The Art of Writing Great Twitter Headlines

How to Write Headlines

Twitter has become the place for sharing content links. If your content catches attention on Twitter and spreads, suddenly you’re getting significant traffic from people who may have never visited your site before.

But don’t forget to share other people’s quality content on Twitter. This helps you build up a Twitter audience that values your editorial judgment, which in turns helps you when you have something of your own to share.

In both cases, what you share on Twitter is not just about the actual value of the content. It’s also about whether the content gets viewed and appreciated in the first place.

Yep … the difference is in the headline. You’ve heard this before, right?

Same as it Ever Was… But Worse

Every time I tell people about the 80/20 rule of headlines, they seem shocked. Remember that one?

On average, 8 out of 10 people will read a headline, but only 2 out of 10 will go on to read the content. This is in a typical headline environment, such as a newspaper, magazine, or web page.

In an email inbox, the percentages are likely worse. The battle for attention intensifies due to the nature of the environment.

Now, think about a Twitter stream.

People are scanning more ruthlessly than ever, looking for interesting tidbits. Your content link is competing with conversations, quips, and tantalizing revelations related to this morning’s breakfast cereal.

Time to up your headline game. But first, let’s review the foundational elements of solid headline writing.

What’s the Reward for Reading?

The first thing to keep in mind is that a headline is a promise. It promises some kind of benefit or reward in exchange for attention. That reward could range from an amusing diversion to the solution to a pressing problem.

The best way to make sure your headlines always offer a compelling reward is to go back to the basics of copywriting. In this case, go back to the tried, tested, and true 4-U approach.

Your headlines must:

  1. Be USEFUL to the reader,
  2. Provide her with a sense of URGENCY,
  3. Convey the idea that the main benefit is somehow UNIQUE; and
  4. Do all of the above in an ULTRA-SPECIFIC way.

For a whole lot of elaboration on this, check out How to Write Magnetic Headlines.

The Triumphant Return of the Short Headline

Some people will tell you that a good Twitter headline is as short as possible. This is due not only to the 140-character limit that Twitter imposes, but also because in order for your headline to spread, people need room to retweet it. Twitter culture dictates that you give credit to the person who originally exposed you to a tweet when you retweet, so extra space is needed for the hat tip.

Too many people, however, focus on “short” and forget about “as possible.” A better way to think about it is as long as necessary, but no longer. Luckily, history provides us with some strong encouragement in the short headline department.

A quick review of The 100 Greatest Advertisements by Julian Lewis Watkins shows that 95% of the most effective headlines from the early years of magazine advertising were eight words or less. This is because magazine copywriters had to write tight headlines due to space concerns, just like Twitter users.

Studies done from the direct mail industry show that about 50% to 60% of the most effective headlines are eight words or less, leaving ample indication that longer headlines work, too. On a webpage, there are no space concerns, so web copywriters found that longer headlines communicated more benefit right at the top of the page where eye-tracking studies show people focus, and therefore worked better.

So, Twitter brings us back full-circle at a time when content is the new advertising. But it’s clear that a well-written short headline has power, especially when in a level-playing-field environment where everyone has the same constraints.

Rewrite for Retweets

For the most part, you should write your article and blog post headlines pursuant to the same guidelines given above. There are certain cases where I’ll modify my own content headline for Twitter, but it’s rare.

The real value in headline rewriting comes when tweeting other people’s content. Let’s face it, many people write pretty crappy headlines, even when the content is solid. Doing the editorial work can help you build a loyal Twitter following, because you’re finding content that might otherwise be lost in the noise, and then rewriting the headline to better entice people to pay attention.

This can be easier than it sounds. Too many writers love to use obtuse or clever headlines that fail to do justice to their content.

Simply apply the 4 U approach after reading the content and before you tweet. Over time, this will become second nature to you, and your reputation on Twitter will thrive while you send traffic to people who need to learn what you know.

Valuable Content Rules

It’s clear from observation that people will retweet based on the headline alone, before even clicking through to the content.

Your followers may retweet based on a headline alone, but only because they trust you. Your past performance and editorial judgment in selecting (and producing) quality content is what leads to that trust.

Quality content is still the essential ingredient, but make sure people actually appreciate the content you share. Becoming a better headline writer will make that happen for you.

Image Courtesy of Marisa Allegra Williams.

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger and CEO of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Brian on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Nice, in-depth post Brian. I think sometimes that you shoudn’t even include the headline of a blog post or similar if you are writing about it on Twitter.

    I find something like “this made my day [link]” or “this video is hilarious [link]” tends to work well as well!

    Cheers,
    Glen

  2. Great post!! I am getting more and more into Twitter at the moment! And I never thought I would!

    I love the 4-U approach. Easy to remember, and apply.

  3. I’ve actually gotten in the habit of rewriting/further shortening my tweets if they’re within a few characters of the 140 character maximum. That gives a bit more “breathing room” for others to retweet without having to rewrite my original tweet.

  4. @Glen – you can’t really write that if you are promoting your own stuff though – which I think is the point of this post…!

    ‘Hey everyone – this made my day [link] probably because I wrote it…’

    hehehe

  5. I’m so guilty of not making things short enough. I’m just happy if I don’t go over. I’ve only been seriously active on Twitter for about a month now, but it’s already been a total game changer for me. I find a lot more reading material there than I do in my feed reader these days. Headlines deserve far more attention than I’m giving them. Thanks for the push.

  6. Good post, thanks.

  7. I’m glad you touched on the hazards of clever headlines. Unless someone can see a summary that might explain the headline (not available using Twitter), if it’s not clear it’s ignored. (Even if a summary is available, clever is usually a bad idea.)

    I also think keywords are important – not in an SEO sense but in the sense that it helps grab attention when people are skimming tweets. Placement also matters. If the important word is at the end, especially if it’s a long headline, it gets missed. So something like, “Tips on how to use this new tool they call Twitter,” is better as “”Twitter: how to use it.” (Yes, it’s shorter too.) My point is it helps to get the attention grabbing words as close to the start of the headline as possible, where we begin our scanning.

  8. I sure hope that tweets widget at the bottom of the post will be available to Thesis Dev folks! Pretty bad ass.

    Never thought of using 4-U in Twitterville. Thanks.

  9. Key point: people learn to trust (or not) your editorial judgment when you suggest interesting links. Therefore, everything you forward or RT today impacts your followers’ quality expectations regarding what you WILL suggest in the future.

  10. Hey Brian;

    One trick is to use the word “Twitter” in your headline…

    Mike

  11. One thing I’ve found on many blogs I read that I want to share is that their page titles are not customized. I use delicious to feed things to twitter (so any blog I bookmark for twitter gets two pumps from me, one on twitter and one on delicious). But if someone’s blog is set up so that they have their url as the page title, I have to take time to go through and put in an appropriate title, or cut and paste the title. I usually only highlight things I really want to share, so usually take time to do so, but I’ve found over time I’m more likely to share from those blogs that I know will have an appropriate title already filled in when I click on my delicious bookmark button.

  12. ps. Brian,

    I think this is even more important for trackbacks. Most popular articles have dozens of trackbacks. Which one will people read? If you check out most trackback text, you will see 99% go over 8 words and blend into each other. Short will set you apart.

  13. Great tips! Gee, and I thought the 80/20 rule was high!

    just posted this on followers, check it out:
    http://printedproof.com/blog/twitter-one-tweet-at-a-time/

  14. Great post. That’s true, the most important part of your copy is your headline. That’s the main part to concentrate on the most. One caught my attention earlier, it said “5 Reasons Why You’ll Click This Link” and it made me click it, good example.

    Terrance Charles
    http://twitter.com/terrancecharles

  15. It is quite scary how dangerously good a great headline can be on Twitter.

    And the best part… you can just reuse old headlines to accomplish new goals.

    I think we need to take a closer look at Cosmopolitan magazine. They receive more sales from newsstands than from subscriptions (as of 2007). That shows they know how to stand out on a crowded magazine rack and I think their success could help people on Twitter.

    What do you think?

  16. Content is really the KING and Marketing is QUEEN! And one way of marketing content is thru twitter.

  17. Good post. Headlines are my weak area but I never seem to take the time to work on that. We should write tight headlines regardless of Twitter and its 140 character limit.
    Thanks for posting this.

    Patti Stafford

  18. A little shameless self promotion here, but I actually wrote a tiny app that helps you work out your maximum retweetable length with the Retweetulator: http://projects.arapehlivanian.com/retweetulator

  19. a way of making great tittles is adapting the ones from a mag to ur blog!

  20. Don’t overlook a bonus of the ‘short as possible’ method; it frees up characters required for people to retweet you.

    For example: Retweeting a story written by @copyblogger requires 11 characters for the username and 4 for the “RT @”. That’s 15 valuable characters out of your 140!

    You may not be able to do much about a long handle but you can write shorter tweets!

  21. I think this also applies to any writing that needs to be noticed whether that is articles or press releases.
    I agree with Lucas that the shorter headline the more appealing a post can be. I assume that the article or post will be just as concise as the headline and give relevant information without all the waffle.

  22. Be careful about any advice based on a particular service:

    1. Is the usually the same advice you can give for any of the other services.

    2. You should always be spreading out your efforts to networking and communicate with people across multiple channels. Be ready and prepared if your beloved Twitterrr goes away tommorrow.

  23. Awesome post, we can learn to improve more and more everyday with information like this. Thanks alot for share your knowlage with all of us.

  24. Another important tip: Don’t hit the 140-character limit. Leave enough characters open to make a retweet easy for other people.

  25. Lucas, Patrick & Danny:

    Each of your comments demonstrate that you didn’t bother to read the article before commenting. Solid strategy.

  26. Being “urgent” and “unique” have always seemed to be important ways to craft a Twitter headline in my opinion – as it truly gives the reader some collateral or reason to actually visit the post or link being promoted.

    Excellent post – as usual.
    Thank you,

    Christian

  27. I run a Twitter account for one of my local newspapers, so headline selection is very, very important to us. I’ve found that by using services that allow you to track your stats — such as Hoot Suite — you can easily track which headlines work the best.

    At the moment, I have Twitterfeed tweeting out our RSS headlines. It basically grabs the headline that the columnist wrote and spits it out. Since our columnists usually write pretty good headlines, we haven’t had too much trouble with the spread of content. I would like to see more articles being retweeted, however, and I am eventually going to be moving our RSS feed to Hoot Suite so I can more easily track how many people are clicking on our links.

    It would be interesting to see how everyone else runs their content on Twitter. You can DM me @elizabethbarone or chat with me here; I’ll definitely be back, as this is a pretty cool site so far!

  28. hmmm.. interesting and great….so 80/20 rule applies here as well.

  29. It looks like this 80/20 rule is just a guideline, not actually based in any studies of readership. I’m suspicious of statements that are really just judgment calls that are described as a universal rule or as “True” with a capital “T”.

    I won’t get into “95% of the most effective headlines from the early years of magazine advertising were eight words or less!”

  30. Great article.
    I like to add hashtags as well, for the purpose of the tweet (and therefore the link) being returning in a search for that tag, and that is provides a category to the tweet reader.

    Phill

  31. Good points. The headlines I hate are the ones that do convey the sense of urgency, but then send you to some moneymaking site. I have a feeling too that me and other readers miss a lot of good content because the headlines are too vague.

  32. Brian,

    This is itself one of the most Useful, Urgent, and Unique things I’ve seen on the web in a while. I’ve been waiting for more in-depth looks at Twitter writing, and this is it right here.

    Definitely deserving of a RT.

  33. Hello Brian,
    This is amazing article… very much informative and useful.

  34. Thanks for the crisp and clear message – content is the king.

  35. It is true that being influenced by the connection with a blogger plays a role in what is read and what is not read. If I’m short on time I will sometimes scan past an interesting title and read something from someone I’m already familiar with. I prefer to keep headlines as short as possible.

    When I first started blogging I would write headings for the sake of catching someone’s eye, but I’ve learned that’s not the best approach.

    I enjoy “playing” on Twitter, promoting other bloggers and just connecting.

  36. Great and useful article. Thanks for that.

  37. I appreciate your ponit in the valuable content rules section. Twitter is indeed a place where trust is important with your followers, when they RT they are in effect telling their followers you are worth listening to (and following). Nice work Brian.

  38. When I started my blog, I thought my headlines would be less key in the mix, just because of the style of my site, but over time, I’ve realized that they’re the most important part of what makes ShortFormBlog worth reading.

    A good, conversational headline sets the tone for the entire post, and at this point, I write my headlines for Twitter rather than for my site, because the headlines translate so well to both.

    A good headline on Twitter sells the sizzle and offers the steak. It encourages you to dig deeper in an environment that on its surface looks shallow.

    A good headline on Twitter breeds interest in good content.

    Great post man.

  39. Great information – keep up the good work!

  40. It is quite scary how dangerously good a great headline can be on Twitter.

    And the best part… you can just reuse old headlines to accomplish new goals.

    I think we need to take a closer look at Cosmopolitan magazine. They receive more sales from newsstands than from subscriptions (as of 2007). That shows they know how to stand out on a crowded magazine rack and I think their success could help people on Twitter.

    What do you think?

  41. Really informative… I didn’t know that headlines with 8 or less words used to be so effective. But then, as you said, with Twitter, we are again facing restrictions in terms of characters we can write. So, Twitter is helping us become creative :)

  42. Oh I love this post! I am an admitted flub when it comes to headlines – I’m a great writer, but the art of headline writing has always eluded me lol.

    so, thank you, Brian, for the tips – I needed them! :)

    Many blessings,
    Dee

  43. I don’t think you should ever use a long headline even on a sales page… if you feel you need to, then break it up into a pre and post headline.

    I’ll definitely be using these tips on twitter

  44. I recently started on Twitter, and I have been looking for info and tips on how to use it to boost my business. Thank you for this invaluable info on how to create the most effective headlines.

    I didn’t realise that only so few of the people who read the headline will go ahead and read the article – the 80/20 Rule of Headlines – good to know this because it means the headlines must be very effective!

  45. To be honest I still can’t descipher the automated trend of Twitter.

    People autofollow, autoanswer, autounfollow, autotweet…

    If every single thing’s automated on Twitter how exactly are people buying from you, even if you have great headlines?

    Sometimes when I look at the timeline, it feels like I’m watching a waterfall… just tons and tons of useless messages, clickbank product’s, paydotcom products, membership sites, etc.

    If people actually BUY through looking at their timelines, then I’m definitely going to freak out lol

    Thanks for the info anyway, will surely help for other purposes!

  46. Very good information. I don’t think about my headlines a lot, and I am realizing more and more that I need to work on them. I like the idea of rewriting headlines. I’ve always felt a little shy of altering other people’s headlines, but now I see it’s good practice for me, and might draw readers to click on the link, so it’s good for the author too!

  47. I guess the 4 U’s hold true….I always find myself clicking through a tweet that contains one of those elements. If it doesn’t it’s usually just noise.

  48. A good content with a good headline is worth retweeting. Thanks for bringing into my attention about rewriting retweets. I used to like copy and paste my RTs and what you suggested would be a better way to do RTs. My followers will trust me more if i’d do that. :)

  49. Brian, You are truly a genius of copywriting.
    but can you write a post for me on How to promote Amazon products with killer titles?
    I really need help!
    Please help!!!!

  50. Hi Brian, proves that good content is timeless! Thanks for Twitter etiquette, which applies across the board to all social media – reposting on Facebook, Google+, etc. I want to add another tip: if you write a blog, compose the Tweet for readers to RT – and place it in the body of your blog, at beginning or end. It saves the readers time and guarantees some consistancy in the Retweets about your content. An example of this practice is Saeed Khan’s blog http://www.onproductmanagement.com where the tweet is composed complete with hashtags for retweeting.

  51. Can you think of any truly standout examples of great twitter headlines that you would use to pinpoint as a stellar “how-to”?

  52. If this post was called “The Art of Writing Twitter Headlines”, I wonder if I would have clicked through from Twitter?

    An underlying theme in this post is don’t be lazy – everybody else just retweets links without mods.
    Thanks for the motivation ;)

  53. Good post! Many people often publish only their own stuff on Twitter which is a huge mistake, it is a social media site after all so one needs to be social.When it comes to effective headlines on Twitter, I have noticed that they have to be interesting enough so people click on them but should never reveal too much.A tall order, I know.

  54. Brian,

    I spent my free time over the weekend and today reading through all of y our Magnetic Headline series. I have learned so much! I have two pages of headlines notes as well as ideas on improving the focus of my business blog. I’m in a slightly different market than most of your audience- so I thought you might want to know that an indie artist/crafter is benefiting from your posts too!

    Your explanations and examples really got me thinking and helped me figure out a few problems I’ve been mulling over lately. Really looking forward to trying out some of these headline strategies soon.

    Thanks again!