Did you know that among adults in the U.S. most hear about charitable causes through social media? Not TV. Not radio. Not word of mouth. According to a recent poll by Mashable, that statement is true by an astounding margin.
And where do most of these discoveries happen?
After analyzing the online sharing statistics for 100 million articles (!), social sharing analyst Noah Kagan found that Facebook is the social network where the most news is shared, by far. (By how far? Check out item #10 in his analysis. That’s one big graph!)
Knowing these two facts, you might be thinking, “Great! Now all I have to do is share some information about my cause on Facebook, and new supporters will flock to us!”
Well, sure… but there’s one little problem:
Every second, Facebook serves 41,000 status updates.
Not every day.
That was in 2013. It’s only gone up since then.
That is a lot of clutter.
If your job is to cut through all that noise and get noticed, how do you do it?
Just like your favorite pop song, you need a hook. But how do you find one?
How to Hook Them with a Headline They Can’t Resist
Think back to the famous news headlines from the pre-Internet era, when newspapers survived by copies sold rather than pages viewed.
“Martin King Shot to Death: Gunned Down in Memphis”
“Mandela Goes Free Today”
What do they all have in common?
You don’t need to read the rest of the article.
These headlines were written at a time when it was imperative that people be able to grasp the basic facts even at a glance. They were designed to be understood from street corners and paper boxes, not sidebars and Facebook feeds.
Today, headlines are crafted with the purpose of inciting a click. And if you give your whole story away in the headline, your audience will feel like they already know enough at a glance to safely ignore your article and move on to something more interesting that offers a better payoff.
So, what makes a headline interesting enough to click?
Upworthy is the king at creating content that goes viral. They teach that a good headline creates a “curiosity gap” by planting an expectation in the mind of a reader which demands to be satisfied. For example, one of their most-clicked headlines of all-time is “9 Out of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact” — and you probably just clicked on it right now, didn’t you?
Buffer, a social scheduling service whose team somehow finds a way to write useful blog posts every day, has boiled their headline formula down to two tactics: creating emotion or promising knowledge. The emotion can be positive (surprise, delight) or negative (fear, outrage), but if a reader reacts to it, they’re more likely to click through and have their expectations reinforced or subverted.
As for knowledge, people love to learn, and they also love to share that knowledge with their peers — especially if doing so makes them look smarter.
How This Works For a Nonprofit Leadership Consultant
Let’s take a look at how this has worked for one of our own clients, Joan Garry Consulting.
Joan specializes in teaching nonprofit leaders how to do their jobs better.
One way she accomplishes this is by sharing her expertise in blog posts. These posts are read thousands of times each, mostly by readers who either find them online or subscribe to them via email.
Here are the titles of Joan’s five most popular posts so far this year:
- The Five Attributes of a Great Executive Director
- Critical Interview Questions for Nonprofit Board Members
- My Biggest Professional Mistake
- Nonprofits Shouldn’t Rely on Special Events
- When It’s Time to Leave Your Job
Looked at another way, here are the expectations these headlines create for readers:
- Do I possess these great qualities? Does my boss?
- What will happen if I’m not asking these critical questions? Or, will they be asked of me?
- Ooh, a confession. This ought to be an interesting story. I wonder how she recovered.
- What should nonprofits rely on, if not special events?
- Should I leave my job?
Each of these headlines offers advice meant to improve a nonprofit leader’s skills, but their phrasing also subconsciously forces a reader to ask herself a big question:
Can I afford to not know this?
And she does this without giving away the punchline. How could her readers not want to click?
How Do I Know If My Headline Is Good Enough?
Getting people’s attention is hard. It takes practice. And it takes data.
Upworthy makes their writers come up with 25 headlines for every story. Then they select the best ones and subject them to A/B testing to determine which headline resonates the most with their audience. Sometimes even the writers themselves are shocked at which headlines end up working the best, or how big the differential is. (Some headline options outperform others by over 100 times the amount of clicks. Wow! Isn’t that worth testing for?)
Are you wondering what your audience is already clicking on right now?
You can use these tools to search by topic, network, or timeframe — whether you want to see the past year or just the past 24 hours. Pay attention to those headlines. Notice any trends? Maybe you should jump on them. Or, maybe you should write about something that no one else is talking about yet, so you can try owning the conversation.
The choice is yours — but at least it’ll be an informed choice backed by data instead of guesswork.
And while we can’t guarantee that a killer headline alone will be enough to outperform all 40,999 other posts Facebook sees every second — because sometimes there’s just no competing with breaking news or pictures of adorable kittens — we do know that the better your hook is, the more clicks you’ll catch.
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