The headline is the tip of the content iceberg. The short string of words belies only the intent of the piece in question, doing little more at first blush than establishing expectations and enlightening the reader to the subject within. The irony, of course, lies in the fact that, while headlines are but a tiny fraction of your content’s substance, they can guide the lion’s share of traffic; an unfortunate, though prevalent truth in an age saturated with information.

So what does this mean for you? You need better headlines friend. The hit-and-run process of searching the Internet isn’t changing any time soon and that means that establishing a solid first impression is paramount. Fortunately, plenty of information exists that can guide your efforts, not simply in search results, but in social media as well.

Beneficial Blog Titles

When sifting through a mountain of information, the brain uses heuristics to quickly categorize what deserves attention and what does not. In doing so, the brain maximizes its efficiency by avoiding the un-needed and jumping on the important. This is where your headlines gain traction. Triggering these heuristics with the right terms can mean the difference between a viral boom and a blog bust.

There are several ways to take advantage of this characteristic of the brain, one of the most effective being lists. The effectiveness of lists lies in the clear establishment of expectations and the conception that pieces of this nature are better researched. For this reason, the number of items in the list and nature of the post should be clear and easily identified. According to research from Iris Shoor, the most effective list titles follow a simple format: use digits instead of words (10 as opposed to “ten”), and place the number at the head of the sentence. Doing so will facilitate the mental judgment that the information therein is important.

The next way to catch readers’ attention is to teach them something. In these types of posts, the headline should indicate the nature of the presentation of information and the goal sought. According to Shoor’s work, titles should include terms like “introduction”, “the beginner’s guide”, “in 5 minutes”, and “DIY”. In each case, the onus is on the publisher to enlighten the reader, and the reader is promised value in the process.

For posts that fall in between these categories, other key terms can influence the decision to click. These include “smart”, “surprising”, “science”, “history”, “hacks”, “huge/big”, and “critical”. Explaining the significance of each of these would likely exhaust you; suffice to say that each one promises value and offers some intrinsic interest to today’s Internet readers. At the same time, avoid including these terms superfluously, as setting expectations, only to disappoint, is a recipe for bad sentiment.

Tapping into Twitter

Obviously, the impact of your posts doesn’t end with a search query. Savvy bloggers leverage social media in effective ways. This means tailoring your efforts and establishing what are, effectively, alternate headlines for each platform.

For Twitter, the 140 character limitation and inability to format text poses challenges, but not without solutions. According to researched performed by social media expert Dan Zarella, using action words in your tweets will help motivate click-throughs and retweets. Data at his site reveals that adverbs and verbs have a positive effect on click-through rate, while nouns adjectives work against you. Therefore, when translating your blog post headline to the Twitter-verse, focus on calling for action and encouraging sharing instead of proffering robust explanations and descriptions.

Finding Success on Facebook

The other great platform of our time has its own rules for forming “headlines” that fit its system. In order to understand the blue-giant, it’s important to recognize that many aspects of a social media post effectively form the headline, or title. Text, but also photos can play a big part in motivating action and instilling expectations.

For Facebook, pictures are the name of the game. Self-explanatory photos, which effectively relate the meaning of a post at a glance, motivate click-through more than any other factor. Photos on their own receive 53% more Likes, 104% more comments, and 84% more click-throughs than any other format. Self-explanatory pictures, like diagrams, short infographics, and descriptive depictions, promise value to the reader.

But text still plays a part. While your focus should be on creating a great image to sell your post, adding a descriptive, though concise, caption is essential. Research shows that less is more: posts with 80 characters or less actually receive 66% more engagement. In addition, curiously, self-referential words like “I” and “me” also increase sharing by a surprising margin.

And that’s the story in a nutshell. Throwing out sensationalist headlines may shock and amaze readers temporarily, but tapping into the human psyche, promising value, and establishing expectations are the ways to go in the long run. For Twitter, adapt your title by including action verbs instead of long descriptions. For Facebook, accompany your blog title with a descriptive photo and keep the caption short to maximize sharing. Doing so will not only improve your site traffic, but guide your addled mind when writer’s block rears its ugly head.