Blogging by Numbers: How to Create Headlines That Get Retweeted

233 Comments

There is an art and science to getting blog posts to travel like wildfire.

This post will look at both, based on number crunching with 281 posts, 39,000+ comments, and almost 2,000,000 click-throughs via my Twitter profile and Facebook fan page in the last six months.

Here’s what I’ve found to work well…

The Art

In this context, more than anything else, the “art” is coming up with good headlines.

I presented the above slide to a Fortune 100 company that wanted to encourage employees to blog. The problem? Their employees (mostly high-end engineers), as brilliant as they were, had no idea what to write about. My suggestion was (and always is): focus on an obsession that makes you a bit weird. Then tie it to something that interests more people.

Just invite a few friends to dinner, look at the graphic, and follow the instructions. It’s fun.

Into trapeze or German techno? Our starting headlines might be “How to Perform 5 Tricks on the Flying Trapeze” or “German Techno 101.” That’s just a starting point. Then we expand to what your wider circle of friends or co-workers might be interested in. For example:

“How German Techno Can Make You a Better Agile Programmer”
“5 Principles of Flying Trapeze for Better Hiring Decisions”

See how that works? This recipe works, and it’s a plug-and-play format for getting started, and getting traffic.

Once you’ve had a bit of practice, it’s oftentimes easier — and more scalable — to imitate what works elsewhere.

The Science

The “science” is borrowing headlines or testing them. Determining pass-along-value by the numbers.

How do you know if you have a good headline?

There are several simple ways. One indication: a tweet gets retweeted hundreds of times in less time than it would take to read what you linked to. People retweet without reading where the link leads?!? All the time. Plan accordingly.

My last five posts have been retweeted 931, 508, 343, 683, and 813 times, for an average of 655.6 times.

For clicks, the pay-off can be handsome. In my case, these retweets can often drive 10,000+ unique visitors to a post. Here are a few popular blog post titles, tracked using SU.PR from StumbleUpon:


Click here for large, more readable size.

How do you learn what works? Headlines are as old as writing itself.

There are many sources, but rankings and data sets (often prolific bloggers) are what you want. The simple version is: study Digg (look at “7 Days” or longer) and Seth Godin (look at the most retweeted).

Seth is a brilliant copywriter and outstanding headline craftsman. I notice one of his repeating headline patterns appeared to be “The Difference Between [A] and [B]”, which I tested successfully with “The Difference: Living Well vs. Doing Well.”

What the hell does my post title mean, exactly?

Precisely.

Never tell the whole story in the headline if you want optimal click-through. “Home Prices Drop 47%, Largest Single-Quarter Drop in 50 Years” isn’t nearly as good as “Largest Drop in Home Prices Since 1960: The Reasons, Numbers, and What You Can Do.” There’s another element in the latter that makes it superior: it’s prescriptive instead of merely descriptive. People don’t want more information about their problems; they want solutions to their problems.

Piquing curiosity can be done with questions instead of statements, and my question-based post titles are some of the best performing (such as “Why Are You Single? Perhaps It’s The Choice Effect“), unless used more than 20% of the time, at which point, it appears that readers suffer “question burnout” and click-through plummets. This is a common problem with (over)use of lists (“17 Things You Can Do For…” etc.).

Would “Why Are You Single?” have worked well by itself? I don’t think so. But what the hell is “The Choice Effect”? Once again, this is exactly the point. I want that question to bother you enough that you click on the link and, most important, read the piece.

Which of these two posts from Seth’s blog do you think did best, as measured by retweets?

How long before you run out of talking points?
How big is your red zone?

Which has a WTF?

The red zone, of course, which got 685 retweets vs. 392 retweets for talking points. WTF FTW! (Yes, I just judo chopped your brain with a palindrome)

But, is the headline the only factor contributing to retweets? Of course not. I’ve purposefully written bare bones posts on other experimental blogs of mine, but crafted headlines by the numbers, to prove (to my satisfaction, at least) that headlines rule in online word-of-mouth.

You can test it yourself: split test on Twitter. But… um, you can’t split test on Twitter, as much as it’d be cool to send version A to half of your followers and version B to the rest.

Or can you? Kind of — you can test headlines with time-zone cohorts who are unlikely to overlap. Huh? In simple terms, this means that I like to publish blog posts at around, say, 2am PST and tweet out the working title at the same time. I did this with “The Rebirth of Seth Godin and Death of Traditional Publishing: How Authors Really Make Money” to hit the US-based night owls.

I then like to tweet out a new version B at around 8am PST the following morning (not yet changing the blog post title itself, and I never change the permalink once published), when the night owls will be mostly asleep. I schedule this tweet in advance using SU.PR, as I’m also a night owl. Last, I compare results and stick with the winner.

This is how “The Rebirth of Seth Godin and Death of Traditional Publishing: How Authors Really Make Money” was switched around and became “How Authors Really Make Money: The Rebirth of Seth Godin and Death of Traditional Publishing.” You’ll notice the latter version is in the “most popular” screen shot above for the last 30 days.

It’s an imperfect process, but I’ve found the results replicable.

The exact timing of publication is less important than ensuring that most A cohorts are sleeping when you test the B version, or vice-versa. In my case, non-US/Canadian readers (Brits in particular) can throw the numbers a little, but more than 60% of my readers are from the US and disproportionately located on the east or west coast, based on Facebook Insights.

The Hail Mary Solution

Last but not least, you can always do a Hail Mary blog title. What, pray tell, is that? It’s a title that pays homage to Twitter and becomes recursive.

A good example would be “How to Create Headlines That Get Retweeted.”

###

Odds and Ends:

1) Is this helpful? Please let me know in the comments what you’d like to read more of.
2) Here’s a sneak peek of a goodie from the “Becoming Superhuman” book: Athletic Greens, which I’ve been using for the last year. I have no financial interest in the company or product.

Posted on: August 30, 2010.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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233 comments on “Blogging by Numbers: How to Create Headlines That Get Retweeted

  1. Tim this is an excellent post. I will have to read many times to get the fine details.

    I’m curious how you track Facebook click throughs. Is that through Su.pr?

    If you have time to respond, I’ve also always wondered why you don’t have an opt in form and an email auto responder pitching your book or other stuff, which seems to be standard on the web?

    Thanks for the great info

    Chuck

    Like

  2. That just judo’ed my mind out.

    Could do one “How to Get 500 Blog Comments in 60 Minutes” post right after the blog entry of your next book launch (with a contest to boot—best comment win a copy and a bundle).

    Like

  3. Tim,

    You’ve impacted many lives than you realize, and am one of them. Your cracking skills never seem to amaze me, and that’s one skill am learning earnestly.

    Drop me a mail if you’d like on how I can better master this skill. Am currently transiting from the cube to freedom and I guess I’ll need push the envelope very hard.

    You rock!

    With love from Africa

    Like

  4. Really love the insight and sharing of experience in this post. However, some of the differences could be very small though, as over time, content does become the ultimate SEO factor rather than how catchy the headline is. Although I must admit the catchy-ness of the headline dictates whether or not you will get the visits and ultimately the RTs.

    Like

    • Agreed that good content is the ultimate SEO. This post is just focused on the headline factor of getting people to the content.

      Awesome name, btw. Stan Lee. Great history to that one.

      Tim

      Like

  5. Tim, what a post!

    I’m just getting into the social media to drive traffic game. A huge social media following is powerful stuff.

    I’m going to look around your blog for other helpful posts.

    Got anything on ‘how to get a ton of twitter followers and facebook fans?’

    Keep it up
    James

    Ps, sorry for throwing your analytics off, I’m a Brit!

    Like

  6. Excellent post! Great analysis.
    These days am so wary of titles that say “7 things you should know…” or “20 things you must have…”. Perhaps am getting jaded but headlines that are provocative or compel action seem to be what i click on.

    Meena

    Like

  7. If the content is visual it helps to let the person know, with a (pic) (graphic) (infographic) (vid). People are primed to click on such easily consumed content. I’ve used this to rack up 1k-5k RT’s on content before.

    Like

  8. Really helpful stuff, I needed a formula or something more concrete, since no one (editors, friends, readers, ) seemed to like my long, cheesy, or strange headlines. Writing headlines really was a major weakness until now (I hope). Thanks again! :)

    Like

  9. Thanks for constantly reminding me to look at things scientifically Tim!

    I get so lost in introspectionLand sometimes that I forget there’s a world out there that sees things differently than I might imagine.

    Robert Cialdini talked about this kind of thing as it pertains to the social realm in his book Influence, that we rely on what we *think* we know about behavior to calibrate our own actions when we might be having the opposite of the intended effect.

    I sat down with a blood pressure meter the other day and determined that one of my “chill-out” methods (visualizing myself at the beach and synchronizing my breathing with the incoming and outgoing waves) turned out to raise my systolic BP by an average of 10 points!

    Ish!

    Yogic literature warns against manipulating your body via the mind for the same reasons: you often get unpredictable results.

    So it is with blogging.

    Best,
    Vic Dorfman

    Like

  10. Brilliant article, really agree that headlines are more important than the article itself sometimes. This sort of ‘buzz marketing’ is really gathering speed now and more people are starting to use this for their blogs.

    Like

    • Hi Michal,

      I own a gourmet food truck and I have noticed that even though we have a lot more twitter followers then FB followers we get a lot more responses and greater conversion from FB. I get my results from using google analytics and have done an Alexa.com search on my website as well. So I definitely recommend using FB to increase your conversion, but don’t forget the power of twitter as well.

      Like

      • Funny, I’ve also noticed that, too. I’ve only recently re-opened my facebook account – my twitter account has 7x the followers, but they rarely click through to my blog. Facebook, on the other hand not only has a high response rate, but those who visit spend a lot longer.

        I tend to think that facebook allows a more personal connection, through being able to explain yourself better, rather hard to do sometimes in 140 characters. Twitter can have the tendency to be shallow, due to the speed and the succinctness required…

        My observations and theories only!!

        Like

  11. I have one thing I do when selling. Kind of a natural attraction maker and makes sales simpler. Here goes:

    1. You see someone having trouble with their car (example).
    2. You approach that someone and say to them “I know what the problem is with your car”.
    3. That someone curiously asks: what is the problem?
    4. You offer to help him in return for a sum of money.
    5. That someone wonders how much it would cost him? You ask him in return “what do you want to pay?”.

    You:

    a) offer a solution
    b) you let the buyer sell himself on the offer and frankly sells you on the price so you can avoid it.

    I do this and it works charmingly well and makes sales enjoyable for both parties.

    And if the buyer mentions a price that is benief the price you expected, then you always have the choice to say no to helping out. So no need to make a loss.

    I think creating a good headline is, essentially, all about selling so I just wanted to post this as an add-on.

    So why not write “I know why your car does “this and this””? That would obviously be a “Hmm, ok, why?” attractor? No?

    Like

  12. 5 Time management tricks I learned from years of hating Tim Ferriss – penelopetrunk.com

    I found someone who doesn’t seem to like you very much lol.

    Ahh well, can’t please everyone.

    Like