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How to Write Compelling Social News Headlines

Posted on Jan 11th, 2010
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    Crafting unmissable headlines which resonate with social web users is something which appears deceptively simple. Yet it’s an art form requiring writers, bloggers and marketers to craft thousands of headlines to perfect.

    As someone who has been successful with creating content that goes hot across social channels I’ve come to appreciate the art and challenge of crafting sticky headlines. In fact, crafting headlines is equally if not more challenging than leads and even content itself.

    Something many bloggers have down, but communications professionals aren’t always fluent in, is the art of crafting headlines specifically for social news sites/users. While there is no one formula for success, I’m going to share 5 things I’ve learned from experience as a blogger, social news user, PR pro and marketer.

    1. Work backwards – content first, then headline

    If you’ve got an idea for a piece of content you think will be popular or if you’v done your homework and researched the types of content that resonate on social channels, great – the hardest part is done. Now jot down a title as a work in progress and create your content. After completion, bearing you know you’ve knocked out a winner, challenge yourself to re-create the headline specifically to resonate with your key audience. You’d be surprised at how much easier this is than working on the perfect headline up front. Having great content in front of you, then selling it through a sticky headline is always easier than writing it staring at a blank screen.

    2. Leverage archetypes/formulas which work for others (especially outside your niche)

    Smashing Magazine has made page one of Digg more than 200 times, frequently using the same headline formula (number + adjective + design-related item + sticky message – i.e. 83 Beautiful WordPress Themes You (Probably) Haven’t Seen). Why would they change something which is causing users to instinctively share posts like crazy? Also, don’t be afraid to use archetypes that work in categories external of yours – especially if no one in your niche is using them.

    3. Headlines should be outrageous, engaging, emotional, useful, counter-intuitive or remarkable – not to the world, but to your community

    Your headline doesn’t have to make sense to everyone. There isn’t enough space to do that and still fit within something like a Tweet (only 140 characters + 20 character tiny URL) or Digg headline (60 characters). What it should do is conjure one or more of the adjectives listed above to the influencers – or 1%’ers as Jackie Huba calls them – of your community. To achieve this you must first understand your community – ideally by being a member yourself and able to empathize with them.

    4. Don’t just create content, actually use social news sites

    You can’t understand social communities at the level necessary to permeate them consistently with your content/headlines without being a member of those communities. This is not optional, and if you’re a blogger or marketer who merely creates content but doesn’t participate you’re missing half the picture. Learn the hot buttons of the popular, macro communities and you’ll get a general sense of how to craft headlines for social news. Then, drill down and become a member of more targeted communities relevant to your niche to learn what resonates with specific groups.

    5. SEO intersection – frequently forgotten, always vital

    A by-product of news stories which go popular on the social web is links. Content created goes popular, gets a ton of links up front and as a by-product the engine juice delivered helps create authority for that page. If the content is really good, it will continue to receive organic links months or years after it’s been posted due to visibility from search engines (and create a ranking that’s self-reinforcing). In other words, social news success can be long term: a story that’s successful has the potential to be a high visibility entry point to your site for years to come even after the initial wave of buzz.  Craft two headlines for your stories to help achieve this: 1 for search engines (title tag) and one for users (page title).


    As social Diva Liz Strauss has pointed out, it’s not just about the headlines – you also need equally remarkable content to back it up in order to achieve any kind of worthwhile goal such as attracting subscribers or sales leads. But the importance of using clever headlines to help your content stand out in the first place is vital.

    As the firehose of real-time social content speeds up, the value of well-crafted headlines will increase. And the truth is, tips can only help so much. Writing headlines is more art than science. The best path is to consider it an iterative process, experiment with different structures, study your analytics and find what works for you.

    What are your tips for writing effective social news headlines?