Watch Me Write a Headline That Goes Viral

Watch your blog traffic explode when you write a strong headlineSometimes I’ll see a top blogger comment on social media and boast, “I just wrote a blog post that’s going to go viral!”

When I was a newbie blogger, I would think: “How do they know that?”

Now that I’ve been blogging longer, and blogging for paying clients, I know what they mean.

Once you get a sense of what the hot button concepts are for a particular audience and what words set them off, you can build that into a headline that’s guaranteed to get a lot of attention.

I’m still not the champ at this, but I’m getting better.

The making of a great headline

The ability to write eyeball-grabbing headlines can really improve your income, so I thought I’d give you an inside look at how I create headlines that get a lot of traffic.

The place I write for right now that I can get the most visitors on is my Forbes blog about franchising and entrepreneurship.

I’ve learned that concepts my Forbes readers love include:

  • technology
  • social media
  • making tons of money
  • business ownership
  • restaurants

Any opportunity to combine two or more of these ideas tends to do well.

Forbes readers also love slideshows, so a topic that could be the basis of a related slideshow is also highly desirable and can give rise to a lot of pageviews as readers flip through the slides.

So I got excited when I saw a new survey from the foodservice trade publication QSR Magazine on the top-earning fast-food chains. What caught my attention wasn’t their rankings of the Top 50 largest chains, but that the survey also published per-unit revenue.

This store-level figure is of high interest to anyone looking to buy a franchise, and also of passing interest to diners in general — and it’s always a plus to have a topic that appeals to more than one reader segment.

Now that I had a concept — the fast-food chains where individual stores ring up the most cash — I had to find the perfect headline for it for maximum exposure. I’d build a related slideshow of the dozen top-earning brands.

Here’s where I began, and some of the iterations the headline went through before I got the final one.

First try: Million Dollar Stores: The Fast-Food Restaurants That Gross The Most

I rejected this headline first off because it’s too long. Forbes prefers headlines of 10 words or less. Visually, ones that don’t wrap around more than two lines I believe also work better because it’s less work to read through the headline.

The other problem with this headline: it’s too vague. Using “stores” at the beginning could mean any type of retail store, so that didn’t fly.

Finally, “gross” is a word with two meanings — gross profit is familiar to business owners, but regular diners might just be, um, grossed out. And think the story was about something totally different than the real topic.

Time to try again.

Second try: Top-Grossing Fast-Food Restaurants

This solved the vagueness of ‘stores,’ but failed to get rid of the “gross-out” problem.

And I think it’s too short and lacks detail. Back to the drawing board.

Third try: The Most Lucrative Fast-Food Restaurants To Own

I’m getting better! This is short enough, but I think too specific. This construction limits the audience to people who want to buy a restaurant and eliminates regular diners. Want to keep it broader.

Also, it’s just a bit too plain-vanilla. Where’s the zing? It needs something really ‘grabby’ and it’s not there yet.

And the winner is: Million-Dollar Burger: The Most Lucrative Fast-Food Restaurants

Bringing back the word “millions” from my first headline draft was a big plus — Forbes readers love posts about people making millions or even billions of dollars.

Then the contrast of millions with a burger raises curiosity. We all know burgers cost only a buck or three! So what could this mean?

By chopping “to own” off the end, the interest becomes broader to include all diners again. Who wouldn’t be curious to know which of their favorite fast-food stops is raking in the dough? Ding-ding-ding, we have a winner.

Here’s what happened when the post went live at the end of August:

Viral Forbes post - traffic report

Was it worth investing that extra hour in tinkering with the headline? You bet. Since I get paid a bonus for visitor numbers on Forbes, creating a super-strong headline that gets more eyeballs is like money in the bank.

Even if you’re not in a situation to get a cash traffic bonus, stronger headlines are worth it. They tend to create post longevity — they keep bringing traffic for your blog or your client’s blog for months and even years to come. Showing you can write these is a great way to impress clients.

Speaking of longevity…a few weeks later, Forbes decided to submit that Million Dollar Burger story to MSN, which syndicates some of Forbes’ blog content. Because all the internal links back to my own Forbes posts came along with the reprint, the new exposure on another big site resulted in this all-time record traffic spike for me back on Forbes:

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 8.55.41 AM

Yes, you read that right — this time the post went way more viral, getting over 600,000 views in a single day thanks to the MSN exposure. My husband about blew milk out his nose when I showed him that chart! (At first, I was sure it was a mistake.)

Even on a small blog, headline strength can help make a post draw ongoing traffic, as it’s more likely to be referenced and linked to in other peoples’ blog posts, and each of those links creates a new ongoing source of traffic for the post. May not happen on this scale, but I see this all the time here on this blog, where new links help a post stay busy.

One other ingredient to note that made this particular viral post possible is that I picked a topic that wasn’t too time-critical. The information should be fairly evergreen — I often use survey data that will be good until that survey is done again next year, as I did here. That gives the post 12 months of relevance.

Obviously, if this had been breaking news of the day, MSN wouldn’t have wanted to pick it up a couple weeks later. Evergreen content allows your post to keep bouncing around social media until it’s discovered by a site that could be another big traffic driver.

Let’s do it again

If you’re wondering what made that second spike on the first chart up top, it was another post. It’s about a new YouTube channel I discovered a consulting firm had started. They’re posting interviews with Walmart managers about how to get your product into their stores.

Getting into Walmart is a topic of high interest to many inventors and startup entrepreneurs, so I wanted to write it for Forbes. It offered the opportunity to mention two company names that are always of high interest to Forbes readers, Walmart and YouTube.

But sculpting the headline to be both enticing and clear was a challenge. Here are the iterations it went through:

The YouTube Channel That Helps You Get Your Product Into Walmart (too long)

How One YouTube Channel Can Help You Get In Walmart (ungrammatical and unclear — it’s not you but your product)

YouTube Tips To Help Get Your Product Into Walmart (sounds like maybe YouTube the company is giving tips, instead of this one channel)

The YouTube Videos That Help You Get Your Product On Walmart’s Shelves (too long again)

How To Get Your Product in Walmart — With A Little Help From YouTube (the corporate-vs-channel problem again)

How To Get Your Product In Walmart — How YouTube Can Help (too many ‘how’s — and still too long!)

And the winner is…

How To Get Your Product In Walmart (Hint: Check YouTube)

This parenthetical version of the headline adds interest — it’s like saying “Psst — here’s a secret!” The first part is very direct and has that strong “how to” focus that makes so many blog posts a hit.

And it also conveys clearly that the answer to how to get your product into Walmart is on a YouTube channel, rather than something YouTube itself is teaching people. The headline has 11 words, but many are short words, so it still fit on two lines.

You might think I’m crazy to spend this much time and effort picking over the exact wording and length of my headlines — until you look at the results. Investing time in perfecting your headlines is always worth it.

What headline got you the most traffic? Leave it here in the comments and tell us about your headline-writing process.

 

  1. Carol

    I”ve got more than 150 blog post ideas ready to develop and either guest pitch or publish on my own blog. I only wish I had more time to push them along.

    As the headline is possibly the most important part of each one, I generally keep that bit close to my chest for as long as I can – especially if I feel it’s good.

    Now I know you won’t like it unless we all play ball and at least suggest one. So here’s a couple I am at least prepared to own up to:

    “How to turn yourself into a super-efficient writing machine”
    “4 types of social proof YOU need on your writer website”
    Kevin Carlton recently posted..Help! No-one ever comments on my blog. What should I do?

    • Carol

      I’ve just been going through your processes above on the first of my headlines.

      Now it’s already become: “How to transform into a super-efficient freelance writing machine”

      What fun!
      Kevin Carlton recently posted..Help! No-one ever comments on my blog. What should I do?

      • Carol Tice says:

        And that’s a better headline, isn’t it?

        I think when you look at the two below, they’re fairly generic. The big problem with blog-post headlines is we’ve seen so many of these basic topics before. So your headline has to really grab eyeballs and promise something beyond the usual. I think your new headline does it better. The word “transform” is a great one for this topic I think.

        And wow — 150 headlines! That’s a lot. I’ve got maybe 2-3 dozen up my sleeve usually at any given time, but you blow the doors off that. Hopefully this exercise shows you how carefully you want to think about each word in that headline to craft it into the best possible one. When I have a big stack I usually prioritize the ideas by — you guessed it — which have the hottest headlines. ;-)

        BTW — since I wrote this post earlier this week, that Million Dollar Burger post hit ANOTHER crazy spike from MSN and racked another 300,000 views! I can’t even figure out where they’re coming from, but it’s really fun to feel like something you wrote is getting that much readership. And it’s more likely to happen with a super-strong headline.

        • Carol,

          I’ve just counted them – 178 ideas in total. That’s 178 ideas for posts not 178 attention-grabbing super-polished headlines.

          Just looking at my RSS feed now, I can see that even the best writing-related blogs are repeating the same boring-old generic themes, formulas and headlines from time to time. So I know it’s pretty damn tough – even for the best of ‘em.

          I wasn’t gonna pick out my best stuff – I always think you should keep something in reserve.

          However, I picked out the first headline because I liked the image of a ‘super-efficient freelance writing machine’.

          The second one I owned up to is a bit generic isn’t it? But the reason I picked that one out wasn’t for the headline but for the underlying idea (you’ve been talking a lot about poor-converting websites for a while now).

          Anyway, I’ve developed that one literally as I was commenting here:

          My latest version is now:

          “4 forms of social proof that convert copywriting clients like crazy”

          That’s already odds-on for more clicks than the first version – but maybe not 300,000!
          Kevin Carlton recently posted..Help! No-one ever comments on my blog. What should I do?

          • Carol Tice says:

            I agree.

            Emotional/dramatic words really help headlines get more eyeballs. Back when I wrote for BNET (R.I.P.), I discovered including the words crazy, madman, insane…all did very well for me.

            That’s a lotta ideas! Sounds like you’re a bit like me — I’m always hoping for the brain operation that will make fewer ideas enter my head, because once I have them I want to write them so much! But there’ll never be time for them all.

            • Thanks for the live therapy Carol – shame not many others are laying themselves on the line around here today.

              Wow! I’ve now got 2 headlines that are coming on a treat:

              – How YOU can become a super-fast freelance writing machine [further improved]

              – 4 ways social proof converts copywriting clients like crazy [further improved]

              Hope others can see how just a bit of extra thought is all it takes.

              BTW Once you’ve nailed your headline, don’t you find yourself changing the whole angle of your content to fit around it?
              Kevin Carlton recently posted..Help! No-one ever comments on my blog. What should I do?

              • Carol Tice says:

                YES…which is why you write the headline first. It’s a big time-saver.

                Anytime I have a writer tell me, “I like to write drafts and drafts as I muse on what the headline should be…” I know I’m talking t someone who’s not earning a living as a writer. That’s so inefficient!

  2. Taking the Freelancing Plunge: Will I Sink or Swim?
    Lorraine Reguly recently posted..Google+ Circles: The Unanswered Questions, Answered!

  3. M says:

    At the ground level, your article shows how “writing is rewriting.” You kept rewriting the headline developing the hook, and refining the line to its essence. Thanks!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Exactly — or great writing is rewriting. I think most writers don’t put enough focus on fine-tuning headlines like this. And the result is that no one reads their blog posts, and editors turn down their articles. This is one of the things we’ll be working on in Pitch Clinic.

  4. “Pushing Your Comfort Zone: Make Fear Your Friend” (this actually relates to an idea for a guest blog post I’ve been thinking of pitching you on….)

  5. P.S. I love these posts where you walk your readers through your thought process — I find it incredibly informative to see how you get from ‘A to D’ –it really cements the whole lesson in my mind in a way that straight narrative sometimes doesn’t. Thank you!

  6. Over 600,000 page views in one day! That’s incredible! I think I’d be dancing the jig (even tho I have no idea how) for days. I don’t have any headline ideas for you yet. I just may have to join you on Twitter today to learn more.

    BTW, congratulations!
    Shauna L Bowling recently posted..Dream Catchers vs. Dream Chasers

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hope you do join us!

      Believe me…I still think the traffic counter must be broken. That is just INSANE. My husband laughed his butt off…like…what?

      • Carol,the blog post showing in my comments features your blog and The Den. I got so excited when I joined, I had to shout and share. :-)
        Shauna L Bowling recently posted..Dream Catchers vs. Dream Chasers

        • Carol Tice says:

          Awesome! I will check it out. ;-) And welcome to the Den! If you have a chance, come on the #headlinepitch at 10 Pacific and we’ll talk about how you could have made that linked headline above better… ;-)

          I’m back…hey, you embedded the Den Youtube video – that’s pretty cool! Hope you’ve got your Den affiliate code on there so you can earn if folks join through your post.

  7. Is is possible to win by leaving the headlines here? The “rules” are a bit hazy… If so, I have about ten different ones I can post.
    Lorraine Reguly recently posted..Google+ Circles: The Unanswered Questions, Answered!

  8. I think you chose the best ones, although not all the other options were weak. For instance, “YouTube Tips To Help Get Your Product Into Walmart” was pretty good. I don’t think anybody would have seriously thought that YouTube the company (which is in fact Google) ids giving the tips. I would have shortened it slightly, though: “YouTube Tips To Get Your Product Into Walmart “

    • Carol Tice says:

      Right on! Great job improving that headline. Yeah, that might have worked OK, but I didn’t like YouTube being the first word, because it’s more about getting in Walmart than about YouTube.

      You have to think about how quickly people scan, and how MANY posts are appearing every day on Forbes. It’s very competitive, so little things like the order in which you’re presenting the concepts within the headline matters.

  9. Tom Bentley says:

    Carol, that was fascinating (and fun) to watch you break down your headline-writing process, and then to chart the results. Helpful information and intriguing to get into a writer’s head. Thanks.

    I’m going to play your Tweetchat game too—great practice, and can’t wait to see what other people come up with.
    Tom Bentley recently posted..If Woody Allen Was a Marketing Copywriter

  10. elsa wasserman says:

    WOW! I couldn’t stop reading your whole email and all the comments. Am still a newcomer so I really appreciate your ability to communicate and make clear the headline process. Thanks

  11. This is a great example of why your blog is one of the best for writers. The information is so thorough, clear, and helpful.

    I always tweak my headlines like you do for style, clarity, length and impact. However, I also find it helpful to do keyword research to see what terms and phrases are most popular. In that case it’s less about the topic and more about wording (ex. children vs. kids). I also refer to John Morrow’s Headline Hacks whenever I feel stuck.

    I also like how you can give a short list of topics that your audience really loves. I’m starting to narrow that down for my own audience as well.
    Sarah L. Webb recently posted..3 Simple Ways to Deal with Colorism on Television

    • Carol Tice says:

      I actually asked Forbes for a training after about a month because I felt I didn’t get their audience yet, and it was FANTASTIC. That’s where I got clued in on technology and social media.

      I think every writer should do that exercise, especially for your own blog. What are the key things? Look at which posts got the most traffic. What are they about? It’s not that hard to narrow it down and find out what your audience cares about. And then you can get more traffic on your posts. What’s not to like? :-)

  12. Fantastic advice! Thank you so much for taking me through your process. I think writing headlines is my biggest weakness – they are so hard! Any other info like this is extremely welcome. Thank you for the great newsletter.

  13. Daryl says:

    Perfect case study Carol! The way you tweak your pitches and the fact that you’ve gotten such great results shows how important writing an interesting and eye catching headlines.
    Daryl recently posted..Why I Hate Bid Sites Like Odesk and Elance

  14. Oh dear. You just gave me a lot of work. I have drafted several blog posts and after reading your guide to write effective headlines, I had to go though all of my drafts and re-write the blog post titles.

    You are just brilliant.
    Kidambi Badri recently posted..What is the format for retweet?

  15. Rob says:

    The closest thing to a viral headline I’ve written was “Bob Dylan Revisited on Wall Street” during the Occupy Wall Street movement. The problem was that the blog wasn’t about Bob Dylan going to the protests. I was remembering the protest movement of the sixties and “revisiting” it while reading about the Occupy movement. Turned out to be a curse, because for about a year, it was my most viewed post, but readers only stayed for about 15 seconds and I didn’t receive a single comment.

    The moral of the story for me was to write headlines that will grab their intended audience and give them what they’re looking for.
    Rob recently posted..Revisiting Charles Bukowski

  16. This is a GREAT case study Carol and also an awesome example of how far freelance blogging can go, I mean writing for Forbes is one thing, smashing 600k views in 1 day backed up by another 300k+ day? Just insane.

    I wasn’t planning on giving the headline competition a crack but blogging is all about putting yourself out there right and pushing past our limits, so here we go.

    The idea: “How life experiences make you a better writer”

    Headline options:
    The One Asset a Writer Needs, Life Experience
    The Writers Greatest Asset, Life
    How to Become the Best Writer You Can Be – Live More
    One Simple Step To Becoming a Better Writer (Hint: You’re Already Doing It) – too long?

    I guess these are just a few ideas coming to mind, Not really sure if any are actually that strong.

    Would love to hear your feedback Carol!

    Thanks Heaps!
    Jackson Anderson recently posted..Freelance Writing, Why It’s for Me and Probably You Too!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Jackson, the contest was actually held on Twitter back on Friday.

      But…all those headlines have the same problem. No mystery or need to read. I can see everything you want me to know in the headline. That’s always a problem. Except that last one — but it’s too long, as you guessed. Hint: Try to get the “becoming” out of it — long being verbs are problematic in headlines.

      • Jackson says:

        Ahh yeah it was too haha way to lag on it!

        Anyways I appreciate you taking your time to give me feedback and the tip on the final one!

        It’s funny how you can be blind to such things when writing them but upon further reading with your advice it’s clear as day to why they would perform so badly!

        Thanks again!

        • Carol Tice says:

          I feel the same way – once I started learning about headlines and what makes them work, it’s like a lightbulb goes on. Good news is, once it’s on, you got it. ;-)

  17. Missy Bell says:

    Thank you so much for this information. I’m just starting to build my blogs and I appreciate the insight. For me, viral has been 740 views in a day, no where close, but a start.

    Missy Bell

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Missy — Hey, I’ve never gotten anything like that on my own blog — 2,000 views in a day is a big day for this blog! You can’t really compare the traffic you can get on a top 60 US site with your own blog.

      But all of the basics I discuss — learning the hot button topics and words — do help every post and headline do its best, wherever you post it.

      PS – We don’t allow you to stuff URLs into the bottom of your blog comments — your name picks up the URL you enter anyway, and that’s the 1 link you get in a comment. If you’d like us to read your blog, please use the CommentLuv tool to attach a recent post. That’s how we do it here. You’re lucky this didn’t go in spam with the 2 links!

  18. Your post made me more conscious of headlines and I simply tried to copy what you did on my topic. I don’t have a blog yet, but I am beginning to guest post for others. I used it As a family sociologist, I often write for parenting magazines and watch for opportunities to expound on youth development topics. Early in October, I sent out an article with the headline, “Blended Family Benefits” that highlighted the resiliency and creativity children can learn in stepfamilies rather than bemoan the evils of divorce. Of course, I am not advocating divorce; just doing what sociologist do which is to approach the topic non judgmentally and demonstrate what works about a social phenomena. With my dry headline, “Blended Family Benefits.” It wasn’t picked up so I re-worked it for the holidays. I asked myself, what might be catchy thinking about holiday activities and honoring the resiliency that children can learn in families. I thought about tree trimming and holiday baking. I played with “One Part New Normal, Two Part Blended Family Doesn’t Equal A Holiday Nutty Fruitcake.” (Of course this one is too long.) The article starts with some impressive statistics about how many new stepfamilies are blending lives. I want to stay sociologically truthful and pushed for clarity, it changed to “One Part New Norm, Two Parts Stepfamily Doesn’t Equal Holiday Fruitcake.” I pitched the article and sold it twice as reprints, right away, same day! I will definitely be thinking and working on headlines now. Thanks!

  19. Headlines are the most difficult for me to write! But, I love your style of taking what works and tweaking it to until you have something that works.

    When I look back on my most popular blog post headlines, I’ve gotten the most success when I relate my topic to pop culture or current events. For example, the most successful has been “What MC Hammer Can Teach Us About Online Courses”. It really captures curiosity because people wonder what he has to do with courses.

    Thanks for the reminder in the power of headlines! I need to spend a bit more time in this department!
    Jennifer Kennedy recently posted..4 Must-Do Ideas for Reclaiming Your Time

    • Carol Tice says:

      That formula — How X pop culture thing is like my topic — is one of the classics in Jon Morrow’s Headline Hacks report. It can be overused, but if done well it often pulls in a lot of readers. ;-)

  1. […] Watch Me Write a Headline That Goes Viral from Carol Tice at Make a Living Writing […]

  2. […] I’m also going to be participating in “Pitch Clinic“, which is being taught by Carol Tice and Linda Formichelli, two lovely ladies who are legendary freelance writers. Remember, I am now at […]

  3. […] Carol Tice (Make a Living Writing) with Watch Me Write a Headline That Goes Viral […]

  4. […] You can encourage visitors to share your content in a few different ways. First of all, the headline or post title is critical. Not only will a great title lead to more people sharing your post, but it will also lead to more clicks from those social media sites (see Watch Me Write a Headline That Goes Viral). […]

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