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100m Posts Analyzed: What You Need To Write The Best Headlines

100m Posts Analyzed: What You Need To Write The Best Headlines
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A headline isn’t just an article title. It’s a tiny window of opportunity to connect with your audience.

It’s a subject line, a tweet, a h2, a video title – basically anything that aims to:

  1. Convey information succinctly
  2. Encourage a desired action – ie. clicks, views, shares etc.

But writing a good headline is no mean feat – especially today. We have algorithms deciding who gets to read our headlines, we have more competition than ever before, and we have audiences with exceedingly high standards.

So, what constitutes a “good” headline? Inspired by BuzzSumo co-founder Steve Rayson's much loved most shared headlines study back in 2017, we have once again dug into the BuzzSumo index to analyze a casual 100 million headlines.

We also asked industry leading marketing experts to give their thoughts on our findings.

Read on to find out:

Don’t forget you can also use the Table of Contents on the right to navigate through the report! 🧭

Our top 5 insights:

  1. Instructional headlines drove the most Facebook engagement.
  2. Curiosity headline phrases – ie. those that hinted, teased or questioned something – tended to fare a lot better on Twitter.
  3. The top headline phrase on Facebook had 590x more average shares than the top headline phrase on Twitter.
  4. The ideal headline length is 11 words and 65 characters, according to the most shared headlines on both Facebook & Twitter.
  5. The top Facebook headlines are no longer published by low-quality entertainment publications, but instead by authoritative news sites.

If you’re a publisher or content creator, the findings of this report will be relevant to you. You’ll learn which headline types actually work on Facebook and Twitter, and best practice techniques for writing headlines that click.

The ideal headline length

Don’t be fooled by outdated studies that tell you to write snappy six word headlines.

Headlines need to be specific and reveal enough detail to really draw readers in.

In our study analyzing 100m of the best headlines across Facebook and Twitter, we found the ideal headline length to be 11 words and 65 characters.

That being said, headlines have got shorter over the years.

Check out our 2017 comparison of headline lengths to find out more.

The best numbers to use in headlines

The magic number to use in headlines is… 10.

✨ 1️⃣ 0️⃣ ✨

Excluding the magic number 10, we prefer to share articles featuring single digit numbers.

Numbers three through to 10 drive the most engagement on social media, taking the top seven positions for the most shared headlines on Facebook and Twitter.

We don’t seem to have a strong preference towards odd or even numbers – nine of the top 20 numbers are odd, while 11 are even.

Both odd and even numbers appear in the five most shared headlines.

How headlines have changed since 2017

For those of you that don’t know, we carried out our most shared headlines study back in 2017.

One of the aims of updating the study was to find out if headlines had changed much over time.

TL;DR: they definitely have.

Emotional headlines are a thing of the past

Back in 2017, we found that emotional words in headlines drove the most engagement on Facebook, with the following phrases performing best:

  • Tears of joy
  • Make you cry
  • Give you goosebumps
  • Is too cute
  • Shocked to see
  • Melt your heart
  • Can’t stop laughing

These kinds of explicitly emotional or sensational headlines were few and far between in our 2019/20 analysis.

In fact, across our entire Facebook sample, we only came across one overtly emotional headline phrase “in love with” which was the 55th most popular headline trigram, with an average of 1,723 shares.

In 2017, the top phrase on Facebook, “will make you”, was also often used as a precursor to emotional headlines ie.

  • What This Airline Did for Its Passengers Will Make You Tear Up – So Heartwarming
  • “Who Wore It Better?” Pics That Will Make You Laugh Out Loud

At the time, the top headline for the “will make you” trigram achieved 1.7m shares. This time around however, the top headline for that same trigram achieved just 143k shares.

The closest we get to emotion nowadays is through the use of exaggerated phrases ie. “one of the most beautiful”.

Back in 2017, BuzzSumo co-founder Steve Rayson, described this trigram as a form of “emotional content, with often an explicit promise of exceptional content”.

So emotional headlines can still work if you’re referencing exceptional content – but overtly emotional or sensational headlines have seemingly had their day.

Quizzes and tribal headlines are also out

Back in 2017, headlines were all about inclusivity and identity.

Quizzes were big.

Phrases like “can we guess” (ie. Can We Guess Your Real Age?) or “only X in” (ie. Only 1 In 50 People Can Identify These 16 Grammar Mistakes. Can You?) dominated the most shared headlines.

Tribal headlines also made a regular appearance (ie. 25 Things Only Teachers Will Understand, 17 Things Only Moms of Twins Understand).

When you read these headlines now, it feels like a blast from the past. I think the only time I stumble across this kind of content is when my mom has been let loose on the interwebs (she wants you to know she has a very advanced vocab).

These kinds of headlines cropped up rarely in our updated analysis.

The best headlines have changed almost entirely since 2017

On Facebook, there is 100% difference between the top 20 headline phrases in 2017 vs 2019/20.

Similarly, on Twitter, only two of the most popular headline phrases have remained the same since 2017.

We can attribute this stark change to a few things; algorithmic maturity, audience preference and the publisher landscape.

Whether social media has taught us what to consume, or whether we have taught it, there’s no denying that the production and consumption of content has become more refined over the years.

In 2017, Steve Rayson pointed out that Facebook had begun demoting clickbait style content (ie. “what happened next” headlines); this began on May 17th 2017.

The lack of emotional, tribal and quiz based phrases in our updated analysis signals a continuation of this algorithmic development.

Headlines are snappier these days

As we’ve already seen above, 11 words and 65 characters is the ideal length for a top shared headline based on our updated study.

But in 2017, the optimum formula was 15 words and 95 characters.

The headlines we like to share on social media now have reduced by approximately four words and 30 characters.

We need our information and we need it fast!

In a recent study of 1.7bn articles, we found that all content published online has increased by 64% since 2016.

Content overload is no joke. It’s little wonder then that we prefer snappier headlines that get to the point.

Headlines have become more homogenous

Twitter headline phrases are not too dissimilar from those on Facebook – with many of the same overarching themes and even the exact same language.

In 2017, Facebook and Twitter shared only one phrase in common, across the top 20 headlines.

Now, eight of the top 20 headline phrases crossover on Facebook and Twitter, taking the data from 2.5% similarity to 20%.

The moral of the story here is, duplicating headlines across networks as part of your content distribution strategy can work for the right kind of headline.

That being said, it never hurts to test to see what works best for you.

Headlines are being shared more on Facebook and less on Twitter

The most engaging Facebook trigram in 2017 “will make you” garnered 8,691 shares on average.

In our updated study however, the top phrase “of the year” managed 26,702 average shares – or 3x the amount.

On Twitter it was a very different story; shares decreased by nearly 4x the amount, when comparing the most shared phrases in 2017 vs 2019/20.

This got me thinking: Are we sharing Twitter headlines less than we were before, or are headlines simply more varied on Twitter now than they were in 2017 – thereby diluting average shares of common headline phrases?

I turned to BuzzSumo to figure this out, and from an analysis of 11 million Twitter engagements, I found that Twitter shares had dropped by 14% from 2017 – 2020.

This is a super interesting development, since monthly active users (MAU) have stayed largely the same over a similar time period.

The top numbers in headlines are largely the same

When it comes to the top number featured in headlines, not much has changed since 2017.

As we already know, the number 10 is still very much the firm favourite, however other double digit numbers – like 15 and 20 – seem to have fallen out of favor.

Once again it’s all about speed to insight; it seems we’re finding larger numbers and longer lists less appealing to share.

The top publishers have changed drastically across both platforms

After seeing headline phrases change pretty radically, we wondered if the publisher landscape reflected this.

Twitter

We analyzed the top 10 domains for the most engaging headlines phrases, in 2017 vs 2019/20.

We found that…

  • YouTube content has always been behind the most shared Twitter headlines, but with 494% growth since 2017, that ownership has turned into a monopoly.
  • The headline phrases that came top on YouTube in 2019/20 gave way to fairly sensational and hyperbolic content – ie.
  • “in the world”
  • “the power of”

YouTube videos featuring “the truth about” also generated a lot of engagement on Twitter. The most shared YouTube videos on Twitter revolved around politics and K-pop.

  • Four new domains entered the race in 2019/20 including time.com, forbes.com, pscp.tv (Periscope) and thegatewaypundit.com.
  • Periscope signals the rise of live video, while The Gateway Pundit – a far-right political news site – is reflective of the 2020 US elections.
  • The BBC, The Independent, BuzzFeed and Mashable all dropped out of the race in 2019/20.

Facebook

  • YouTube, once third, is now firmly in position #1 for the most shared headlines, growing by an almighty 3000%. The most shared YouTube videos in 2019/20 were overwhelmingly “how tos”.
  • Seven domains entered the race in 2019/20 – six of which were news publishers:
  • cnn.com
  • dailymail.co.uk
  • nbcnews.com
  • washingtonpost.com
  • cbsnews.com
  • time.com
  • Entertainment websites dropped off dramatically in 2019/20 – particularly lesser known and low quality sites like icreative.am or apost.com. Boredpand.com and BuzzFeed.com managed to hang around, but dropped 5 and 8 places respectively, out of the top 10 domains.

As we know, Facebook began culling clickbait headlines in 2017, but on January 19th, 2018 the social media giant also announced it would start prioritizing news content from trustworthy sources.

Further refinement to this algorithm was announced on June 30th, 2020, centering around boosting original and authoritative news reporting.

And we can see this preferential treatment of news publishers as clear as day in the comparison above.

This, along with the decision to move away from clickbait headlines, has undoubtedly impacted the most shared Facebook phrases we’ve examined throughout this study.

If anything, we know now that our updated headline findings are based on more reliable sources.

So, if you’re a publisher and you’re reading this, you can feel that bit more confident in applying the results of this research to your own content.

Headline phrases that drive the most Facebook engagement

In our analysis, we looked at the most popular three word phrases, known as “trigrams” that gained the highest average shares on Facebook.

We find trios satisfying, memorable and impactful (see what we did there 😉 ).

This pattern of communication has been used for centuries in everything from poetry to film, religion, and advertising.

With this in mind, we chose to prioritize three-word phrases throughout our headline research.

These phrases could have started or ended the headline, or even connected it somewhere in the middle.

They are as follows…

In our sample of the best headlines, the phrase “of the year” came in at number one, followed closely by “in X years”.

While they sound similar – ie. both time centric – we found their usage to be pretty different.

The headlines returning for “of the year” were concerned with rankings and awards – ie. person, film, sportsperson or meme of the year.

Most shared headline examples in this category included:

  • Greta Thunberg: TIME’s Person of the Year 2019 (time.com 2.1M shares)
  • American Girl’s 2020 girl of the year is 1st doll with hearing loss (goodmorningamerica.com 557K shares)
  • Adut Akech named Model of the Year at British Fashion Awards 2019 (cosmopolitan.com 424K shares)

The second phrase, “in X years”, returned headlines centered around newness, with the trigram often making up part of the longer phrase “for the first time in X years”.

Coincidentally, this phrase also combines the second (“in X years”), third (“for the first”) and fourth (“the first time”) most popular trigrams.

Most shared “Newness” headline examples:

  • Photographer And His Wife Plant 2 Million Trees In 20 Years To Restore A Destroyed Forest And Even The Animals Have Returned (boredpanda.com 3.1M shares)
  • Himalayas visible for first time in 30 years as pollution levels in India drop (sbs.com.au 2.3M shares)
  • The Most Beautiful Flower Garden In The World Has No Visitors For The First Time In 71 Years And I Got To Capture It (boredpanda.com 832K shares)

This trigram also borders on another category: Surprise. Number of years are included seemingly to invoke shock or surprise at the extent of time – ie.

  • Foster mom raised 600 kids in 50 years — took in children no matter age or medical condition (spotlightstories.co 1.4M shares)
  • George Clooney: Racism Is Our Pandemic And In 400 Years We’ve Yet To Find A Vaccine (huffpost.com 2.1M shares)
  • We Are About To Witness A Rare Planetary Alignment Not Seen In 800 Years (awarenessact.com 1.1M shares)

Back to trigram #1 (“Of the year”). Why does this particular three word phrase work so well?

Putting something or someone on a pedestal, and attaching the “of the year” accolade will generate a lot of discussion between those who agree or disagree with the decision – the “Fans” and the “Haters” so to speak – and even more so if the decision is controversial or atypical.

Supporters will share in solidarity, while many others will share to deride or mock.

With trigrams #2 through to #4, the focus on newness is about letting the audience in on the details of a rare occasion or unique set of circumstances. It builds intrigue and makes the audience want to click through.

The top themes in the best Facebook headlines

To get a better understanding of the types of headlines that tended to perform best on Facebook, we categorized the top 60 trigrams.

The best headlines fell into eight main categories.

There was some crossover, but we focused on the most common patterns.

The themes included:

1. Ranking

Ranking trigrams were based on headlines that largely focused on awards or public votes.

Headline example: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris: TIME’s Person of the Year 2020 (cnn.com 418K shares)

2. Newness

Newness trigrams featured in headlines that centered around unique, rare or one-off events and circumstances.

Headline example: For the first time in history, U.S. billionaires paid a lower tax rate than the working class (washingtonpost.com 1.2M shares)

3. Hyperbole

Hyperbolic trigrams were ones that gave way to exaggerated statements in headlines.

Headline example: Why Your Older Sister Is One of the Most Important People in Your Life (brightside.me 2.1M shares)

4. Instructional

Instructional trigrams were ones that gave way to commanding statements or phrases that suggested some sense of obligation and / or urgency.

Headline example: Everything you need to know about washing your hands to protect against coronavirus (COVID-19) (unicef.org 2.2M shares)

5. Surprise

Surprise trigrams included statements that were designed to shock or challenged standard views on a subject matter.

Headline example: There Are At Least 36 Intelligent Alien Civilizations In Our Galaxy, Say Scientists (forbes.com 990K shares)

6. Curiosity

This type of headline indicated that the content was going to reveal, explain or analyze something. This often came in the form of declarative statements ie. “here are the”, as well as listicle headlines like “X reasons why”, or prediction posts ie. “the future of”. Any headline phrase that presented some form or question was also included in this category.

Headline example: Museum Asks People To Recreate Paintings With Stuff They Can Find at Home, Here Are The Results (sadanduseless.com 3.1M shares)

7. Guidance

This headline type returned “How to” or tutorial based headlines.

Headline example: How to make cookie cereal, the hottest new food trend (insider.com 941K shares)

8. Story

Story trigrams included headlines that were centered around a person or topic – similar to that of a case study.

Headline example: Inside the Story of How H-E-B Planned for the Pandemic (texasmonthly.com 357k shares)

Instructional headlines drive Facebook engagement

While rankings and newness topped the charts, it was instructional headlines that stole the show.

What do we mean by instructional? In this instance, we focused on modal verbs – ie. you need to, you should, you must – and any statement that required someone to do something.

We found that 13 of the top 60 most engaging Facebook headlines were either instructional, or part of a wider (commonly used) phrase that was instructional.

For example:

  • you need to (#6)
  • need to know (#7)
  • to know about (#9)
  • what you need (#19)
  • why you should (#33)

These phrases can be, and were, threaded together to create popular longer phrases:

  • Lilies and Cats: What You Need to Know About Toxic Plants (wideopenpets.com 841K shares)
  • What you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccine (gatesnotes.com 206K shares)
  • What You Need to Know About the Death of Soleimani (aclj.org 455K shares)

But what makes instructional phrases so popular with readers? Let’s talk about the connotations of trigram #6 “you need to”.

By bringing in the second person pronoun “you”, the writer of the headline places sole responsibility on the reader. It’s giving them a clear instruction and – not only that – it’s invoking a sense of FOMO: “You need to do this” subtext: “Or else…”.

Here’s a perfect example of that in the wild…

Now let’s dig a little deeper into trigram #7 “need to know”.

Commonly, this phrase refers to the practice of providing or receiving only the most important information. Think of the term “on a need to know basis”.

In the same way, a headline featuring “need to know” is clearly communicating to readers that they will get a concise overview of the most critical elements of the story. In other words, it’s teasing what the article will reveal.

In the same way as above, it also evokes a bit of FOMO: “You need to know this” subtext: “Everybody else does.”

Hyperbole is one of the most successful headline categories

Superlatives are words that exist in three forms, and are used to highlight different degrees of comparison and exaggeration ie.

Much > More > Most

Great > Greater > Greatest

Phrases that gave way to hyperbolic, superlative or generally exaggerated headlines gained a high level of engagement on Facebook.

For instance:

“One of the” #5

This trigram was very commonly followed by superlative adjectives ie. “One of the most” or “One of the greatest”.

Example headline:

  • Kale is now one of the most pesticide-contaminated vegetables (cnbc.com 610K shares)

“Of the most” #12

These headlines also gave way to hyperbolic phrases…

  • This Brown Siberian Husky Is One of the Most Beautiful Dogs on Instagram (mymodernmet.com 749k shares)

“X of the” #14

And same again here…

  • 30 Of The Funniest Outdoor Signs From This Vet Clinic That Dad Joke Lovers Will Appreciate (boredpanda.com 325k shares)

“Of the best” #16

Out of all the hyperbolic and superlative words, it would seem that “best” is one of the… well… best!

  • Pink beach in Zamboanga City Philippines Is One Of The Best In The World (furrycategory.com 219k shares)

FYI: You might have also spotted “of all time” in the top 20. While this is clearly hyperbolic, we found that the majority of headlines incorporating this phrase were the result of awards or public vote, and therefore placed it in the “ranking” category.

Phrases that start or end the best Facebook headlines

Our research was driven by the need to better understand the principles of great headline writing – that’s true.

But we also wanted to get to grips with optimum headline formats and composition.

To do this, we studied phrases starting, connecting and ending only the best headlines.

Unlike the three word phrases above, the following trigrams sit at the very beginning of the most effective headlines on Facebook.

The thing that jumps out straightaway is the amount of headlines beginning with a number – or “listicles” as they’re more commonly known. Six out of twenty phrases start with a number, and three more also feature a number.

Numbers promise the reader information and actionable takeaways. They’re also a great way to make headlines more specific and, therefore, clickable, according to Brian Dean (Founder, Backlinko).

Next, it’s clear that instructional (ie. “X things to”, “everything you need”, “why you should”) and curiosity phrases (ie. “X reasons why”, “what is the”, “this is the”) are also super effective, taking up twelve out of the top 20 trigrams at the start of the most popular headlines.

But when we extended our analysis to the top 60 phrases, and categorized them like we did above, guidance trigrams (ie. “how to’s”) were by far the most popular.

It seems the people of Facebook are keen to learn! 🤓

Newness and guidance words work best at the start of Facebook headlines

We took a look at the most common word at the start of the most shared headlines.

Coming in at #1 was *drum roll please* 🥁…

“The”

You heard it here first 😎

Looking beyond the obvious, we found that words suggesting newness (ie. “new”) and guidance (ie. “how”) gained some big shares.

The top four ending phrases had significantly more average shares, and were all concerned with the happenings of 2020 or what was to come in 2021 – despite the dataset being an amalgamation of 2019 and 2020 data. It’s clear that these headlines focused on the effects of the pandemic.

Time-centric headlines

General time-centric headlines also worked well despite the pandemic. Overall, nine out of the 20 ending headlines were time-centric – whether that was across the “year” or down to the “second”.

Figures were used in headlines to surprise

We also noticed that when a number ended the most shared headlines – time-centric or not – it was more often than not used to induce surprise – ie.

  • FDA approves new test that could detect coronavirus in about 45 minutes (cnn.com 1.6M shares)

Figures were used in headlines for speed to insight

Alternatively, numbers were used to highlight speed to insight – ie. “In just 5 minutes”

  • Lemon Icebox Pie, An Old Favorite in just 5 Minutes youtube.com 528K shares

Social media trends fuelled content headlines

And, if you look at #7 on the list, you’ll see that social media trends were also fuelling some of the most shared headlines.

The phrase “social media” gave way to surprise based headlines, which turned novel or trending social media conversation into content – ie.

  • Wavy Lips Are The Latest Beauty Trend Taking Over Social Media (goodlivingguide.com 397K shares).

We all use content to fuel our social media posts, so why not use social media trends to fuel our content?

Everyone loves to be ahead of the curve, which is precisely why this kind of content is so widely shared. Think of it as the content-conversation loop 🔁

Headline phrases that drive the most Twitter engagement

We can’t talk about headlines and not discuss Twitter. Here are the top three-word phrases on Twitter…

It seems Tweeters were very interested in the “future of” things, sharing these kinds of headlines an average of 45 times. This included content like:

  • A Look at the Future of Gaming on PlayStation 5 (46K shares)
  • BTS talks Dynamite, life in quarantine & the future of their music… (28K shares)
  • Rihanna Opens Up About Her New Clothing Line, the Future of Fashion and Her Next Album (13K shares)

This same phrase was most commonly used at the beginning of Twitter headlines too…

And when it came to the top words starting headlines on Twitter, we were excited to see some interesting clues as to the contents of the headline.

Two words jumped out to us here: “study” and “report”. It seems that if you’ve got research to share, Twitter is the platform to share it on.

The phrases ending headlines on Twitter were equally interesting. Like Facebook, Twitter audiences were hyper concerned with the date, time and present developments – with the top two “2020” based headlines garnering double the shares of the next most popular phrase, and the top eight headlines all ending in this way.

In fact, at least 13 of the top 20 ending bigrams here were concerned with immediacy and reactivity. Twitter audiences clearly have an appetite for current affairs.

How to write headlines for Facebook AND Twitter

We’ve seen that writing for Facebook is all about instruction and exaggeration if you want those shares. But what about Twitter? Is it really that much of a different beast?

We analyzed the top 60 phrases on both Facebook and Twitter, to examine headline themes side by side and answer just that.

Curiosity headline phrases – ie. those that hinted, teased or questioned something – tended to fare a lot better on Twitter.

But if you’re looking for success on both platforms, then instructional headlines – ie. “need to know” “look at the” or “what to do” – are the way to go.

The category with the biggest discrepancy between both platforms here is “story”. Audiences evidently prefer to share stories around the people and topics they love or hate on Twitter, so if your content is about “the story of”, “the history of” or “the rise of”, then Twitter is the platform for you.

Of course, headline themes can overlap, and we’re dealing with very different networks and datasets here.

In fact, we found that the most shared headline phrase on Facebook had 590x more average shares than the most shared headline phrase on Twitter.

With that in mind, it’s wise not to restrict your content to Twitter. Try writing headlines for different channels, and testing what appeals most to your audience.

What are the top crossover headline phrases?

Interestingly, eight out of the top 20 headline phrases in our 100m study were the same across Facebook and Twitter.

These included:

  1. at least X
  2. for the first
  3. here are the
  4. is not a
  5. of the year
  6. one of the
  7. the first time
  8. what you need

And when it came to the top phrases starting headlines, we found that 10 phrases – or 25% of the overall sample – crossed over on Twitter and Facebook.

  1. the story of
  2. the top X
  3. the X best
  4. the X most
  5. this is how
  6. this is the
  7. what are the
  8. what is the
  9. what you need
  10. why you should

These kinds of phrases were more likely to entice a share, regardless of the network they were distributed on.

What the marketing experts think

Heidi Cohen

Chief Marketing Officer, Actionable Marketing Guide

This update to BuzzSumo’s 2017 100m Headline Analysis reflects how the marketing landscape has changed over the last 5 years. Most notably, it reveals 3 key customer behavior changes due to the pandemic:

  • Content saturation continues to overwhelm all customers. As a result, they focus on shorter headlines, 11 words or a maximum of 65 characters. At a minimum, front load your headline’s key message.
  • Trust outweighs other content factors for all customers. If your audience doesn’t trust you and the platform where you publish, then they won’t look at your content! So branding matters more than ever.
  • Social media use replaced real life interactions during the pandemic. People turned to Facebook to keep up with the people they no longer were able to see face-to-face. At the same time, others spent less time on Twitter since they got their information through other channels and sources.

Based on these results, I recommend that marketers focus on core marketing basics to ensure that they get the most out of their marketing investment over the long-term.

Further, as the world emerges from the pandemic, continue to talk to your existing customers to determine how their needs may have changed.

Also test new options for reaching your broader audience.

Julian Shapiro

Founder, Demand Curve

One of the highest signal-to-noise reports on content marketing. This is the type of data that BuzzSumo can uniquely put together.

Rand Fishkin

Founder, SparkToro

If you’re a content creator, strategist, or marketer, reviewing data at scale from this study is a very wise investment. It won’t just help you with writing headlines (though it’s absolutely valuable for that), but with contrasting what’s worked in the past vs. what works today. Clickbait, emotional triggers, listicles, conspiracy content, and quizzes have long held a dominant position in how marketers think about what works on social media platforms. BuzzSumo’s research confirms some of those, mythbusts others, and illuminates the nuance of what’s really working.

Ross Simmonds

Founder, Foundation

It’s fascinating to see that years after BuzzFeed shook up the journalism industry with “click friendly” headlines that they’re now being adopted by the masses and even those who originally pushed back on the approach. The success of incorporating instructional copy such as “you need to” and “you should” is an amazing insight that more brands should consider applying to in their headline writing. At the end of the day, this entire study showcases the importance of understanding human psychology and the human desire of not missing out on information that is important to our circles.

Brian Dean

Founder, Backlinko

Fascinating to see that instructional headlines work best on Facebook. That’s a huge shift from the heyday of Facebook organic, which was all about BuzzFeed-style clickbait. This data shows that it’s possible to get content in front of your audience on Facebook. But today’s Facebook users need to know that the content is going to teach them something new.

Amanda Milligan

Marketing Director, Fractl

I find the “instructional” headline trend fascinating, because I’ve definitely noticed it gaining popularity over recent years, and I’d bet it’s in response to people’s growing desire to hear and learn from experts. When headlines feature this type of language — “everything you need,”,“why you should,” “this is the best,” etc. — it inherently demonstrates authority. That news source isn’t just providing you with information; they’re saying they know what’s best. I’d encourage brands to consider the authority they carry in their space and how they can leverage that to benefit readers through this sort of content.

How to analyze the best headline phrases using BuzzSumo

If this research has inspired you to do your own digging, you can head to the BuzzSumo Content Analyzer to examine headline phrases for yourself.

All you need to do is search your chosen phrase in inverted commas – ie. “need to know”

This will reveal the best headlines, based on social media shares and engagement across Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Reddit.

You can also find out other performance insights here, such as number of backlinks, evergreen scores and the top sharers of headlines.

You can also add words after the phrase to further refine your search results, and can even do more specific phrase searches, including:

trigrams:need to know

starting_trigram:need to know

bigrams:need to

starting unigram:need

ending_bigram:to know

Your search can be in any language, across any TLD, and you can focus on headlines written by prominent journalists, or even generate a full report on the headlines you study in the Content Analysis tab view.

Plus, you can view great headlines and headline phrases for specific domains such as time.com.

Find out more about getting the most out of BuzzSumo Content Analyzer searches here.

Paid plans will give you more years of historical data and allow you to export to 10,000 headlines as a CSV.

A recap of what we’ve learned

News headlines, subject lines, blog headlines, ad copy, social media headlines, dating profiles – whatever kind of headline you’re looking to write, you can use the data-backed findings of this study for inspiration.

Steve Rayson made a great point in 2017 when he said this kind of research is not just about copy + pasting the best headline phrases into your own titles (we’re seeing enough headline duplication as it is!)

Instead, use the findings of this study to better understand the common themes, best practices and top principles of headline writing.

How to write better headlines:

  • Instruct the reader to take action
  • Use superlative language and promise exceptional content
  • Provide guidance and answer questions
  • Use numbers to surprise, reinforce speed to insight or make your headlines more specific
  • Tease details and ask questions
  • Keep tabs on changes in algorithms and audience interests

If a headline is good enough in and of itself, people will share it ahead of even reading the article.

Ask yourself:

  • SWIFT – So What’s In It For Them?
  • Can you be clear about what you want from the reader?
  • Can you tease any information, without falling into the realms of clickbait?
  • Can you lead with a surprising statement?
  • Can you fit your content into 11 words and / or 65 characters?

Methodology

  • We studied 100m headlines published between 1st January 2019 and 31st December 2020, and analyzed those that gained the most social shares.
  • We analyzed two years of data (2019-2020) to normalize a dataset that would otherwise have been largely skewed by the pandemic.
  • How we cleaned the data
  • We focused on the headlines phrases that demonstrated some form of pattern or trend.
  • We omitted vague or generic phrases that didn’t demonstrate any real pattern or theme (ie. “to be a” or “out of the”), as well as phrases that were too specific (ie. “in New York”) or topic focused (ie. “Mental health”). Our reason for doing so was to hone in on evergreen headline phrases that can apply to any industry and time frame.
  • Why we chose to measure engagement by average median shares (explained with an example).
  • Let’s say one www.nytimes.com article uses the headline phrase “this is why”, and it generates 10 million shares. Then let’s imagine a bunch of other news sites use this same phrase, but receive only 1-5 shares. If we were to apply a mean average, “this is why” would end up being the #1 trigram, but that would be an anomaly as a single www.nytimes.com article would be pushing up the average. When using the median, we avoid that problem entirely.
  • As above, we were conscious that popular sites can skew the results, therefore in this analysis we only included one headline trigram / phrase per domain. For instance, “can we guess” is a very popular BuzzFeed trigram, therefore we would only have included one “can we guess” headline from BuzzFeed in our trigram analysis.


Thank you to Steve Rayson for creating the original research (BuzzSumo Research: 100 Mil Headlines Analysis. Here’s What We Learned) in 2017 that inspired this report, and to Henley Wing Chiu, Co-Founder and CTO of BuzzSumo, for painstakingly collecting the data.

100m Posts Analyzed: What You Need To Write The Best Headlines was written by Louise Linehan, BuzzSumo's Content Manager.