Watch Me Write a Headline That Goes Viral

Carol Tice

Sometimes 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.

How to be a Well-Paid Freelance Blogger

59 Comments

  1. Laura Reagan-Porras

    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!

    • Carol Tice

      That’s awesome Laura — thanks for sharing yet another way better headlines can help writers earn more!

  2. Missy Bell

    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

      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!

  3. Jackson Anderson

    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!

    • Carol Tice

      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

      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

      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. 😉

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