Choosing the right word—no matter the occasion—is a bit of an art.
This is particularly true on the Internet, where a reader’s first impression of an article or blog post is probably word-based. This is a stark contrast to the world of music, movies, and even books, where you have a cover image to help inform your decision. When all you have to go on is a headline or email subject line, which words are going to capture attention best?
Communication experts, marketers, and PR specialists stay awake at night wondering that very thing. They’ve come up with a list of words that science tells us are very effective at not only getting people’s attention, but at helping to create highly shareable content. Some might be a surprise; others might not.
Let’s break it down by post type.
Audiences know what to expect when they’re browsing blog posts. On a blog, there will be a handful of genuinely useful or informative posts, along with no small amount of junk. How can they sift through it all? What words might tip them off?
Startup Moon analyzed 100 popular blogs to quantify what kinds of words and phrases make a headline more successful. Here are some of the best words to use in blog post headlines:
Do you notice a trend? Most of these words suggest to the reader that the post will impart knowledge or make them smarter. It’s also no surprise that “surprise” gets a lot of attention. Who doesn’t like to learn something unexpected?
Many blogs are centered on helping their readers to learn something or improve themselves in some way. When it comes to sharing such content, bloggers have the benefit of taking advantage of a fairly benevolent reader base; if people have made positive changes in their own life, they’re inclined to share that knowledge.
Facebook and Twitter
Social media sharing is a different animal from sharing through blog posts. Blogs tend to be read on a desktop environment, where people have more time to browse and read. On the other hand, social media appeals to people using smartphones and other mobile devices. About two-thirds of all social media activity happens on mobile devices.
What this means is that readers are looking for words that will tip them off that the content won’t take much of their time. At the very least, readers want information that can easily be broken down into bite-size pieces if they have to come back to it later.
According to Dan Zarrella, the “social media scientist,” certain words are far more successful at spurring engagement in the form of retweets and replies. Zarrella analyzed more than 10,000 of the most retweeted tweets and made a list of the 20 most retweetable words and phrases. Here are some of the most successful words to use on Twitter:
- How to
Shareable content on Twitter would seem to be concerned with imparting as much knowledge as possible in a short amount of time. “Top 10” lists are a big hit when it comes to sharing, because they’re easily digestible and tend to tap into social trends and timely headlines.
Marketo released a study (PDF) that outlined what types of Facebook posts tend to go viral, based on more than 31,000 data points from more than 60 pages. They found that the following types of content are the most likely to garner lots of shares:
- Inspirational content: quotes, advice, feel-good posts
- Uniting content: putting your readers under the same banner, encouraging them to share this with their friends
- Funny stuff: images, quotes, anything that is acceptable to most groups
- Giveaways: contests, discounts, and special offers available to anyone
- Amazing content: unbelievable photographs and crazy facts
- How-to style content: quick tips, engaging advice
Like Twitter, we see that there’s an emphasis placed on how-to guides or other informative content. Words such as “amuse” tend to indicate that there’s a photo enclosed, especially since images are highly shareable. The word “gives” suggests a post about free or low-cost items.
When it comes to images, Facebook and Twitter have seen an explosion in the popularity of infographics lately. Mosquito Magnet’s infographic about mosquito prevention was a big hit on social media, because it’s both fascinating and relevant to anyone who hates mosquitoes. (And who doesn’t?) Words like “facts” and “myths” underscore the idea that readers will discover something they didn’t already know, and even the URL-AreYouA.MosquitoMagnet.com-is catchy.
Watch your words (and numbers)
In addition to keeping your eyes open for opportunities to use these specific words, there are some general trends that you might want to keep in mind. According to Twitter, action words, particularly verbs, tend to be more widely clicked and shared than are nouns or adjectives.
Numbers also make for shareable headlines. In general, the number of shares for a particular piece of content has a direct correlation with the size of the number in the title.
Also of note: Readers will be tempted to click on a headline if they get the impression that the content is going to challenge them and their beliefs or will simply undermine popular sentiment or conventional wisdom. Headlines that promise controversy are big hits. A great case study is Tech Crunch’s second-most-shared post: Apple Is Not the Most Valuable Company in the World.
A matter of intuition
Hopefully you’ve gotten something out of this quick primer on the science of word choice in headlines. Yet no amount of forensic inquiry is going to replace a much simpler test: Ask yourself, “Would I click on this?” Chances are good you’ve got a lot in common with your target market. Trust your intuition, and everything else will follow.
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