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Optimizing Headlines for Social Media: A Twitter/McRib Case Study

  |  November 15, 2010   |  Comments

A case of real-time optimization for Twitter that goes beyond "top 10" lists.

Content creators are increasingly focused on optimizing stories for social media, but for many the practice seems to boil down to writing "Top 5" and "10 Worst" posts that act as link bait for tweets and retweets. What's a person to do once she's exhausted her capacity for sensationalist list-making?

I've recently experienced an interesting and effective example of Twitter story optimization in action. It serves as an illustration of how editors can leverage Twitter's search and hashtag system for content marketing. Some of the takeaways are specific to ClickZ's reporting niche, but others have implications beyond that as well.

Here's the story:

Early last Friday, ClickZ staff writer Christopher Heine noticed that McDonald's had purchased a "Promoted Trend" ad on Twitter, and that clicking through on the ad took the user to a search result for the key phrase "McRib is back." Many tweets on that page were negative in tone, suggesting the Twitter ad was damaging McDonald's brand even while promoting the McRib - a sandwich made from a pork patty that's served in the shape of a small rack of ribs, bones and all. Nauseating to some.

In covering the story, Heine spoke with the social media director at McDonald's and a marketing industry source. We published his piece at 4:30 pm on Friday with the headline, "McDonald's 'McRib Is Back' Twitter Ad Cooks Up Salty Comments."

That headline ensured that a link to the news article appeared on the Twitter landing page for the McDonald's ad, significantly expanding the number of people who would potentially see the article beyond ClickZ's following of approximately 8,000 Twitter users.

It accomplished this by including the entire phrase "McRib Is Back" in the headline. When the official ClickZ Twitter account tweeted the story headline and link, which we've set it up automatically to do for all our content, that tweet was picked up by the landing page and seen by anyone viewing that landing page at that moment. Because we knew Twitter was pushing eyeballs to the landing page on behalf of its client McDonald's, we had a strong suspicion that hundreds of people were viewing it at any given time.

Results

The guess paid off. Within two hours on Friday afternoon the story had become one of ClickZ's most-trafficked news items for the whole week. And the number of retweets - one measure of impact - was approximately three times higher than a typical ClickZ article. (Our usual rate of retweets on stories is between 50 and 150; at the time of this writing, the McRib story has 344 and counting.) Engagement was also higher than average for our stories, to judge from the nine comments it attracted.

But the story doesn't quite end there. Three days after the McRib piece went live, I noticed a Twitter user had tweeted the story with the clever headline: "McRib Promotion Turns Into a Twitter Roast."

While I was pleased with the result of our initial socially optimized headline, it was undeniably clunky. I decided to substitute the new, more interesting (and Twitter-sourced) headline for the one we'd run with on Friday. I reached out to Twitter user @flowtown, who authored the tweet, and asked permission to use it in our story. Within an hour, @flowtown consented and I updated the story with the new headline "'McRib Is Back' Promotion Turns Into a Twitter Roast." I did decide to keep "McRib Is Back" in there for the moment, to capture any residual traffic that might be coming from that.

(I've come around to the view that it's OK to change a headline once you've extracted early social media traffic from Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. On Twitter, tweeted stories tend not to drive much traffic after the first hour - much less the first day - of a tweet. This may provide some solace to editors and journalists who would like to see a tad more art and less science in Web-optimized writing.)

Lessons Learned

It's still not clear how much search activity is present on Twitter. The company has been tight-lipped about search volume. What does seem likely is that the bulk of Twitter search results pages are generated by links from its home page, where Promoted Trends, Trending Topics, and hashtags are listed in two columns at the right of the screen; when clicked, these items lead users to search results pages.

Editors interested in driving traffic from this rich source of attention should consider optimizing their headlines based on what's hot on the home page on any given day. There are plenty of ways to do this wrong - for instance by arbitrarily incorporating generic phrases that happen to be trending topics. While an influx of traffic might result, it's sure to be low quality traffic with a high bounce rate - and would be considered spammy by some.

Consider instead scanning Twitter's Trending Topics and Promoted Trends periodically to identify any matches for stories you have in production. The most effective results will probably be multiple word phrases, which will drive lower volume and thus push your tweets below the fold at a slower rate. Once identified, headlines can be written to accommodate exact phrase-matches for those topics and ads.

ClickZ's experience optimizing the McRib headline for Twitter was admittedly circular; we wrote a story about an ad, and the ad drove traffic to the story. But the snake-eating-its-own-tail effect is not necessary to achieve success with Twitter-optimized headlines. On one day last week, Twitter's "Trends" list included "Khalifa Arrested" and "Opera Mobile," two phrases that - it's reasonable to think - mainstream and tech media outlets are likely to cover.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Zachary Rodgers

Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects. 

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