The Simple Guide to Writing Social Media Headlines (That People Click)

Written by Neil Patel on December 1, 2015

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It’s painful.

You write a high-quality article. Then after meticulous polishing, you publish it.  You schedule updates at peak engagement times from your social media accounts.

You hope that the update gets liked, shared and retweeted hundreds of times.

But your social media updates manage only a handful of likes and tweets.

The tweet gets lost in the sea of 10,491 tweets sent every second.

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And your Facebook update lost the battle against 1,499 other posts that appear in your fans’ feeds.

Grrrrr.

A value-adding post just isn’t enough. Even writing a powerful headline doesn’t guarantee success on social media.

So what’s your best bet?

You’ve got to package your update with a catchy headline that suits each social media platform.

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Your target audience hangs out on different social media with different motives and you need to serve them as per the platform requirements. Only then will your content distribution efforts bear fruit.

That might mean serving self-explanatory images on Instagram or requesting a retweet explicitly on Twitter.

Understanding your audience preferences on different social media platforms in this manner can become a daunting task.

I feel your pain.

But you need not worry.

Download this quick printable guide to writing social media headlines.

In this article, I’ll share strategies for tailoring your updates to major social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.

But first, let’s look at why you need to write catchy headlines for different social media in the first place.

Why the title of your blog post is the most crucial element for increasing its shareability?

Tailoring your content to meet your audience demands is alone taxing.

Writing and testing different headlines for each social media platform is even more time consuming.

Here are 5 reasons that prove the significant role headlines play on social media. Hopefully you’ll feel motivated to put the effort in after reading them.

1. Web users scan headlines – Our average attention span in 2015 is less than that of a goldfish.

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Compelling content isn’t a ticket to higher click through rates on your social media updates.

Be it a result in Google search or a post in the Facebook timeline, people determine if your content is worth their time in a split second.

Forget reading or scanning your article. The information overload has led readers to scan even the headlines.

2. Headlines are worth 90% of the advertising dollar – The title is possibly your only interaction with your audience.

David Ogilvy believes that your body copy is read 1/5 times the number of people that read your headline.

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So a tempting headline will not just improves your CTR. It also starts interaction with the user on a positive note.

If your content keeps the promises you made in the headline and conveys your value proposition clearly, you nail your first impression.

You also dramatically increase the probability that the user stays longer on your website (follows a negative weibull distribution).

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3. A great headline can get your article shared thousands of times – In the noise of 2 million blog posts published every day, how many do you think get more than 100 shares?

It’s a measly 11%.

As per CoSchedule and Buffer’s research on 1 million headlines, 89% of created content does not even cross this 100 share mark.

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But, you can even get in that top 1% bracket – get thousands of shares on every article you write.

How?

By crafting a seductive headline.

Automated content curation is more common than you think.

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Think of the last 5 article tweets you favorited.

Did you read every article before pressing the favorite button (now called the like button)?

Probably not.

An exceptional title can get your article shared on social media, even before its read.

4. Web users read (roughly) in an F-shaped pattern Eye tracking visualizations have found that on the web, users generally read in two horizontal movements followed by a systematic and slow vertical scan.

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Scannable writing with headlines, subheadings and bullets that are front-loaded with information are appreciated by users on social media.

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5. 99% of organic social posts receive no engagement – Remember I told you that your update competes with thousands of others sent every minute on various social media platforms?

Social Flow (a social media optimization platform), in its study of 1.6 million organic social posts from Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ found that 99% of them received little to no engagement.

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Updates disappear from your feed and streams within minutes.

Wisemetrics found that the median engagement point for Twitter is 24 minutes and 90 minutes or Facebook.

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Sending the same update more than once is a good strategy to reach more of your fans and touch different time zones.

But without an attractive headline, your update won’t capture the attention of users in the immense amount of social clutter generated every minute.

It turns out that some publishers have mastered the virality puzzle. They manage to get millions of pageviews, mostly via social media.

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So our best chance is to study viral websites like BuzzFeed, ViralNova and UpWorthy.

Their posts consistently receive huge engagement (thousands of likes and hundreds of shares as well as comments).

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I’ll dive into headline writing strategies for different social media platforms later. First, let’s look at research conducted on viral websites and figure out what works for them.

Actionable takeaways from the most shared viral headlines at BuzzFeed and other viral websites

What do you think is the difference between 1 million and 17 million video views?

It’s merely tweaking your headline.

No, I’m not joking.

UpWorthy has actually achieved this feat.

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If you can understand your readers’ preferences, you can make smarter decisions. The best way to go about comprehending user behavior is by testing your headlines, collecting data and optimizing.

For Example:

  • BuzzFeed found that color images relay information faster than black and white ones and so they also perform better.
  • Images in which you can see the entire body perform worse than the ones where you can just see the upper body.

UpWorthy write 25 headlines for each of their articles. Then they A/B test the top two to find their best performing headline.

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Let’s dig into the findings from two studies conducted on viral headline-writing websites to spill their secrets.

1. The most common words in 3,016 headlines from 24 websites

The guys at Buffer and Ripenn analyzed top headlines from BuzzFeed, ViralNova, UpWorthy, Wimp and 20 other websites.

And it turns out there is a pattern.

Beyond the use of articles, prepositions and pronouns, viral headlines also extensively use some uncommon words. Here is a breakdown.

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I always emphasize on speaking to your audience in a conversational tone.

No wonder the words “you” and “your” both get a berth in the top 20.

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Let’s review some other words.

Lists – 19% of headlines had a number. Lists and data backed headlines are heavily consumed, probably because of their perceived practical value.

This – Draws specificity on the subject and creates an immediacy for the user to click on the article. ‘This is’ also tops the most popular two-word phrases list.

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Example: “This Short Film Shows Just How Terrifying Life Is For LGBT People In Russia”

What, Which, When and Why – The four W’s are life savers in many creative exercises like songwriting. In the case of question headlines, the reason for their effectiveness is possibly because they evoke our curiosity.

Examples:

  1. “What Character from “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” Are You?”
  2. “16 Legitimate Reasons Why Valentine’s Day Is The Worst”

Video – Visuals continue to get extensively consumed on the internet. A video can increase your engagement and conversions.

It’s natural that the word ‘video’ (bracketed or not) gets more clicks/shares.

Example: “I Just Saw More In 3 Minutes Than I’ve Seen In 3 Years. This Guy’s Video Is Epic.”

How to – Education and Instruction. That’s the promise of a how-to headline.

Websites like WikiHow have built a complete content business using these headlines and delivering value-adding content. How-to is also number 3 on the most popular two-word phrases list.

Example: “How to create chocolate out of nothing.”

For your reference, here are the most popular 3-word phrases in viral headlines.

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2. The secret sauce to how BuzzFeed gets readers to click their articles…  

We like to think that we’re rational beings. But, many of our decisions are performed emotionally and within a split second.

Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” mentions our two modes of thought.

  • System 1 is subconscious, emotional, instinctive and fast. Most of our time is spent thinking in this system.
  • Whereas system 2 is slower, deliberative, conscious, effortful and logical. It’s called into play only if there is complex information that requires processing and effort.

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As per Sonya Song’s research at Nieman Lab, when browsing social media, we are in a state of unconscious attention (system 1 is at play).

We’re in a relaxed state of mind, quickly browsing through streams of photos. So, big colorful photos will attract your attention.

All of this is cool….

But you might be wondering how does BuzzFeed relate to this?

BuzzFeed has mastered the art of both fast and slow thinking.

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Most of their stories use uppercase letter headlines, attractive pictures and are written in very simple language.

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Such entertaining articles get the attention of an average social media user. Not surprisingly, BuzzFeed gets huge engagement on social media.

On the other hand, BuzzFeed has also invested heavily in data backed investigative journalism, hiring the likes of Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hamby.

The format for telling these investigative stories is visualization heavy. So, in a way, they’re producing thoughtful content that engages their audience in slow thinking, yet is specially tailored for their fast thinking audience.

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As the complicated stories engage the readers in slow thinking, they actively engage with the content – commenting and sharing their feedback on the posts.

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And the more the time a user spends on a website, the higher his probability of returning.

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How to write compelling social media updates: data backed strategies

CoSchedule did an analysis on the relationship between a headline and its likelihood of getting shared on social media.

Here are its 3 major findings:

1. Headlines that receive more than 1000 shares most often belong to these 3 categories – food, lifestyle and home.

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So if you’re a business or gadget blogger, you need not worry about receiving less traffic and shares than your peers in lifestyle or other consumer facing industries.

You only account for 14% of the world’s most viral content.

2. Titles that are emotionally charged received a higher number of shares. You can find out your headline’s emotional value score (EMV) using this free tool.

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30-40 is a healthy EMV score for better shareability. Tweak your title and load it with emotional words to get a better shot at going viral or at least driving higher engagement.

3. The audience demography, motives and overall personality on different social media governs shareability.

Don’t make the mistake of taking a one-size-fits-all approach.

Virality has a different meaning on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media platforms.

The most popular headlines are different for every social network.

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And the common words in viral headlines for each network are also different.

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By now, you must be convinced that successful blogs rely heavily on their article headlines.

So, would you be interested in proven strategies that fuel sharing on different social media platforms?

I thought so.

Let’s start with a quick overview of the 4 U’s preached by American Writers and Artists Inc. in writing headlines.

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1. Urgency – People must feel like they will miss valuable information if they drop away after reading your article’s headline.

If they don’t feel this urgency, there are tons of other articles waiting to grab their attention.

2. Usefulness – “What’s in it for me? That’s a pertinent question asked by a consumer before spending time on any activity.

You should try to convey the practical applications of reading your article to the user in the headline.

3. Ultra-Specificity – You can use statistics and data to establish trust as well as demonstrating your authority.

Further, if you clearly state some specific benefits of reading your article, your audience will be more likely to dive into your body copy.

4. Uniqueness – Stand out and show your personality. That’s the easiest strategy to gain the immediate attention of your readers. Embrace your weirdness or funny side.

I hope that you now feel more confident of writing engaging headlines on social media.

But, the elements of a compelling headline on go beyond the words on all social media platforms.

Facebook gives you the option to share your update in various forms – links, photos, polls, videos and more. You get tons of formatting flexibility.

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Using the social media platform’s native capabilities is essential to increasing the number of shares on your posts.

Let’s explore the unique facets of 4 social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+) one-by-one.

Twitter

The micro-blogging network requires you to take a no-nonsense approach. You have to keep the 140 characters in mind along with leaving some space for @mentions and retweets.

The optimal length for getting higher engagement (reply rate and retweet rate) is 71-100 characters.

Buffer found their sweet spot between 80-120 characters. Here is a graph of their engagement for 150 tweets.

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You can use this formula to plot your engagement graph on a spreadsheet.

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The character limitation does not mean that you can sacrifice grammar and punctuation while tweeting.

Unless it’s a part of your personality like Hippo.

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Dan Zarrella suggests the words ‘you’, ‘please retweet’ and ‘download’ to increase your chances of getting retweets and improve your CTR.

Here is a list of the top 20 words.

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Twitter itself supports that ‘download’ and ‘retweet’ are the most effective call to actions.

For better CTR, your link should be placed at about 25% the length of your tweet.

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Here is an example by Anum that shows how you should place the links in a tweet.

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Photos will give a verified Twitter user a 35% bump in the number of retweets. Videos follows photos closely.

image67You can tag up to 10 people in a photo on Twitter and increase your chances of getting RTs.

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The ideal length of a hashtag is 6 characters. But use them sparingly, because tweets with more than 2 hashtags show a 17% drop in engagement.

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A good tweet will draw attention or pique the curiosity of your target audience. It will also create an urgency to get clicks on the link to your article.

Examples:

  • No, you can’t become a millionaire. 7 reasons why. [link to the article]
  • Want to know the features of a high-converting landing page? Download our free guide: [link to the article]

Bonus Tip: It’s frustrating to write a post that you later find wasn’t in demand.

How about testing your article’s idea before working on it?

If you have a considerable Twitter following, you can validate your post idea (before writing) by using Andrew Chen’s formula.

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Facebook

Facebook was a premium location for marketers to interact with their audience, before the organic reach decline.

But you can still drive considerable traffic from the platform by sharing compelling updates using the strategies below.

Latest studies show that the engagement from links currently triumphs photos and other type of updates on Facebook.

image56Maintain a professional look by removing the URLs from the link updates you post.

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You can try links. But keep a good content mix and dig into your data from Facebook Insights to find what’s most engaging for your audience.

Posting pictures to Facebook works well, if the pictures are self-explanatory.

It might mean writing captions on photos like Sportskeeda.

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Or just a clearly communicating picture like the one Buffer posted below.

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Facebook is a conversation platform and, according to Dan Zarrella, self-referencing, using words like ‘I’ and ‘me’ will get you more likes on Facebook.

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As per KISSmetrics, shorter posts (within 80 characters) get 66% more engagement. So restrict yourself to using a couple of descriptive lines when posting on Facebook.

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Also be wary of your link title lengths. They get truncated in the feed after 100 characters.

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Don’t underestimate the smileys. Posts with emoticons get 57% more likes, 33% more comments and 33% more likes that the posts without them.

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Andrew Chen’s article testing formula with a quote (or headline) from a prospective article can be leveraged on Facebook as well.

Here is an example of Joel from Buffer gauging interest in the subject ‘transparency’ using this formula.

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The engagement validated that the article will be of interest to Buffer’s audience.

When they published the article, it received good traction on social media.

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LinkedIn

LinkedIn is a professional network that has little to no capacity (or apparent audience desire) for cute kitten photos. You should focus on instructional, educational and industry update content on LinkedIn.

It’s the most effective network for lead generation.

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Sharing your opinions on a subject in 40-50 words with a link to your article works well on the platform.

The optimal length for a LinkedIn post found by a study conducted on 200 companies was 25 characters.

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Links derive 200% more engagement in a LinkedIn post.

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But the link title shouldn’t cross 70 characters.

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And the meta description for the link shouldn’t cross 250 characters.

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Visuals receive better engagement on the platform. Images get a whopping 98% higher comment rate. And, if you link to a YouTube video, it can result in a 75% higher share rate.

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Be mindful of frequency. 20 updates/month will ensure that you reach 60% of the unique profiles you are targeting. That’s approximately one update every weekday.

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Google+

Google’s social network has been to be dead. The numbers support the story – less than 1% of Google’s 2.2 billion users are actively using Google+.

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You could make the argument that Google+ doesn’t belong alongside the A-league players like Facebook.

But niche communities can and do still thrive on the platform.

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Folks like Dustin W. Stout still receive high-quality engagement from the platform.

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If you’re receiving considerable engagement and traffic from Google+, here are some tips to optimize your posts.

Dustin W. lists the 7 elements of a perfect Google+ post.

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Let’s break them down.

As per Damian from CopyBlogger, the bolded title of your update must be a maximum of 60 characters.

Otherwise, it jumps off to the next line.

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The headlines are also displayed in Google search results.

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So take time to write an enticing and brief headline that gets eyeballs and clicks.

Write an insightful summary for your post. Don’t consider it a teaser.

You can explain why the post is important. Adding your opinion on the content piece is also a good idea.

You can use these formatting options while writing the post.

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Cyrus Shepard encourages you to write longer posts. He has managed to receive considerable engagement on his longer ones.

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Make sure that the first sentence of your update (after the bolded headline) is enticing in order to get it read.

Otherwise, people aren’t going to click on the ‘Read more’ link.

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Google+ users really like questions, quotes and visual content (animated GIFs, videos and images).

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When you post a link, Google+ automatically grabs an image from your post and high-quality images are supported on the platform.

So, I recommend you to separately upload visually appealing images in all of your updates. They can even stretch across the entire screen.

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You can also upload screengrabs and charts. They should also take up significant real estate in your updates.

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Horizontally oriented photos have a higher probability of making your post full stream.

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If you quote someone in the piece of content that you’re sharing, you can tag them using ‘+.’ It’s a good strategy to network with people.

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Google+ automatically chooses relevant hashtags for your update based on your content.

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You can either let Google+ assign some relevant and specific tags for your post,

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Or you can also explore Google+ to pick the ones that’ll most likely increase your post’s exposure.

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How much time should you spend writing headlines and social media updates?

Many bloggers advocate that you should spend an equal amount of time crafting a clever headline after writing your main body.

Do you think that’s necessary?

We already saw the emphasis that viral websites like UpWorthy and BuzzFeed place on writing and testing their headlines.

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So if you don’t feel confident in your titles, I suggest you to take the UpWorthy’s 25 headlines writing challenge.

Initially, it may take about an hour to write so many headlines. But, soon enough, you’ll become a ninja headline writer cranking out multiple seductive headlines for your posts within 5 minutes.

Caitlin at Blinkist (along with a teammate) took up the 25 headlines challenge for 4 articles. They then tested them on Twitter. Here are their results from one test.

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I want to inspire you to improve your headline writing chops.

So I took this UpWorthy headline challenge myself.

Here is my set of 25 headlines for this post that took me around 20 minutes to write.

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Headlines 5, 7, 8, 17, 25 were the most stand out for me (besides the chosen one for the article).

Is there another headline you like better than my chosen one for this article?

Conclusion

18,144 novels worth of blog posts are published every single day on WordPress. Value-adding content is the bare minimum for building a loyal audience and getting shares.

Headlines are the most vital element in your posts, even on social media. They can increase conversions by 237% and improve your sales by $90,000 a year.

So, write headlines for different social media platforms using the proven strategies I shared in the post and test your chosen best ones using tools like KingSumo headline optimizer.

What kind of headlines work for your audience on social media? And what tools and templates do you use to write headlines?

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