Blogging by Numbers: How to Create Headlines That Get Retweeted

232 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.

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

  1. I know this is totally crazy and late to the game, and maybe no one will real this. But I wanted to say thank you. I read your article today and something clicked and made sense.

    So I wrote “If Your Father Is A Loser, Suck It Up! So Was Mine” You can find it by clicking on my name.

    I wanted to say thank you because I never wrote anything like that because I never came up with a title like that before.

    After that, I wrote down like 15 titles of articles I could write. The crazy thing is that they just came to me in a few minutes.

    By the way, the article I have put here is getting views faster than any other article I have ever written.

    Thank you thank you thank you!

    Like

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  3. I guess “the proof is in the pudding” as they say. I did a google search for “popular twitter headlines” and sure enough Tim Ferriss comes up. Great stuff! Keep it coming!

    Like

  4. I really like this concept of being an entrepreneur without working nonstop; it seems practical to rely on one’s expertise rather than work endless hours. Lately, I’ve given more consideration to the title of blog posts and see there’s more traction. Thanks for the ‘weird obsessions’ tip. Will do

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  5. Here are a couple headlines that worked really well for me. I use them as canned templates for all sorts of stuff now:

    “An Online Dating GOLDMINE.”
    - used in the online dating niche, something about the word GOLDMINE really compels people. It got a 3x response.

    “A Copywriter Punched Me In The Face!”
    - I’ve used this for my copywriting business…following up with a punchline. I say on the next line, “with his words of course :-)” This one is very alarming. It’s sensational. You can switch out “Copywriter” for anything else.

    Here’s one that I used as a Flyer that I personally loved:

    SLAVERY IN PETERBOROUGH?

    —This was for a Capoeira class in my home town peterborough. In the ad, I told the heroic story about how this martial art was developed by slaves. I never got hard numbers on this one’s performance as it was a flyer…but the buzz around town told me what I wanted to know :-)

    Cheers

    Like

  6. Hey Tim,
    I think we’re all constantly looking how to improve our copywriting skills, so thank you very much for this post! I’m struggling with copywriting, especially as English isn’t my native language. It’s post like yours that help me get better!

    Best,
    Jan

    Like

  7. I just downloaded an ebook about coming up with great book titles. It has 40 pages. You gave more details and help in this one post. You are my hero!

    Like