Why we’re seeing so many numbers in headlines

On one recent day, I checked my RSS feeds and bookmarks and saw these headlines:

* 20 TV Shows With the Most Social Media Buzz (Mashable)
* How 5 Top Brands Crafted Their Social Media Voices (Mashable)
* 3 Things You May Not Know About RTB (AdAge)
* The 5 Types of Stories That Make Good Storifys (Poynter)
* 7 Cheap And Creative Side Dishes For Thanksgiving (Business Insider)
* The 7 Most Overrated Time Magazine Persons of the Year (Huffington Post)
* Here Are 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Lies And Liars (Business Insider)

I asked several people who teach online writing courses about the use of numbers in heds and its effectiveness. Some of the responses:

Writing for the Web instructor
CEO, Visual Editors

It’s a gimmick, and it is not new.

Magazine editors were using “numbers headlines’ to sell magazine covers for decades before the Internet arrived.

How many of these have you seen on newstands over the years?

Five new foods that will burn fat!
10 ways to lower your golf score
Six tips for improving your sex appeal
The five things great parents know about their kids

Of course these examples use AP style because they reference print headlines – and that’s great for “pulp readers.” I can’t explain why AP style is thrown under the bus when writing headlines for “screen readers.”

It obviously is a gimmick that works. Poynter today lured me into reading a story with a numbers headline: “The 5 types of stories that make good Storifys.”

LA Weekly staff writer
“New Media Reporting” instructor at UCLA Extension

I think the “lists” as we call them here are a tried-and-true traffic getter independent of SEO. They really don’t make sense in terms of SEO (using key words, proper names, as early as you can in a headline), but they still work. If anything they’d be anti-SEO (putting “Top 5” at the front of a headline wouldn’t really help you at all). However some sites such as Gawker don’t really need SEO because they get so much front door traffic. All they really need is a catch hed.

I told my students that lists can be good ways to drive traffic and play off the news, but in general I hold fast to a key word rich headline scheme (Jim Romenesko Blog About Media And Journalism Finds New Home).

Assoc. Prof. of the Practice, Multimedia Journalism
Boston University Department of Journalism

My guess is that you’re seeing this number hed epidemic because everyone (including journalists) is picking up these marketing techniques that are primarily geared toward hawking products. They’re following advice from outfits such as Hubspot.com. Here’s an example:

Mashable, my favorite industry blog, is a prime offender in the “How to …” and “X ways to…” overkill. Presumably it’s working for them, otherwise they’d never see the light of day.

Dean of Student Affairs, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

I have wondered the same thing [why so many headlines using numbers], even as I have recently written “Five Things I Learned After Tangling With James O’Keefe,” and “10 Thoughts About Your Unfollowers.”

I think that at a time of info overload, an article with numbers in the headline promises bite-sized chunks of info and bullet-pointed lists which give you a sense that they might be easier to read and digest than essays. Perhaps you are more likely to click on such a headline because you think you are more likely to get through the material than a longish essay.

Another factor surely is that the more of these that get written, the more that others will write them… ie, journalism is susceptible to contagious ideas and this might be one. But an effective one, methinks.

Writing for Online Publications instructor
University of Texas, Austin

I’d argue the rise in numbers we’re seeing is based on an overall paradigm shift in headline writing that is part of the larger shift across media organizations. They can’t afford to be staid and have to find more innovative ways to package, present, and archive information. While including SEO drivers helps, adding numbers and other information can pull more attention. While I’d like to think we’re moving beyond the attention economy, we’re nowhere near out of the woods when it comes to information overload. The headlines we create and consume have the potential to benefit us in many ways, some of which are easier consumption through practical and primary packaging, connecting more with news and information that we perceive to be relevant, and filtering through the fragments of news and information based on new and simple headline additions.

“I teach writing for the web at the post-secondary level”

I’m thinking it’s a misguided attempt at effective SEO. It’s a long-standing theory in copywriting that numbers make a headline more concrete and specific, and ultimately more appealing. It doesn’t work as well online though since few people actually type in “5 Ways to be More Lovable” or “7 Hot Tips to Success” into search engines. I’m not aware of any studies, but trends come and go in SEO and web writing in general.

I tell my students the #1 rule (joke) is always to write with your end user in mind. What is the most likely thing that they will type into a search engine that is relevant to your site/stories? Write that as your headline, or close to it. Numbers are irrelevant to most search engines.

* Data shows articles with digits may be shared more on Facebook than those without
* Five reasons why readers like numbers in headlines
* Using numbers in headlines: Is the game changing?



  1. They’re way overused.

    In print, it’s one of the favorite gimmicks of today’s unoriginal page designer. The standard M.O. was to write a headline like “10 ways to avoid editing.” The numeral 10 would be in at least 80-point type.

    Then, each “tip” would have a large, colored numeral in front of it. Usually the tips are not written well. The “best” come from Sports when they roll out something like “10 ways to defeat the opponent,” and the tips include things like “Score more points” or “Play defense.”

    Claiming this technique must work just because it’s overused is the ultimate example of circular logic.

  2. Lauren Custer said:

    I have also noticed that several of these ‘top #’ lists are built out in gallery-type templates, with each click into the next item resulting in a refresh of the page or gallery module in the page itself. Each new click equals another advertisement load, which could ultimately mean more money due to more page views.

    Just an assumption. I noticed this happens in Mashable’s top lists; there is a cube advertisement in the lower right of the gallery that reloads each time you click another item.

  3. 1) I can’t believe you passed on the chance to headline this “Six reasons why we’re seeing so many numbers in headlines.”

    2) Look at the kinds of stories that invite number headlines: Listicles aren’t just relatively easy to write and read, they also lend themselves to page-view-inflating slideshow presentations.

  4. Jennifer Greenhill-Taylor said:

    Sigh… pageviews… hasn’t anyone figured out that the emperor has no clothes?