Headlines That Work: Has Science Finally Settled the Geek/Nerd Debate?

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Welcome to Headlines That Work, a new regular feature here at Copyblogger where we will nerd out about writing headlines.

Headlines, as you know are “the first, and perhaps only, impression you make on a prospective reader.” This is why your headlines need to be magnetic.

And it is why nerding out about headlines — studying them in-depth to analyze why they work — is such a worthwhile endeavor.

But wait … are we really nerding out about headlines … or are we geeking out about them? Is there even a difference?

Yes! And finally science has stepped up to settle the debate.

Here is a headline that works

A post at CNet.com announcing an all-important scientific breakthrough features a splendid headline that works on a number of levels.

Here is the headline:

At last! Science draws a line between geeks and nerds

So why does this work?

In our ebook Magnetic Headlines, one of the hundreds of essential bits of knowledge you learn is that people who consistently produce winning headlines understand that “all compelling headlines make an intriguing promise that makes it almost irresistible to the target audience.

Key word: “irresistible.”

Key phrase: “target audience.”

The “At last!” beginning is important, because it grabs attention and suggests that some longstanding debate or controversy is finally coming to an end. It makes reading the rest of the headline, and the post, irresistible.

This notion of finality is then backed up by invoking science immediately — “Science draws a line…” — suggesting that the reader will no longer have to guess about where they fall along the geek/nerd spectrum. The answers can be found right here!

Whether it be on CNet’s homepage or in a social media channel like Twitter, that headline is going to be clicked by CNet’s audience as well as casual observers.

Context and credibility matter

A headline cannot be written nor analyzed in a vacuum. The audience it is targeting matters*, as does its context. This is why CNet’s headline for this story is so spot-on.

* – Hence why you cannot just take any proven headline template and use it on any post, expecting it to deliver results. You must choose the right one for the right audience. It’s not easy, especially at first, but you build your “headline intuition” over time with practice.

CNet is an online publication for geeks and nerds (and probably dorks too). It is about technology and electronics and all kinds of different gadgets. The target audience of CNet consists largely of people who, it is safe to assume, appreciate and respect science and empiricism, and who have probably pondered at some point in their lives whether they are a geek or a nerd.

The headline plays perfectly on this knowledge and does so, importantly, in a straightforward manner.

As we also explain in Magnetic Headlines, credibility is key. Invoking science lends credibility to the promise this headline is making to readers: that a real, evidence-backed line has been drawn between geeks and nerds, and clicking to read the post will unveil it.

But what do the numbers say?

Theory is all well and good, but data needs to be a driver in decision-making. And looking at data over time will help you hone your instincts for what works and what doesn’t.

The geek/nerd post has 4,400 Likes on Facebook right now, as well as hundreds of tweets and +1s. But these numbers only mean something in relation to a typical CNet story.

For comparison’s sake, the “Most Popular” story on CNet on November 7th was about a Photoshopped movie poster for Thor found in China. It had only 2,100 Likes on Facebook 36 hours after being posted.

So we can reasonably surmise that 4,400 Likes is a pretty good haul for a CNet post. And I bet that its headline is a major reason why.

What say you?

What do you like about this headline? Or, what do you dislike about it? Venture into the comments with your opinion.

I think this headline works, and the data suggests it works, but you may disagree.

That is the beauty, and occasionally the frustration, of headlines: there is never a single right answer. Which is what makes writing killer headlines both art and science.

And finally … what are we?

So, the only reason why I stumbled upon this headline in the first place is that I was trying to decide what we are here at Copyblogger.

We are passionate goonies. We are misfits doing meaningful work. And we’re clearly nerds and geeks … but which one more than the other?

I originally thought geek worked better. A colleague of mine, however, cast his vote for nerd. So I wanted to see what the differences between the two are.

It turns out, the characteristics I had been associating with the term geek are more generally associated with nerds. For example:

Geeks are fans, and fans collect stuff; nerds are practitioners, and practitioners play with ideas.

Or, as Chris Pirillo put it:

Nerds love knowledge for the sake of knowledge; geeks love knowledge for the sake of unapologetically making you feel stupid for not having the same level of knowledge as they do.

We love knowledge. And we especially love knowledge as essential to copywriting and content marketing as writing headlines. But we don’t ever want to make you feel stupid for not having the same level of knowledge as us. We want to transfer our knowledge to you.

So … “nerds” it is!

An we invite you to keep nerding out with us moving forward here at Headlines That Work to see examples of the best headlines published on the web with in-depth breakdowns of why they work.

And, of course, download our Magnetic Headlines ebook and keep it handy every time you need to write a headline.

I open this ebook up, literally, every single time I write a headline. It is filled with not just theory, but also templates that have been proven to work over time. You just have to figure out how to apply them.

Remember: good headline writers are not born; headline writing is a skill that can only be learned.

Stick with us. We’ll teach you.

And don’t worry, yes, at some point we will analyze this controversial doozy of a headline

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Reader Comments (53)

  1. says

    Thanks for clarifying “geek vs nerd”. I’ve always used them interchangeably. However, based on the definition in your post, I am definitely a nerd! Great post, Jerod.

    • says

      I had too! But clearly there are distinct lines separating the two, and it depends on the topic as well. You can be a nerd about one thing and a geek about something else.

  2. says

    Hi Jerod,

    ‘I hate copyblogger’, an headline from a guest post featured on copyblogger last week is the sort of example you are trying to portray.

    The title, on seeing it in my inbox prompted me to click thru to copyblogger.

    One of the things I have learned here is creating a compelling content with attention grabbing headlines.

    Thanks for sharing

    • says

      I agree! That had to of been one of the most creative blog posts I had ever seen in my life! It drew me in thinking, why did Copyblogger allow such a post. I became quite interested and then after further exploration of the topic, I thought … Awesome! :)

  3. says

    So that’s why my headlines don’t work. I’m not a geek or a nerd or a dork or a goonie. I’m a poet and a musician and an artist. I study the art not the marketing. That said, I am going to begin posting less in 2014. But perhaps I’ll really work on tweaking the headlines. But do I have to become a geek or a nerd?

    • says

      Dan, absolutely not. You can be a dork instead. :-)

      In all seriousness, while you probably don’t need to be as obsessive about headlines as I’ve become, do not underestimate their importance. If you work hard on your content, it behooves you to spend some time getting headline right to ensure that the post gets opened. Have a pass through our Magnetic Headlines ebook, then keep it handy for easy reference. That way, you can just be Dan, instead of a nerd or geek, and still writer killer headlines.

  4. says

    Flawless work as always Jerod. Loving the word “magnetic” for talking about headlines, and I even agree with the nerd debate. But where do you stand on braniacs?

    • says

      Thank you Jon! And I agree: “magnetic” is a great word when discussing headlines. That’s the kind of attraction you want potential audience members to have to your headlines. As for “brainiacs,” the official definition is quite simple: a highly intelligent person. So I’d say that I’m in favor of it. Whether we are geeks or nerds, we should all be brainiacs. :-)

  5. says

    I find that Cnet headline interesting because “science draws a line between” sounds almost adversarial … as if there is an actual battle between the two, not necessarily an issue on defining the terms. My expectations then, going into that post, and this post, was different than what I got. I didn’t really know that there was a battle between the two terms … but I’m not their target audience either. The high share numbers indicate the writer hit a nerve in that crowd … that the controversy was ripe. Score one for knowing your audience. Great post, Jerod.

    • says

      Interesting. I didn’t necessarily know there was a battle either, but I figured there would be hair-splitting differences that defined the two. Sure enough. I was just surprised that my own definition for geek was basically the scientific definition for nerd. I was way off. Robert wins again. :-)

  6. says

    I’ve always thought that geeks are what you say nerds are. Nerds were people without social skills. Many nerds are also geeks–if they are deeply into some subject and possess a deep well of knowledge about it. Some nerds are just nerds, though. You can be boring and ignorant and still be a nerd. Now I have to rethink all of that!

    I know this post is really about headlines, but all I can focus on are the distinctions between geek, nerd, dork, etc. Because I’m a word geek. Or nerd. Or something that means words to me are what just about anything is to a squirrel.

    • says

      Maybe we’re giving science too much credit Rita. Because I was with you before reading this. (Watch for a future correction where some science dork comes out and says he accidentally flipped the terms before gathering the data!)

      • says

        He has weighed in via Twitter: “until your post today, I considered myself a geek. I always thought nerd = math, lack of social skills, and geek = star wars.” Based on the scientific definition, Chris is definitely a nerd. Who else is kinder and more giving of such an enormous wealth of knowledge and experience?

  7. says

    When I saw the “I hate Copyblogger” headline, I gave a mental, wailing nooooo. I love Copyblogger. But it was a great post and it introduced me to the Blog Tyrant. A win-win. I totally suck at headlines and I know it, so I keep reading here and everywhere, trying to learn. This was a great headline and I’m going to go suggest my geek and nerd friends come read it. We were just talking headlines.

    • says

      Thanks for visiting and sharing Pauline. :-) I look forward to breaking down the “I hate Copyblogger” headline. If you want to get better at headlines, keep practicing! Read the ebook and become a regular participant in this series. We’re going to break down all of the elements that create great headlines.

      • says

        I read you every day. LOL My problem is that I’m a fiction author, so I’m always trying to figure out how it works for my type of blogging/writing. But I am definitely getting the ebook. :-)

  8. says

    Hi Jerrod,

    Your take on that headline only made me more curious about audience and industry.

    Case in point … what would a magnetic headline look like in a real estate listing posted by a broker running their site on WordPress?

    Aren’t there constraints to using headline formulas in industries where an audience is conditioned to consuming certain kinds of content only when the headline contains typically recurring terms?

    [ such as “2 Family Brownstone For Sale in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn” ]

    How will the broker/author generate interest in their content when others use the same terms and often with the same phrases?

    When is the line crossed with a creatively crafted headline, audience and industry?

    • says

      Michael, these are all excellent questions … none of which have definitive answers. Your choice of example certainly is appropriate though, as (and you may already know this) Brian Clark ran online real estate brokerages before founding Copyblogger. If we’re lucky, maybe he will chime in here. :-)

      In general, you just have to know your audience to get about 80% of the headline right. Be specific and tell them, with the headline, exactly what the benefit will be of reading your post. Then do some testing. Try out a few different formulas and see what works. Tweak that extra 20% as much as you can for maximum impact. But so long as you are picking out the most compelling specifics of your post for the headline, and articulating the benefit, your headline will be successful.

    • says

      Michael, first of all, never write “2 Family Brownstone For Sale in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn.” A good headline for a real estate listing tells a story with emotional benefits, rather than listing features. Copywriting 101. 😉

      Read this by Roy Williams. It’s the best approach to real state listings I’ve found, and I used it quite successfully when I was a broker.

  9. says

    I learnt much from this article, thanx so much. I am a writer & cross cultural trainer and wanted to learn how to revamp our business to be consistent with the internet revolution. I found copyblogger. Simone’s articles are awesome! I need now to know how companies like copybloggers make money if you guys are giving so much away free.

  10. Chris says

    Hey Jerrod,

    I love this article, as a certified newbie I enjoy all the articles on copyblogger because it has me geeking out all the possibilities to what I can do. Awesome article!

  11. says

    Really a nice read and a great headline discussed here.

    For me, I think the best part of the headline (“At last! Science draws a line between geeks and nerds”) is the fact that it generates a lot of curiosity. Curiosity might kill a cat or two, but it can definitely make a blog post come to live and stay alive! Certainly something you want to use

    Thank you for sharing this post Jerod!

    • says

      Absolutely Maikel! Piquing curiosity is a wonderful headline strategy. So long as you deliver on the promise that created the curiosity, your readers will click through and love you.

  12. says

    I always thought of myself as a geek. But I’m not much of a fan, well maybe a fan of info, and I’m not a collector, unless its knowledge or tools. Crap, I’m a nerd! …Who knew!

  13. Ann Marie says


    Actually, the words that caught my attention when I found this article in my inbox were “Headlines that work”.

    Jerod’s use of those particular words is what prompted me to click through to the article. The content itself, geeks vs. nerds, holds no interest to me whatsoever.

    But those three clever words at the beginning caused me to click, and once I was here, I read the article anyways.

    Now that’s using a magnetic headline successfully!


    Ann Marie

  14. says

    Well, I don’t know about the “open rate” on this post, but what I’m impressed with is the amount of in-house star-power that this post has elicited in the comment section! Whoo-hoo. I could only dream of this team filling up my post comment thread. That, in itself, makes this a giant win. Nothing trumps this kind of interaction…except maybe conversion. But then you guys, had me at the sender line…didn’t even need the subject line to know I had to open it.

  15. Nicolia Whyte says

    I think the CNet Headline works because the whole nerds-vs-geek debate has been going on for a long time. Like you mentioned, science does give it credibility, but then you’ll have some people who’ll click on the link just to express their ‘geekiness’. You know, to find a way to discredit what is said in the article. So, even though the headline claims the debate is settled, it will probably fan the flames some more. Controversy works. It’s brilliant :)

  16. says

    I think that passion makes the difference and the point is to transmit this passion in the headlines. But it is really not easy. First: is not easy to transform feelings in words. Lots of people write about tips and techniques for writing wonderful headlines and commercial texts, but to put that in practice is completely different. It is not that I don’t believe in it, many techniques make a lot of sense. I can learn everything about it, but I can’t learn how to be passionate. Second: Unfortunately we can’t have brilliant ideas every day. We need some training to recognize what is good and what is bad. I think it helps to analyze and comment texts and headlines written by others. Why are they good? What would I do differently? Maybe this way we can slowly develop our skills and write better headlines. Jerod, can you give us some more examples here and discuss them?

  17. says

    Context is so key. I really try to make sure subheads are as good or better than my headline so that I have easy fodder for social media. Each subhead can serve as a tweet, G+ post, etc. It’s a simple way to A/B test headlines to see what your audience responds to.

  18. says

    Another great column but when are columns in Copyblogger not great? For a recent writing class of mine, I compiled the following guidelines from a number of sources and added my own spin on the subject. They dovetail with most of what you suggest, but I’m happy to share them with your readers.

    General headline-writing instructions:

    — Identify underlying subject of what you’ve written (e.g., news release, editorial, blog). Focus on the big picture. Think implications for the reader. You may only be announcing a new computer, but find a bigger angle that says more. For example, not “HP announces hyper-speed FlashTech home printer,” but “New HP home printer fastest in world,”
    — Stress target reader’s, not organization’s, benefit. Instead of “XYX launches $50 million college scholarship program as part of its 2013 social responsibility goals,” say “XYZ earmarks $50 million for college scholarships.” Mention other facts in the written piece.
    — Keep it simple. A headline is a short, direct sentence.
    — Write one line, not two or three. If you can’t write a one-line headline, you haven’t done the job.
    — Don’t repeat your story’s first sentence or lead in the headlinE,
    — Use active voice. Active verbs give immediacy to a story. E.g., not “$50 million scholarship fund for poor students has been announced by XYZ,” but “XYZ announces $50 million in scholarships for impoverished students.”
    — Don’t use the articles “a, an, the,” and avoid “to be” verb forms.
    — Using these guidelines (and AP style), here are options for “The New York Times says the 2012 presidential election is much too close to call at this point as official vote count continues”:

    …New York Times says presidential election too close to call
    …New York Times says election too close to call
    …NY Times says election too close to call
    …Election too close to call (if published in the NYT)

    — Don’t turn off your audience by using clever rhymes and metaphors that undermine the meaning of what you’ve written.
    — Don’t misrepresent your story with a headline that doesn’t address the main subject.

    • says

      Thank you Don! Both for the kind words and expansive, informative comment. Some great tips here. You have a little more leeway with a non-newspaper headline (though even newspaper headline restrictions have lessened with more consumption being done online, and thus the constraints of physical space no longer as constraining), but concepts like “Think implications for the reader” will always be relevant and drive more engagement.

  19. Bill says

    I thought the headline had a tongue-in-cheek, humorous quality that I liked. It communicated wry acceptance of geek or nerd status despite the originally negative connotation (in high school, at least) of these words. And yet also rejoiced in geekiness or nerdiness.

  20. says

    Hi Jerod,

    You are spot on when you say that not all headline templates work equally in all settings. You have to choose which one will work in which situation – or your “headline intuition”.

    I think I have a little bit of headline intuition, though not so much. On a project I’m working on, Copyblogger style headlines work only some of the time – other times just a simple plain headline gets the job done.


  21. says

    I’m absolutely hopeless at producing compelling headlines and I can only imagine there would be great correlation between user engagement and time spent on website with catchy headlines and engaging content to go with it.

    This particular article has been thought provoking and clearly I have been getting it wrong time and time again.

    I tend to focus on writing and leave the headline right until the point that i am fatigued and can no longer be bothered.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas on writing headlines. I will definitely use this knowledge to improve my quality.

    • says

      You’re welcome Davide! Thanks for visiting. Come back and see future editions and we’ll keep giving you new tools to put in your headline-writing toolbelt.

  22. says

    I’m going to continue to call myself an out and proud geek regardless of how other people (including science!) try to define me. :)

    Great breakdown of the headline though.

    Is it a sign of a good headline that a post about the headline gets a lot of comments? :)

    • says

      Good for you Juliet. Call yourself anything you want to. :-)

      And yes, I do think that this post getting a lot comments at least a small sign that the headline worked.

  23. says

    Great post — but I’m not buying the original nerd/geek distinction.

    Both groups have a subset called ‘assholes’.

    If it were a Venn diagram with the Geek and Nerd circles overlapping a bit and the Asshole circle dwarfing them both but grabbing a slice of each.

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