Why did you click through to this article? Why will some people share this article without even reading it?
The most important element of this post may not be the 4 weeks I spent researching the data or the days I spent writing up the analysis or deciding on the tables and graphics. The most important element is probably the headline. The headline will determine the number of people that click through to read the post and the number of people that share the post, many without reading it.
This is not news, we all know about the importance of headlines. However, is there a formula to viral headlines? Are there words or phrases in headlines that particularly cause articles to be shared? For the past month I have been researching the headlines of the most shared posts in our BuzzSumo database. In this post I set out my findings, including:
- The common elements of viral headlines
- The top headline trigrams (three word phrases) shared on Facebook and Twitter
- The most powerful words used in headlines and how these vary across networks
- Eight ways to create your own viral headline
Note: We have subsequently carried out further research, in 2017 we reviewed 100 million articles and identified the headline formats and phrases that drive the most engagement on Facebook.
The first aspect I reviewed was the common structural elements of headlines. In a previous review of the most viral posts of 2015, I identified a number of common elements to viral posts. These are outlined in the table below.
When I started reviewing the headlines of viral posts I found these elements occur frequently in the headline. I found it is common for a viral headline to include three, four and often all five of these elements. These headlines will be familiar to anyone who has browsed the most shared articles on BuzzSumo.
Here is an example headline from BuzzFeed which received over 650,000 shares and 2.6m views.
I could have chosen hundreds of similar headlines but this is typical and instantly recognisable. It may seem like a simple Listicle at first glance and we all know that list posts perform well. However, if we break down this headline in detail we can see that it contains all five elements common to viral posts.
The format is a list post. The emotional word or superlative used is ‘amazing’ which, as we will see below, performs incredibly well on Facebook. The headline makes it clear that the content type is charts, it could equally be images, facts, tips or quotes. The headline has a clear promise, these charts will improve your baking. The topic is baking which has been very popular recently, not least in the UK with the success of the TV show ‘The Great British Bake Off’. Thus we can see how this headline has packed in all five of our viral elements.
The more I researched viral posts the more I came across this headline structure again and again. I am not sure if this is instinctive on the part of writers and editors, or based on feedback and research. BuzzFeed are well known for publishing and A/B testing multiple headlines. It could be that this headline structure simply outperforms other headlines.
Previous data research published on Moz identified similar headline structures and how well they work, for example the article mentioned “30 Ways to Make Drinking Tea More Delightful”. The article suggested these headlines work because they are unambiguous, they are very clear about what the article will deliver and the potential benefits. The conclusion was to ‘be as explicit as possible about what your content will and will not do’. I think this is good advice, life is short and the reader wants to know what they will get if they click through to a post or share it with friends. However, in our analysis we found that particular superlative words, content types, topics and phrases perform better than others. Thus it is not simply the structure of the headline that works but the specific elements they include:
We researched the most shared trigrams (three word phrases) in headlines and to see if there were any common patterns. To do this we:
- Extracted trigrams and bigrams from the headlines of 1 million random articles from top publishers
- Looked at trigrams that are present in at least 150 of the article headlines
- Sorted them by shares across social networks to identify the top performing trigrams in terms of social shares
The table below shows some of the most shared trigrams across Facebook and Twitter. The number of articles are the number of articles in our sample containing the trigram in the headline.
It is no surprise to see some of the top trigrams for Facebook, they represent some of the most common headline and post formats:
- List posts: 50% of the top ten are list posts
- Amusing posts: ‘make you laugh’
- Pictures: ‘x pictures that, x photos that’
- Warning posts: ‘you should never’
- Questions & quizzes: ‘can we guess’
What is more of a surprise is to see that there is no overlap with the top trigrams shared on Twitter. The headlines, whilst still popular, are not the viral listicles we can see on Facebook. They appear more informative and serious for example ‘the science of’, the future of’ and ‘the rise of’. The main exception is ‘Donald Trump is’, you can fill in your own blank, which reflects the fact we took our sample of posts in the middle of the Republican 2016 primary election.
Note: we have updated this trigram research and identified the top phrases in a review of 100 million headlines.
This analysis would suggest that different phrases resonate differently on the different social networks. Thus if you are crafting content for a social post or an ad, you should draft a different headline for each network based on what resonates on that network.
We wanted to test the impact of superlative words on headlines and specifically the different social networks. In order to do this we identified some of the high performing words and phrases from our analysis above. We then pulled at least 10,000 examples of these words and phrases in headlines to explore how sharing varies across networks. One note of caution is that people share for many reasons such as the author, the website, the topic, the headline structure etc., so the superlative word is just one factor in this complex mix.
Below is an example for superlative words. We took headlines containing the superlative words, looked at 10,000 articles for each and analysed the average number of social shares across the different networks.
We can see from the analysis that a headline with a superlative such as ‘Amazing’ appears to work better on Facebook and Twitter than the other superlatives looked at. By contrast ‘successful’ in a headline appears to get more shares on LinkedIn than the other three superlatives. This indicates that the choice of superlative in your headline could be significant. You should ideally research the words that resonate in your area and on the networks you target.
Content types in headlines
Another important aspect of our viral headline structure is the content type. This indicates to the reader exactly what type of content they can expect if they click through to the article, for example ‘amazing images’ or ‘surprising facts’. Again we pulled a minimum of 10,000 posts for each content type headline and analysed how shares varied by content type and by network.
As we can see from the analysis ‘Pictures’ as a content type appears to work well on Facebook but less well on Twitter or LinkedIn. In fact Pictures, Tips, Quotes and Facts all appear to work well on Facebook. By contrast ‘Tips’ and ‘Facts’ appear to resonate better with users on Twitter. More specific work based content types such as Habits, Mistakes and Tips work particularly well on LinkedIn relative to other types such as images and quotes. This is probably to be expected given the nature of LinkedIn but it is good to have data to support this assumption. As with superlative words you need to research the content types that resonate in your area and on the networks you are targeting.
In our experience the content format can be the single most important aspect of a headline. As with content types it makes it clear what the user can expect from the article. A list post promises an article which has been clearly structured into a skimmable list. A ‘how to’ post promises to help you perform or complete a specific task. We again pulled 10,000 examples of different content formats, for list posts we specifically pulled list posts with the number 10. Previous research has shown that list posts with the number 10 perform better than other numbers, though all list posts appear to perform well.
I almost hate to say it but our sample of 10,000 list posts with the number 10 performed incredibly well on Facebook, with an average of 45,000 shares and likes. This average number is skewed by some very high performing posts but even recognising this fact, the number of shares and is exceptionally high. What is also apparent is that list posts with the number 10 also perform relatively well on both Twitter and LinkedIn. It appears that list posts resonate and get shared across all networks. The same is also true of ‘how to’ posts. Whilst these posts get less shares and likes on Facebook than list posts, they still perform very well, above pictures for example. ‘How to’ posts also appear to perform very well across Twitter and LinkedIn. By contrast whilst quizzes work well on Facebook they appear to work less well on the other social networks. One note of caution here is that some of the very popular quizzes on Facebook were designed specifically for Facebook and hence were unlikely to be shared much on other networks.
It one level I am reluctant to share these results as they imply a simple shortcut to creating a good headline is to draft a list post or a ‘how to’ post. The danger is then the world, particularly in B2B marketing, becomes full of these headlines and we all get bored. However, maybe we have a high tolerance for these headlines. For example, if you look at the most shared posts on Social Media Examiner, you can see that they are virtually all list posts or ‘how to’ posts.
Other popular sites such as Moz also stick with proven headlines, though there is more variation on Moz, which uses ‘Why’ headlines for their popular Whiteboard Friday videos. On the positive side there is still scope for amusing and quirky viral headlines that don’t follow a formula, such as this one from The New Yorker.
This post received 1.4m shares, more than twice as many as any other new Yorker article last year. Thus other headlines work but they are less common and carry more risk than the proven viral headline structure.
As we have discussed before there are topics that appear to resonate permanently and are shared consistently on networks such as Facebook. These include cats, dogs, babies, love, fitness, secrets to a long life etc. Then there are trending topics that become shareworthy for just a specific period of time. We selected a few examples to look at below.
At the time of writing Donald Trump is a trending topic which gets a lot of shares on both Facebook and Twitter. A topic such as dogs, as we would expect, resonates much more on Facebook than LinkedIn. I also chose ‘sales’ as a topic, expecting to see this do relatively well on LinkedIn. The results confirm this, headlines with ‘sales’ in the title were actually one of the best performing topics in terms of LinkedIn shares.
The importance of trending topics is the ability to use them in headlines to leverage interest on the various networks. For example, we are seeing many people use Donald Trump in a headline to leverage their content as follows:
Promises, stories and secrets
The viral headline structure we have identified above is just the most common viral headline structure and by no means the only structure that works. A well used variation on the viral headline structure is a headline that focuses primarily on the promise element. This can include the prospect of revealing a secret or a story. Few of us can resist wanting to know the ending to a story, discovering a secret or what happened next. It is what drives the narrative in many novels and is how TV shows use cliffhangers to keep us hooked and click the next episode on Netflix.
There are many examples of these forms of headlines and here are a few:
A Firefighter Went To Put Out A Fire, But He Had No Idea He Would Be A Hero Of A Different Kind.
A Life-Changing, True Story Reveals the Secret to Success
The Inside Story of Uber’s Radical Rebranding
So what does this research mean for your next headline? The key takeaways are as follows:
- Using a viral headline structure can result in a higher level of interest, clicks and shares
- A common viral headline structure has at least three to five interchangeable elements including the content format, content type, topic, superlative or emotional words and a promise.
- The specific elements resonate differently depending upon your audience and social network
- A strong promise can stand alone as a viral headline
The implications for creating and promoting viral headlines are:
- Structure: Use a viral headline structure with at least three of the key elements below.
- Content format: Research the formats that work best with your audience and include the article format in your headline eg a list post, quiz, ‘how to’ post etc. From our research it appears that list posts and ‘how to’ posts work well across all networks.
- Content type: Check the content types that resonate with your audience and include these in your headline eg pictures, quotes, tips. We have found in general that ‘tips’ works well across all networks.
- Topic: Select a topic that resonates with your audience. Research trending topics using BuzzSumo Trending and leverage these, alternatively leverage a trending topic or a permanently popular topic. You can also work a popular topic into your headline for example “Content Marketing: Every Time You Mention Your Product A Kitten Dies”.
- Superlative or emotional words: Research the words that resonate with your audience. Our general research shows that words like ‘Amazing’ work well on Facebook whereas ‘Successful’ has more appeal on LinkedIn. What is important is the words that resonate with your audience. You can use a BuzzSumo search to analyse these.
- Trigrams: Research the bigrams and trigrams that work best in your area and on your social networks. A quick way to do this is to run a BuzzSumo most shared search for your topic, export the results, sort by network shares as you need eg Facebook, copy the headlines of say the top few thousand posts and paste them into a text analyser (such as http://www.online-utility.org/text/analyzer.jsp) which will show you the most popular two and three word phrases. Use the trigrams that work best with your audience, for example our research has found that ‘the future of’ works much better on LinkedIn than say ‘the rise of’.
- Have a clear promise: What does your headline promise the reader? Is it explicit what they can expect if they click through to your article. Are you promising to improve their performance, to reveal a secret, show them something amazing or surprising or are you promising to unravel a story.
- Tailor promotional content for each social network: Draft different content for social posts and ads on the different networks. Use the words and phrases that work best on that network.