Sphinn & The Hidden Value of Social News Bookmarking Immersion

Posted in Social Media

copywritingSince it’s debut last year, many of us have invested countless hours in Sphinn, SearchEngineLand’s “social news” community site for search marketing professionals. When the SEL team first released Sphinn in beta, I clearly remember thinking “CRAP, one more flippin’ site I need to keep track of to stay current on a daily basis.”

I had no idea whatsoever the depth of lessons to learn and (most of all) benefits to my writing.

In consecutive conversations @ SES New York with both Danny Sullivan and Kevin Heisler (it IS small world after all), I surprised myself in articulating what I’ve come to believe is the true booty for those months of total immersion in the “social news” model. The holistic nature of the revelation seemed to catch both gentleman off guard in-the-moment so I made a mental note to share the thinking in these threads. So here we go…

For readers unfamiliar with the social news model, community members post bookmarks linking to current news items, which are eligible (for a short period) to be “voted hot” (promoted) to the community’s homepage. Landing on the homepage can drive tons of traffic to the original article, which often results in traffic, feed subscriptions, links, and friends. There are huge sites like Digg and many smaller niche’ social news sites, which can be terrific demographics to connect with for fun and profit.

It’s all about the writing. Summarizing posts to garner votes often requires a new headline or subtle modifications to the original article title. Social news sites also require a description which can be copied and pasted from the original article or be totally new. Writing these descriptions requires copywriting instincts which become sharply honed with repetitive social news experience. These skills are directly associated with just about any copywriting endeavor you can think of. Compulsive participation in social news truly helps grow writing instincts on all fronts.

In an environment where other users are literally competing to bookmark up-and-coming news, speed often matters or someone beats you to the punch. Composing compelling titles and descriptions takes a lot of concentration and skill. I’m sharing examples from Sphinn because aimClear has enjoyed a little success on the site. Also it would be the kiss of death to associate being a professional SEM with the “personas” we blog with on Digg, Stumbleupon and other sites aimClear participates in for fun and on behalf of our clients.

Headline Writing
Social news success requires seriously growing one’s headline writing chops. Sometimes the changes we make to original article’s titles are radical. “Can I Speak To The Proprietor Of the (Island) Blog?” became “Dude: Nobody CARES About Your Blog!” and screamed hot. “Is SEO Last Year’s News?” was voted to the homepage in a flash with the new title “SEO Is NOT Dinosaur Bait For Vanishing Organic SERPs. Changing “Free eBook from Google: AdWords Textbook” to “Teach New SEM Employees to Use AdWords RIGHT” brought terrific content from Clix to the attention of the Sphinn community, homepage-hot.

Sometimes the changes are more subtle. “Google Maps Category Mystery Part 3: Solved?” became ” Daunting Secrets of Google Map Categories Finally Revealed!Selling CEOs on Search Engine Marketing” was promoted quickly with the bookmark “Use Eye Tracking To Convince Dubious Clients.” “Social Media Marketing Tactics & Resources” was a Sphinn success as “Luminaries Reveal Social Media Marketing Tactics & Resources.”

Of course when dealing with articles from masters like Jennifer Laycock or Andy Beard, often no changes are necessary. ” From Twits to Tweeple, Why I Embraced Twitter and You Should Too-Part Two:” and “Nofollow Killed Google Social Graph API 3 Years Ago”, worked perfectly on Sphinn with no modifications. Knowing when to rewrite the title is a skill in itself.

Regardless of whether headline changes are subtle, radical or none–make sure the headline makes a promise the article keeps. I’ve not always been perfect along those lines but (trust me) Sphinn members and other communities make it known really quickly that one better sharpen the pencil and not write crappy hyperbolic headlines that oversell bad content.

Descriptions
In all of social media, writing descriptions for social news sites is my favorite endeavor. The ART of summarizing an article in a few words is a wonderful challenge. There’s always a limited amount of space to match readers’ limited amount of focus. Many pundits believe that community members vote after reading the headline and a couple of words of the description.

I usually start by copying a couple of paragraphs and reducing them to just a few words. Any great article gives up the main dirt in the first few sentences for easy harvest. Also, scanning for cute, clever, or hyperbolic adjectives in the article can yield interesting descriptions. Change the “ands” to “&”, lose unnecessary “the” or “that” words, and make your description pay with just a few sentences. It’s amazing how little verbiage is actually required to communicate the essence of an article.

Here’s a few case studies that we’re proud of:

Original Article: Dumbass of the Week: Web Propeller
Sphinn Headline: EVIL Site Scraping BASTARDS = “Web Propeller”
Description: Wicked MAD = Dumbass of the Week by Ask Kalena: “EVIL site scraping bastards STEAL content from this blog within hour of me posting it. They scrape Marty & Neil Kennedy’s blog and others, listing us all as “contributors” F’Wads. WTF?

Original Article: Links For Sex
Sphinn Headline: Will Trade Links For Sex
Description: It’s come to this…
Original Article: Video: A Pallet of Soda, 54 rolls of Toilet Paper, & Sam’s Club SEO

Sphinn Headline: 54 Toilet Paper Rolls, A Pallet of Soda, & Sams Club SEO
Description: Sam’s Club is partnered with “Innuity” for small business $25 “SEO!” Will the affiliation increase the public’s perception of SEO or ruin our reputation? Another SearchEngineGuide video-rant.

Original Article: How to Develop a Hit Facebook App: 29 Essential Tools and Tutorials
Sphinn Headline: Develop HIT Facebook Apps: 29 Essential Tools and Tutorials
Description: Get the one-stop down and dirty facebook API programming skinny. From technical to tactical this softwareDeveloper.com masterpiece is a blow away how-to-tutorial! I printed it and distributed to our staff. This is the hottest topic on the Internet.

Though success in social news sites can yield terrific benefits for the content you promote and personal stature in the community, the hidden benefit is to one’s writing. On-the-fly headlines and descriptions force a brevity and style which transcends the genre and sharpens copywriting skills across the board forever. Take the social news challenge and watch the positive benefits in any area of your career dependent on writing skills!

  • Mike Blumenthal

    How do you find the fine line between National Enquirer and appropirate headlines while still maintaining the appropriate balance?

    Mike

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Mike: The answer is that we find the line every day by making mistakes. :) As a rule I try to think of ANY way someone might shoot down the headline or description as either too hyperbolic or unsupported by the post.

    Telling the truth about the post’s content is always the best policy. I try to focus on whichever angle of the article might appeal to the demographics of the social media site I’m bookmarking on.

  • Barry Welford

    .. and of course in parallel with this there is a similar effort required re Google’s spiders.

  • Matt McGee

    Mike asks a good question, and I admire your reply to it, Marty. :)

    I’ve told you before that I can’t stand the way you write your headlines and descriptions on Sphinn. I object to the idea of sending “headline bait” out to a bunch of headline baiters. I don’t like the ALL CAPS and all the other stuff you do for drama; it becomes melodrama to me.

    But there’s no questioning your success on Sphinn, and I appreciate that I’m in the minority here. And as you say, better to use Sphinn as an example in this kind of article than to reveal your persona on one of the other social sites.

  • Marty Weintraub

    Thanks Matt,
    I’m glad we’re friends and I’ve learned from you. My techniques have matured (softened some) over time and I owe a bit to the robust exchanges we’ve shared. Tamar was another big helper with spot-on critique I needed, heard, and heeded.

    Sometimes I don’t like my OWN Sphinn style but in any profession one learns to do what works where it works…with an open mind, a comittment to integrity, willingness to learn, and honest heart.

    Ironicly you would find my tactics and style much different on some other sites aimClear frequents. I do what works, as it’s my job to promote our agency and clients.

    BTW it make me smile when a friend I’ve succesfully baited to engage “can’t stand” the very work that started the conversation. :)

    Finally, thank you for the kind words.

  • Mark Dykeman

    Thanks for the link!

  • James Duthie

    My question is… how on earth do you manage to achieve that before Jeff, Shana or Maki beat you to the punch? What percentage of submissions do you miss because you’re attempting to optimise the headline & description?

  • Marty Weintraub

    @James: That’s my point exactly. Social news sharpens your instincts. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Jenn Osborne

    Unfortunately there is always more content that I want to read on Sphinn than I”ll ever have time for. A well crafted headline does help the reader make decisions about which posts to read because we can’t read them all.

    My post “Social Media – are we all just a bunch of Sheep?” was originally “Social Media and the Online Propensity Towards Group Think”

    LOL! do you think anyone would have read it???

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Jenn: He He, sheep always make good headlines :).

  • Mike Blumenthal

    The results you have could be also be an effect rather than a cause of your headline writing.

    Perhaps as a society we have entered an age where even meaningful content needs to provide a certain thrill to be watched/read/seen. I don’t norally watch commercial TV so when I saw Discover Channel where even a discussion of artifacts in Egypt become somewhat sensationalized I occured to me that the tactic that you use are everywhere.

    Curious what % of sphinners that vote for your summary actually go and read the full article.

    Mike

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Mike: That’s very interesting perspective, thank you.