles and people stay interested.

  24. Sonia Simone says:

    Yeah, I actually started paying more attention to this after I heard a media trainer talking about it for f2f conversations. There’s definitely a “click-whirr” moment in the brain when you bring a number in.

  25. Hi Sonia
    This post on why odd numbers seem “stickier” sparked an interesting conversation in the comment thread.

    And yes, I had to have a number in the headline. :)

    7 Reasons Odd Numbers Can Power Up Your Headlines
    http://www.growyourwritingbusiness.com/?p=572

    Thanks for a great post.

  26. Hi Sonia,

    I wonder if we’re related?

    Here’s my by-the-numbers entry:

    21 Ways You Can Stop Child Sex Slavery
    http://dianascimone.typepad.com/diana_scimone/2008/09/21-ways-you-can-stop-child-se-x-slavery.html

    I broke up the 21 ways into 4 or 5 posts (each with a number in the headline), and then promised the 21st one later. We’re changing the name of our organization in a few weeks and launching a new website with a flash video. The 21st way is to forward the flash all over cyberspace (but don’t tell anyone yet :-) ).

    Diana Scimone
    President, PawPaw’s Pals, Inc.
    http://www.dianascimone.com
    http://www.pawpawspals.org/notforsale
    @BornToFly

  27. This was one of my first forays into the numbers game

    11 Reasons why Selling Really Sucks!
    If you have ever been involved in sales or selling then you may well relate to some of these – and hey please grow the list, I am sure there are a lot more out there that I have not even heard of!

    and if you like this, there are more great sales articles here

    Peter

    Peter Lawlesss last blog post..Effective Online Advertising in Ireland: No-Cost, Do-It-Yourself

  28. Well, the only headline that has a number in it is “I’m One Full Technology Behind,” but I’m thinking that this is the exception to the rule you state above….
    .-= Matches Malone´s last blog ..The Making of, Party in the House!!! =-.

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