A Scientific Guide To Writing Popular—And Shareable—Headlines For Twitter, Facebook, And Your Blog

What words are we most attracted to on Twitter? Why do we click on particular pictures on Facebook? How long is too long?

Ever since we started Buffer a little more than two years ago, people have been asking us about one very specific question:

How can I write great headlines for social networks and my blog?

The topic is a very tricky one as the accuracy for what works best is hard to nail down. While we have some specific techniques that we are using for our own postings and headlines every day, I thought looking at the most cutting-edge research is definitely required.

So I decided to look at all the research we’ve done for the Buffer social accounts and our blog as well as the best research out there and combine this research into one comprehensive guide.

Without further ado, here is a scientific guide to great headline writing on Twitter, Facebook, and your blog:

WHAT WORKS BEST ON TWITTER?

Finding the right headline for your tweet is one of the most important things to do, especially since Twitter only allows for text display.

While there is a ton of data out there on which words to use and how to write headlines, the best way to do anything truly scientifically is to test and learn yourself.

Test it yourself. Here's how.

For Twitter, we’ve experimented with A/B testing the right headline. A/B testing on social is arguably very hard, in fact easily one of the biggest social media mistakes. Yet we’ve found it’s possible to still get reliable data that way. Here is how we approached this:

  1. Find two headlines for an article that you think will perform well.
  2. Tweet both of these headlines at roughly the same time, at least one hour apart. Here, I’ve found that doing the two tweets both in the morning or both in the afternoon works best--9 a.m. is much more similar to 10 a.m., than, say, 12 p.m. is to 1 p.m. So going with clear “morning” or “afternoon” times is crucial.
  3. Compare the data for which headline to settle on.

Here is how we learned which headline to use for our recent blogpost, using this method.

First tweet:

Second tweet:

The second tweet clearly performed better as we found out through our social analytics, and Buffer’s algorithm also identified it as a top tweet. In fact, you can clearly see that the second headline got double the number of clicks.

So this was an easy call and we settled for that headline, which subsequently turned out to be a really good decision. The article spread (and still does) like crazy, and I do think it’s partly due to the headline improvement.

What the research says.

A lot of the time, it’s hard for us to do it with testing ourselves. Of course, the optimal time to tweet is also something that comes into play here. Either we don’t have enough time or we don't have enough followers to get meaningful and actionable data from a Twitter A/B test.

In that case, what comes in a close second when trying to be scientific is to look at public research data. The writer Dan Zarrella has done a fabulous job here to help us with general guidelines on which words to include in tweets.

I think the first and most interesting element that Dan highlights is to use action words when scheduling your tweets--in short, more verbs, fewer nouns:

Twitter itself has also recently published some hard data on what they found to increase clicks, retweets, and more most dramatically. Here are the top three:

Ask for a download

According to Twitter, this will increase your clicks by an average of 13%.

Ask for a retweet.

Another fact that both Twitter and Dan Zarrella have emphasized multiple times is to specifically ask for a retweet:

Tweets in timelines with an "ask to retweet" increased retweets by an average of 311%.

The 20 most retweetable words

While at Buffer we generally try to optimize for CTR and not retweets, the two often go together and can’t be separated. Dan Zarrella published an amazing list that shows clearly which words tend to be in the most retweeted tweets, which of course also go in line with the time you’ve scheduled these tweets:

  1. you
  2. twitter
  3. please
  4. retweet
  5. post
  6. blog
  7. social
  8. free
  9. media
  10. help
  11. please retweet
  12. great
  13. social media
  14. 10
  15. follow
  16. how to
  17. top
  18. blog post
  19. check out
  20. new blog post

I think this is a great list, because it is consistent with general copywriting tips, that you’d find over at Copyblogger and also contains real data.

We also covered also some of the latest changes to Twitter with this piece about Twitter statistics, where a lot of the new insights get put into a very different, new context.

Time to move onto the next network to optimize your headlines: Facebook


HOW TO APPROACH FACEBOOK POSTINGS: THE POWER OF SELF-EXPLANATORY PICTURES

Of course, when posting to your Facebook page or profile, the underlying elements are very similar to Twitter. And yet Facebook couldn’t be any more different as a medium than Twitter.

Test it yourself. Here's how.

All the research, latest Facebook statistics and sensational headlines aside, the key to knowing what works best for you on Facebook is to test it well again. For example, saying “post pictures” isn’t at all helpful.

Instead of pictures alone, which is often one of the biggest social media mistakes, here is one assumption that we’ve found has been validated over and over again on our own Facebook page:

Post pictures that are meaningful without having to read any text next to it.

Let’s compare two picture postings that explain this best. Both were shared at the same time, on two different days during weekdays.

Here is example 1:

Here is example 2:

Clearly example 1 performs much better and the biggest difference is that the picture itself already tells the whole story. In example 2, on the other hand, you have no idea what’s going on. So we’re using this as an internal rule to avoid the “post pictures to Facebook craze,” that I’d put as this:

Posting pictures to Facebook only works well if the pictures are self-explanatory.

Looking at our data from our social analytics, we see this over and over again from the “Top Posts” algorithm that we have in place. The ones that perform the best are those where the picture is self-explanatory:

Now although this may sound anecdotal, I see a lot of people following the “post picture” advice too blindly (ourselves included!).

Instead, what we found is that if you think something is a strong article, but doesn’t have a good photo--post the link, which goes in line with what the latest Facebook statistics and research found as well.

What the research says

All the general research on this topic from any company out there that has analyzed Facebook data agrees on one point: Pictures outperform everything.

Our friends at KISSmetrics put it the best way, showing that this applies for likes, clicks, shares, and comments alike:

In terms of post length, they also have some interesting findings where it seems to be crucial to keep it short to increase your engagement:

One other interesting element that I’ve personally observed is that self-reference works wonders on Facebook. While this isn’t such a good idea on Twitter, where I (anecdotally) rarely get engagement for being self-referential, this can be very powerful on Facebook.

The more you mention “I,” the more likes you can get, says Dan Zarrella:

Of course, be wary of what the best time to post to Facebook is, on which we’ve recently published a guide, because that will likely have a huge impact on how well the posting will perform too.

With Facebook being an entirely different beast from Twitter, we’ve got one place left, where headlines are more important than anything: your blog posts.

Let’s dig in!

HOW TO WRITE GOOD BLOG POST TITLES--THE ULTIMATE SCIENCE.

Now onto the most powerful of all, the headline of articles. If you’d do a quick google search here, you’ll quickly see that I’m not the first one who has thought to write about that. For another crucial element, the best time to publish your posts, we’ve written a separate guide.

Of course, let’s start with a testing method again:

Test blog post headlines first on Twitter--the Andrew Chen technique

Here is how he validates which articles he should write and how to name them, too:

Using retweets to assess content virality
Recently I’ve been running an experiment:

1. Tweet an insight, idea, or quote.
2. See how many people retweet it.
3. If it catches, then I write a blog post elaborating on the topic.

Here is the tweet he sent originally to validate this:

And with dozens of retweets on that quote, he went ahead and wrote that exact article, which has now become an almost legendary post. Joel picked up on this and recently tried the same thing with this tweet, which wildly validated the idea for a blog post that will go live soon, too:

So, if you have created a Twitter following that you can use to validate your blog post headlines and ideas, I think this is one of the most powerful ways to make sure none of your precious time goes to waste.

You can, of course, use that same technique for Facebook, too, in case Twitter is not your forte. The advantage of using Facebook is that you’ll probably get a bunch of interesting comments, too, that you can use for the article and make writing it easier still. Here is how Joel did this.

The best research on writing great blog post titles

Of course, there has been tons and tons of research on which article headlines spread the best. The single most comprehensive source I’ve found however comes from Iris Shoor. Iris and her company Takipi have analyzed the top 100 blogs on the Web and tried to figure out which headlines work the best.

Here are her three top tips:

Give your readers numbers--the bigger the better.

  • What they found is that the bigger a number in a post, the farther it spreads. Iris puts it more clearly with great examples:

  • Make lists. “8 reasons to…”, “15 tips to…” – Indicating a number of items on your post makes it sound more diverse, practical, and easier to read. We found these to work exceptionally well.

  • Use digits rather than words. “10 ways to…” works better than “Ten ways to….” This is often a common blogging mistake that can easily be avoided.
  • Place the number at the head of the sentence. “5 ways social networks are changing the world” will work better than “How social networks change the world in 5 ways”

Of course, we can’t always make a list post for every article we write. In that case, the following might work:

Everyone wants to be taught: Use “Introduction”, “The beginners guide”, “In 5 minutes” and “DIY”

A key idea about writing great headlines that great copywriters have emphasized for a long time--and that Iris and her team also underscore--is to teach people something.

After all, we all want to get smarter. A common way to think about it is to make a lot of “How to” articles. The bad news is that while they do teach people something, they don’t spread as far.

Instead, change it to something more specific, so people will know beforehand what they will get.

An example:

  • Instead of: “How to get better at organizing your day.”

  • Try: “The 5-minute guide to organizing your day for more focus and productivity”

Being specific, while also showing that the article will be in depth, is one of the most important things to focus on. In a recent example of a post about how to go about social sharing, this seemed to resonate extremely well with people.

General words that make posts more viral

Last but not least, Iris also offers us a list of different words, that, if used in a headlines, they make for a big uptick in viral spread:

  • Smart
  • Surprising
  • Science
  • History
  • Hacks (hacking, hackers, etc)
  • Huge and big
  • Critical

Iris also offers some more great tips on this topic and the research methodology. Fortunately all of this seems to be in line with the top performing articles on our blog, too.

Over to you now. How do you approach finding great titles for your tweets, Facebook posts, and blog posts? I’d love your best tips on this in the comments.

(Reprinted with permission from Buffer.)

[Image: Flickr user Theilr]

Add New Comment

16 Comments

  • imera

    Thanks Leo! I'm going to save this and give these a go! Especially the A/B approach and using verbs over nouns. Thanks for creating Buffer - since we are in New Zealand and most of our audience is on the other side of the world, Buffer has been so helpful for getting out those tweets while still getting our beauty sleep!

  • John Tepper Marlin

    If nouns don't work, why use "Guide to... etc."?? I retweeted as "Write Tweets Cleverly -- Scientifically"

  • shaylynnvacca321

    my Aunty Alexa got an awesome silver Hyundai Elantra Coupe
    only from working part-time off a pc. browse around here J­a­m­2­0­.­ℂ­o­m

  • Blake Ian

    Great read, sending around to my entire team to strengthen our content!

  • Jim Makos

    I found the Andrew Chen technique, self reference and using more verbs advice top-notch! I will make sure to keep them in mind in my next tweets/sharing stories. Thanks for the detailed post!

  • Barry Chignell

    Great, in depth article, thanks very much. Some great rules to note and follow :)

  • sanchitkhera7

    Man, thank you so much for sharing this article. This is amazing and im sure that spammers will misuse this information for atleast a few months

  • Chloe Thompson

    Love this article, but when I clicked to tweet it, the automated tweet was too long!

  • Hieu Luu

    This is your chance to test yourself on the article contents and change the headline :) Add your personal touch.

  • Joe Passkiewicz

    Great tips here Leo! Thanks for sharing- and thanks for Buffer! I LOVE it!
    I would include adding emotion and transparency. I glaze over on clinical lists and lectures. Here are some examples: "How I killed my job by speaking my mind" "7 easy ways to show your team that you care" Stuff like that.
    Thanks for your work here!
    Joe Passkiewicz
    www.leadingbyserving.com