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It is difficult to overstate the importance of headlines. A good headline can entice and engage your audience to click, to read, and to share your content. In many cases headlines are the thing that is shared rather than the article. So you knew that. But do you know what makes an engaging headline?
To help answer this question we analyzed 100 million article headlines. We have set out below our findings from the research including the:
While there is no magic formula for creating a viral or popular headline, there are many lessons we can learn to improve our content engagement. We shared our findings with a number of content experts to reflect on the implications of the research for writers. We have included their expert thoughts and advice at the end of this post. We have also included a section on how you can analyze headlines yourself using BuzzSumo.
Note: This research looks at the most shared headlines on Facebook and Twitter which tend to be dominated by major publishers and consumer content. Thus the insights will be particularly interesting for publishers. We are undertaking separate research on engaging headlines for business to business content which we will publish later this year.
In our sample the most powerful three word phrase used in a headline (by some margin) was:
“Will make you … “
This phrase “will make you” gained more than twice the number of Facebook engagements as the second most popular headline trigram. This was a surprise. When we started out looking for top trigrams, this one wasn’t even on our list.
So why does this particular trigram or three word phrase work so well? One of the interesting things is that it is a linking phrase. It doesn’t start or end a headline, rather it makes explicit the linkage between the content and the potential impact on the reader.
This headline format sets out why the reader should care about the content. It also promises that the content will have a direct impact on the reader, often an emotional reaction. The headline is clear and to the point which makes it elegant and effective.
Typical headlines include:
In our analysis we found that emotional phrases were consistently effective on Facebook as measured by the number of interactions. For example:
Many of the top performing posts with emotional headlines had image or video content although there were also story posts. Below is an example video post.
Despite the strong performance of emotional posts, content writers increasingly have to be careful in using emotional and sensational language. In May 2017 Facebook announced it will demote “headlines that exaggerate the details of a story with sensational language” and which aim “to make the story seem like a bigger deal than it really is.”
Headline phrases that provoke curiosity and a sense of voyeurism also gained a high level of engagement on Facebook. For example:
Readers are often curious about what is being talked about by people, what the top items are in a league table, or what is being said by people on Twitter about a topic or event. This type of content appeals to a reader’s sense of curiosity and voyeurism. If you are curious, here are the most shared posts in the last year that have “are freaking out” in the headline.
We would caution writers to avoid ‘what happened next’ style headlines. While they have previously performed well, Facebook now categorises headlines that withhold information as clickbait and demotes them. In my personal view this is a good thing and I hope we will see an end to such clickbait headlines.
These phrases are also linked strongly to curiosity. For example:
We all want to feel that bit smarter after reading a piece of content. Explainer articles promise you an extra nugget of insight. In some ways they are similar to the “will make you” phrase headline as they make a promise about what you’ll gain as a result of reading the article.
These phrases are used in popular quiz headlines, for example:
Quizzes remain an engaging format on Facebook. The first of these headline types is a quiz variation, it challenges you to answer to questions and to see if the quiz can then predict your age, level of education, job etc., based on your answers. These quizzes appeal to our desire to know more about ourselves and to prove we’re smart, we did grow up in the 80s, we are living in the right city, or whatever it might be. These quizzes are like mirrors, it’s hard to walk past with out looking at yourself. They are hard to ignore.
These popular headlines appeal to a sense of tribal belonging for example:
We have seen a significant growth in tribal headlines, particularly politically partisan headlines. It is almost as if there is a duty on the tribe to share posts that support their viewpoints. We saw this in the US elections and we have seen something similar in the recent UK elections. These tribal headlines tend to gain a lot of engagement and shares, which might be encouraging sites to use polemical headlines more frequently.
Note: We only looked at phrases or trigrams that were used on a minimum of 100 different domains. There will be worse performing phrases than those used above but these are the worst performing commonly used phrases.
It was interesting to see how poorly phrases like ‘on a budget’ performed on Facebook. While some individual articles did well, the average Facebook engagement was very low. By contrast the phrase ‘on a budget’ appears to work really well on Pinterest for DIY topics. See the examples below.
This highlights the importance of context. It may simply be that Facebook is not a place where someone is actively looking for tips to save money and that the Pinterest DIY context is better suited to this content. This reinforces the need to research what works for your audience, your topics and specific social networks. A headline may perform poorly on Facebook but work very well with a different audience on a different social network. The same is true when writing for different sectors, for example a phrase like ‘need to know’ may work well in say health but work less well in a different context. The key is to research what resonates with your specific audience and to test your headlines.
The most popular phrase “will make you” is a phrase that clearly sits in the centre of a headline as it connects two elements. Thus it creates the structure by linking something to an emotional reaction.
This was partly a surprise as previous research has suggested the most important part of a headline is the first three words and the last three words. It may be that using a linking phrase such as “will make you” actually emphasizes the importance of both the beginning and end of the sentence.
We thought it would be useful to look at the top three word phrases that start headlines and the phrases that end headlines.
Below are the most popular phrases that end headlines by number of Facebook interactions (x represents a number).
Finally, below are the most popular first words that start headlines by average Facebook interactions.
In our analysis we also looked at the most shared bigrams or two word combinations. Often these were part of longer three word phrases or trigrams that we have previously identified, for example:
There were, however, a few exceptional two word phrases that gained a high level of average engagements. These included:
Both of these align with the high engaging headline types we found when looking at three word phrases. The first is a form of voyeuristic content which provokes curiosity for example ‘High School Seniors Paint Their Parking Spots And Their Art Goes Viral On Twitter’.
The second is a form of emotional content with often an explicit promise of exceptional content. For example ‘Clementinum In Prague Is The Most Beautiful Library In The World’. This particular example, was picked up and reused by Bored Panda with a similar headline ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Library Is In Prague, Czech Republic’. Both posts got over 250,000 Facebook engagements.
Many of the most engaging phrases contain numbers, and many use a list post format i.e. headlines that start with a number. It is well known that list posts gain above average social shares. We were interested to see if there was any variation between the performance of different numbers, for example a list post starting with 10 or say 4. The table below shows the average Facebook engagements for different number list posts in our sample.
We can see that the number 10 was the highest performing headline number, which confirms previous research in this area. Our research found that the next three best performing numbers in headlines were 5, 15 and 7.
Many marketers have advocated using unique numbers or much longer numbers for comprehensive articles. Buzzfeed have had a lot of success with the number 23 for example, but on average 10, 5, 15 and 7 are the top performing list posts.
Let’s look at the length of your headline. Experts such as Jacob Neilson have argued that the best headlines for news sites are very short. Jacob argues for as short as five words or less than 40 characters. Buffer’s Kevan Lee wrote a comprehensive post which suggested blog post headlines should ideally be six words or less than 50 characters. By contrast, research from Outbrain looking at 100,000 posts, suggests that 16 to 18 words and 80 to 110 characters is optimal for driving engagement. When it comes to email subject lines, research by MailChimp suggests that it doesn’t really matter how long subject lines are.
We decided to test these assumptions. with our sample of 100m articles published between 1st March and 10 May 2017. We analyzed the number of words in article headlines and plotted this number against the average number of Facebook engagements for all headlines in our sample. The results are shown on the chart below.
We can see that posts with twelve to eighteen words in the headline receive the highest number of Facebook engagements on average. As headlines get longer or shorter the average number of Facebook engagements decline.
Twelve plus words may sound like a lot, though if you’re going to make clear the topic, format and use an effective trigram you will need them. Here are some examples:
We also looked at the relationship between the number of characters in a headline and average FB engagements. Our findings were as follows:
Not surprisingly the number of characters has a similar relationship to average Facebook engagements as the number of words. In essence 80 to 95 characters appears optimal.
Thus our research findings would tend to support Outbrain’s previous research that longer headlines work better when it comes to engagement.
Will a headline that works on Facebook work equally well on Twitter? Not necessarily. We found the headline phrases that gained the most engagement on Twitter were quite distinct from those that gained high engagement on Facebook. The main exception was the powerful “will make you” phrase which was the top phrase on Facebook and also the fourth most shared phrase on Twitter.
What is particularly interesting is the lack of emotional phrases in the top headlines that resonate on Twitter. This is very different to our findings for Facebook.
The top Twitter phrases have a focus on newness such as “for first time” and “is the new”.
The top trigrams shared on Twitter also focus more on explanations and analysis for example:
You can test the impact of different headlines on Twitter by trying different text in your tweets.
Update: 18th July 2017. We have now completed our analysis of the best B2B headlines where we reviewed the 10 million most shared posts on LinkedIn in 2017. We found significant differences between the best headline phrases, structures, numbers and lengths for B2B headlines compared to B2C headlines.
You can read the full analysis and post here: The best B2B headline phrases, words and formats based on 10 million posts shared on LinkedIn.
The top phrases in headlines shared on LinkedIn were as follows.
We also found a significant difference between optimum headline lengths for B2B and B2C content. The optimum number of words in B2B headlines was much lower as we can see below. The red line is average LinkedIn shares and the blue line is average Facebook shares.
The key point is that there is no simple formula or approach when it comes to popular headlines, you need to research and understand the headlines that resonate with your audience and industry.
We shared our research with a number of content experts to get their thoughts, reflections and advice for content writers. Here is their take on the findings.
“I love research that quantifies content marketing success. But at the same time, I will be gutted if businesses take this information and conclude that the best headline to use forever and always is something like 10 Ways That Will Make You a Better Headline Writer (and You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!)
“I’m sure that some marketers will take this research as prescriptive advice and cram every top trigram into a 15 word headline. “This is why these 10 stunning photos will make you cry tears of joy!” I’ll admit, I’d probably click that.
But think for a minute about the cause behind the correlations. This research is telling us to give readers stronger reasons to click.
Every time our readers see a headline, they do a split second cost-benefit calculation. It doesn’t matter if they’re in an inbox, a social stream or a search results page. The psychology is the same. Is this thing worth two seconds of my time?
The headline’s job is to answer this question. Here’s how:
This research holds some very powerful insights. I’m sure it will change how many marketers craft their headlines. For me, the big takeaway is to maximize the perceived benefit of the click. Because that’s the game we’re all playing: we only click when the likely benefits exceed the cost of 2-seconds of our attention!”
“The B2B research reveals an opportunity for marketers and content creators to stand out not by following the pack but by applying the emotional elements that work for posts in general. B2B content and marketing has come a long way thanks to Joe Pulizzi and Ann Handley but it can go further by tapping into the human voice and connection.”
“There are three important things to note from the research.
Headlines matter. Maybe that sounds obvious and most of us know this. But do we all spend as much time as we should on headlines? I suggest spending nearly as much time on the headline as on the article itself!
Curiosity drives shares. Captain obvious here again. But the trick is to find a way to spark that curiosity in every headline. It’s why headlines that start with “Here’s why…” or “The one thing that will make you…” work really well. Because they spark instant curiosity. They make us feel compelled to read.
Tell stories. Yes, you can tell a story in a 15 word headline. Hemingway did it in 6 words with his “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” We tell stories to convey emotion. To bring people into our frame of the world. To forget where they are for a moment. To make them the hero on a journey to a better place.”
“I’m blown away at how hard people work on producing content only to slap on a crappy headline as an afterthought. If you have a great article, don’t sabotage yourself by using a weak hook – there’s nothing wrong with using these catchy phrases. Stop fighting them! Like it or not, click through rates play an ever increasing role in the organic search and social news feed algorithms that essentially determine if your content is seen or not. Why produce content if not to be consumed? Stop shooting yourself in the foot and use this research.”
The danger of this type of research is that people simply look to reuse the most shared phrases or words in their headlines. However, the real value of the research is a better understanding of the formats and principles of the headlines that resonate with readers. The research suggests that the characteristics of engaging headlines typically include one or more of the following:
The research also reinforces the importance of context and of understanding what works in your specific context, such as your audience, your industry, your topics and your social networks.
With these points in mind here are some questions that may be useful to ask when formulating your headlines:
We brainstormed a range of possible headlines including ones such as ‘Headlines That Engage: Insights from 100m Posts.’ When we did further research using BuzzSumo, we looked specifically at large research projects in the marketing sector and found that ‘we analyzed’ and ‘we learned’ worked really well as a structure. For example:
Thus after much deliberation and discussion we decided on using this format for the post headline.
We looked at the headlines of 100m articles published from March 1st, 2017 to May 10, 2017 and analysed those that gained the most social shares.
We specifically looked at top trigrams (three word phrases) used in headlines. We started by ignoring trigrams that were topics such as “Game of Thrones”.
We were conscious that popular sites can skew the results, therefore for this analysis we only included one headline trigram example per domain. For instance, “can we guess” is a very popular BuzzFeed trigram thus we would only have included one “can we guess” headline from BuzzFeed in our trigram analysis. From the subsequent list we then removed the three most shared examples of each trigram to remove potential outliers, such as a post that got say 100,000 shares.
For our analysis of the optimum number of words and characters in headlines we included all 100m posts.
If you want to do some analysis of headline phrases yourself, you can simply put a phrase in double quotes into BuzzSumo such as “can we guess”. The search will return the most shared articles with that phrase in the headline and display the share counts from each network and the number of linking domains. Here is an example of the most shared posts for “the future of“. You can further refine your search by adding additional words after the phrase in quotes, here is an example: “the future of” Elon Musk. This will return the most shared headlines with the phrase “the future of” and Elon Musk. You can do this for multiple phrases or phrases and topics.
The various BuzzSumo paid plans allow you to review the most shared headline phrases over the past five years and to export up to 10,000 examples of each phrase with share and link data for further analysis. You can also:
You may also be interested in our previous post on how to create viral headlines.
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