Three things to keep in mind when writing great headlines for social media

July 5, 2017

Written by NewsWhip

We look at three factors that contribute to engaging headlines on social media, including making the titles timely, educational and inspirational. 

Last summer, we looked at the characteristics of successful headlines on Facebook, parsing the numbers in the NewsWhip database to pick commonalities in the titles of stories that attracted a lot of engagement on the platform.
Our findings at the time pointed to great headlines:

  • Being conversational and descriptive,
  • Speaking to a personal experience
  • Being vivid and interesting,
  • Not tricking or misleading the reader.

All of these principles remain the same, especially the last factor, which is now generally de rigueur for any sites looking to seriously develop an engaged and loyal readership through social media. Then at the start of this year, we took another look at headlines that were seeing engagement to see if there were any other obvious trends. Now we’ve identified a few new factors of note for successful headlines on social media, based on the data we’ve seen in NewsWhip Analytics.

As well as the advice we’ve already dispensed around headline etiquette on this blog, here are three more factors to consider when looking to pitch the most effective story description to social readers.

1. Think about how to make your headlines timely

When we look at the most popular stories on social media in the last month, many had to do with current events. Our data has seen a large growth in engagement with political and news content this year.

In January, an update to the Facebook algorithm saw ‘more timely‘ updates being favoured in the news feed. One example of a site that succeeds by this measuring stick comes from the, who frequently inject urgency and an element of ‘newness’ into stories by using the adjective ‘just’. stories in NewsWhip Spike

This helps the site perform strongly in breaking news situations on social media.

Non news sites can try and make their headlines a bit more timely, too. Even if your story is evergreen (such as an explainer, or a how-to guide), repurposing the headline and description text to explain why it’s relevant to current events gives it new currency for people browsing their social news feeds.

2. Aim to educate, inspire, uplift

We know that emotion has a huge role to play in the psychology of what prompts readers to share on social media. But publishers can learn a lot about how to create stories that will offer something for readers to learn.

One recent example of a story with an educational angle on a story was the Huffington Post’s ‘The Hourly Income You Need To Afford Rent Around The U.S.‘, which wasn’t an uplifting story for most readers, but broke down a complex story in a relatable way for readers. Another recent popular example from is ‘The summer solstice is upon us: 7 things to know about the longest day of the year‘, which also manages to incorporate the element of timeliness mentioned above.

As usual in social publishing, there isn’t a one-size fits all for platforms and publishers however. At our recent WhipSmart conference, Meena Thiruvengadam, Global Head of Audience Engagement at Bloomberg explained how emotion that attracts engagement can vary by platform:

“For [Bloomberg], certain content performs better on certain platforms, so we look to make sure we’re highlighting the right content on the right platforms, but we don’t try to force everything on every platform because the way people consume content is different.

I think people can tell if you’re cutting corners and just putting the same thing up everywhere. Communities tend to appreciate it if you cater to the way content is consumed on the specific platform. For instance, something like Instagram, works for business brands because a lot of business content speaks to people who are looking for inspiration, motivation and education, and things like that.”

3. It’s ok to vary your headline word count

There is a perennially debated topic – is there a magic number for how many words your headlines should contain?

Of course, it’s usually a good idea to make things as succinct as possible. If you can get the message across in fewer characters, the headline will fit better in link previews, and avoid being cut off automatically. However, the word count heavily engaged headlines do vary from site to site, so it can be difficult to prescribe a hard number to target over and over.

The Atlantic is a good example of a site that cleverly varies its headlines depending on the situation. This chart shows the ten most engaged headline on The Atlantic in the last 30 days, showing how the site varies its headline length.

The Atlantic’s most engaged stories on social media, June/July 2017

While the sites does employ many lengthy descriptive titles to great effect (‘A Resolution Condemning White Supremacy Causes Chaos at the Southern Baptist Convention’), by far the most popular story for The Atlantic in the last few months was a story titled ‘My Family’s Slave‘, a very lengthy biographic story, with a main title of three words. The story went viral across social media.

Of course, it’s now possible to try multiple titles. Many publishers are already using A/B testing for their headlines, and using technology like Chartbeat to see what’s resonating best with readers from different channels. If one title isn’t having the expected effect, vary it to try and achieve your metrics.

The above findings are some solid principles to keep in mind for any social media team tasked with selling the story on different platforms but imposing very strict headline word or character counts could lead to missed opportunities for sites. Better to have a general headline style and tone policy, recommended lengths for different platforms, and then leave it to the various editors to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Try NewsWhip Analytics for the perfect view of stories that are resonating with your audience today. 

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