Blogging by Numbers: How to Create Headlines That Get Retweeted

here 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 Tim  Twitter profile and Facebook fan page in the last six months.

Here’s what he found to work well…

The Art

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

He 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. His 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.

For clicks, the pay-off can be handsome. In Tim 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:

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 Tim 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?

But, is the headline the only factor contributing to retweets? Of course not. Tim purposefully wrote bare bones posts on other experimental blogs of his but crafted headlines by the numbers, to prove  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.

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

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.”

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