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Blog post
June 25, 2019

5 reasons why a headline goes viral

A headline might be a reader’s first – and only – contact with a brand, and many will keep skimming until they land on something that takes their interest.

If you aren’t into the nitty-gritty of headlines, stop reading now. But if you want to be that content creator who writes the runaway headline, here’s a snapshot of what some of the research has found.

Between 1 March and 10 May 2017, BuzzSumo analysed 100 million of the most shared article headlines on Facebook and Twitter, the platforms dominated by publisher and consumer content. Then in July, it published its analysis of 10 million B2B headlines – those shared on LinkedIn – and found that the best headline phrases, structures, numbers and lengths differed from the B2C results.

1. What works for B2C content

While previous research suggested that the first three and last three words were the important parts of a headline, the BuzzSumo research highlighted linking phrases as key for headlines targeting B2C audiences.

The three-word phrase – or trigram – that led the engagement charge (likes, shares, comments) was ‘will make you’. In fact, on Facebook it had twice as many engagements as the trigram that took second place (‘this is why’), followed by ‘can we guess’, ‘only X in’ and ‘the reason is’.

BuzzSumo determined that the success of the ‘will make you’ phrase was based on it linking content to the emotional impact it will have on the reader – it sets you up to care (‘will make you cry’, ‘will make you smarter’, etc.).

It also found that headlines that provoke curiosity work well when readers are looking to learn something from an article. They are a little like the ‘will make you’ articles, but they tell you what you’ll find out rather than what you’ll feel.

The BuzzSumo research found that the top five phrases starting a B2C headline were:

  1. X reasons why…
  2. X things you…
  3. This is what…
  4. This is the…
  5. This is how…

The top five phrases ending a B2C headline were:

  1. …the world
  2. …X years
  3. …goes viral
  4. …to know
  5. …X days

Admittedly, the second-place holder might not rate as well in Australia, but the five top-performing first words were:

  1. This…
  2. Trump…
  3. How…
  4. 10…
  5. Why…

So, what doesn’t work for B2C audiences? The five worst-performing frequently used phrases were:

  1. control of your
  2. your own business
  3. work for you
  4. the introduction of
  5. what’s new in

Confirming earlier Outbrain research, BuzzSumo found that 12 to 18 words and 80 to 95 characters had the highest engagement on Facebook.

2. What works for B2B content

In BuzzSumo’s analysis of 10 million headlines of articles shared on LinkedIn, the practical and informative nature of how-to and list posts (see #3 below) proved to be strong performers in the top five most popular three-word phrases:

  1. X ways to…
  2. The future of…
  3. X things you…
  4. How to get…
  5. How to make…

There was a clear frontrunner in the top two-word phrases starting headlines – ‘How to…’ was shared almost three times more on average than the second-place holder. The top two-word phrases starting B2B headings were:

  1. How to…
  2. The X…
  3. X things…
  4. X ways…
  5. Top X…

Note that after the ‘How to…’ phrase, the next four most shared phrases were all forms of list posts, which gained more than double the average shares of ‘what’ or ‘why’ posts.

Celebrity brand names also garnered high levels of engagement. It makes sense that companies influencing the business environment and forging technological and business model innovation – like Uber, Google, Apple, Facebook, Tesla and Amazon – will have strong reader appeal. For example, nib’s Ambulance or Uber: Who you gonna call?generated a lot of conversation on its Facebook page due to Uber’s topicality.

At seven to 12 words, the optimum headline length for LinkedIn is much shorter than for Facebook.

3. The ongoing power of the list

In July 2017, CoSchedule founder Garrett Moon published results of an analysis that began with close to one million blog headlines – which were then put through various filters. The top takeaway was that list posts or listicles (headlines that start with a number) are “huge”. Moon wrote they are “the most likely type of post to be shared 1000 or even 100 times”. Interestingly, he also noted that “list posts only made up 5% of the total posts actually written”.

The BuzzSumo research, confirming the power of lists and the list post format, found the six most effective numbers (in descending order) in B2C content are 10, 5, 15, 7, 20 and 6. In B2B content, the most shared numbers that start post headlines are 5, 10, 3, 7, 4 and 6, with 5 and 10 performing equally well. Note that how-to posts outstripped list posts in B2B.

CoSchedule’s results show that list posts that they identified by the words ‘thing’, ‘should’ and ‘reasons’ – ‘5 things you can do…’, ‘4 reasons why you should…’ – do best on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

It’s possible that this is due to a combination of clear promise (‘10 steps’, etc.) and the scannable nature of the post, where you can easily work out which bits you want to read.

4. Emotion is good but beware the bait

While strong emotional headlines and those provoking curiosity may get you results, you need to rein in any urge to overstate.

In May 2017, Facebook announced it would demote “headlines that exaggerate the details of a story with sensational language” and those that aim “to make the story seem like a bigger deal than it really is.”

There may be some debate about what is and isn’t clickbait, but there are two key points to consider. In the first place, the reader needs to feel encouraged to read. And in the second, they need to not be disappointed when they have finished reading.

5. Research, tailor and test

There are no hard and fast rules. You always need to research what works for your audience, your topics and your social platforms, and to test your headlines. Different audiences will require different content and will be accessing it on different platforms. For example, Outbrain works for an editorial-led audience more than a business-specific audience.

In the interests of transparency, this headline isn’t the first that came to mind. It’s the result of trawling through this research.

Maybe we all need to take the advice of Ann Handley, chief content officer at MarketingProfs: “Spend as much time writing the headline as you do an entire blog post or social post.”

Belinda Henwood, Strategy & Content

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