What Are The 3 Scientific Rules For Writing Viral Headlines?

With the rise of social media, the humble headline has become a big business.

In the fraction of a second that a consumer sees a headline, that person makes the decision whether or not to click.  Entire fortunes have been built on that fraction of a second.  Entire companies like Buzzfeed and Upworthy have been built around the effort to optimize them.

Sadly, these for-profit companies aren’t exactly eager to reveal their secrets.  Fortunately, some Stanford researchers have done their own digging, and shared the results (which I found via yet another practitioner of the dark art of headlines, Business Insider):

By studying items that had been submitted to Reddit multiple times under different headlines, the researchers were able to draw some general conclusions about how to write good headlines:

“It’s good if you use some of the positive sentiment words in the title,” said Lakkaraju. Reddit posts with positive ideas or words perform much better than Reddit submissions with negative ideas or words.

“Shorter sentences are better and sentences that are questions are better,” said Leskovec.”

The rules are simple (be positive, keep it short, make it a question), but they work.  The researchers proved it by conducting their own experiment on Reddit:

The team pooled 85 images from their database and assigned two titles to each one, one considered “bad” by their model and the other considered “good.” They then submitted the same image with two titles at around the same time to two similar subreddits — for instance, Pics and Funny — and then figured out how their model performed. Well, two of the “good” titled pictures made the front page, and the good titles got roughly three times higher scores — 10,959 points versus 3,438 points.

For those keeping track at home, a simple headline change resulted in a tripling of results.

If you’re promoting your startup, your product, or your own brand, you’re likely to use Twitter and Facebook.  Every time you do so without optimizing your headlines, you might be giving up 67% of your potential traffic.

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