How the New York Times Tests Its Headlines

If you’re a small entrepreneur, you could regret all the times you didn’t test the headlines of your landing pages, sales pages, ads, and everything else.

It makes a big difference. Large publications like the New York Times test their headlines in approximately 30% of their articles.

And from the results some tests got, you can definitively say a headline can cause a big change in engagement.

Look at these two headlines from an article about Joe Biden’s governing style:

  • Speak Softly, and Carry a Big Agenda
  • Biden Is the Anti-Trump, and It’s Working

The second headline got 93% of the distribution compared to the first. This might make sense, as it’s more polarizing by including Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, versus a more neutral headline that references an old Theodore Roosevelt quip.

And let’s look at the result from an article about Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Meghan Markle:

  • Meghan Says Life With the U.K. Royals Almost Drove Her to Suicide
  • Saying her life was less a fairy tale, Meghan Markle described the cruel loss of her freedom and identity.
  • Saying her life was less a fairy tale, Meghan described the cruel loss of her freedom and identity.
  • ‘I Just Didn’t Want to Be Alive Anymore’: Meghan Says Life as Royal Made Her Suicidal

Which headline won? 

Believe it or not, the third one, getting 80% of the distribution. It’s equal to the second, but makes it shorter by excluding her last name.

Not all tests got these obvious results. Other times the improvement is smaller.

However, there are a few things we can learn:

  • Always test the headlines of your blog posts, sales pages, and ads.
  • A/B-tested NYT articles are 80% more likely to rank on a “most popular” list. Though you likely already know the importance of A/B tests, this can be a strong reminder.
  • People like drama: It comes as no surprise that the emotionally-charged and polarizing headlines performed better. So, don’t be soft when you write headlines – but make sure you don’t get too far into clickbait territory, which can hurt credibility.

Final word

Study the NYT’s headlines, because the ones in the “most popular list” have been tested and you can be sure that they’re pretty well optimized.

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