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A Scientific Guide To Writing Popular (and Shareable) Headlines For Twitter, Facebook, and Your Blog

26 Nov

Category colourworks


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 starting social media site, Buffer a little more than two years ago, people have been asking their team about one very specific question:

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

Here they answer those questions after doing some in-depth research.

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:


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.

For the rest of the article and a guide to writing headlines for your blog posts, click here.