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Whitepaper
June 20, 2019

Content virality: How to achieve social engagement

Emerge from the flood of online content

The Internet is saturated with content.

Content creators should strive to drive virality to emerge from the flood of online content. Viral content is not merely a popular piece, but it garners excessive engagement to outliers.

This paper explores some common factors of viral content.

If you would like more information about monitoring your content, get in touch with us today.

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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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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.

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Is content marketing an art or a science?

It’s not a new debate but an increasingly relevant one. As technology continues to improve, the C-Suite is demanding a clearer measurement into impact. Marketing and communications professionals responsible for curating content are no longer governed by ‘gut feeling’ and instead, are increasingly driven by engagement metrics to demonstrate ROI.

These professionals are well aware how their role requires a mix of art and science thinking. They both draw from the left brain and the right brain, using data and reason to guide the creativity that fuels it.

But this relationship is less rigorously applied to content marketing – an emerging discipline that straddles both marketing and communications objectives.

Marketers and communications professionals have varying levels of social media sophistication – particularly with LinkedIn, which is often a core channel for content. With LinkedIn estimating more than 130, 000 posts are made on its newsfeed every week, organisations are increasingly turning to it as a distribution channel for thought leadership.

Far fewer, however, understand how to draw insight from the platform to ensure their content connects with their target audience.

Marketers and communications practitioners will often speak to me with this challenge solely in mind. Most are able to gauge the success of content on Facebook and Instagram to some level. Plenty of tools exist which measure various social aspects of content marketing, such as ‘likes’ or ‘shares’. But real engagement isn’t buzz. Determining whether content is connecting with a target audience is a key challenge.

Content marketers are struggling to understand whether their current LinkedIn strategy is working – whether it’s reaching the right audience and whether a piece of content is being actively engaged on the platform.

Other times, they will want to target a particular demographic; millennials for example. But they don’t have the understanding of what this group is looking for when they log onto this social networking site.

In short, what content marketers want to do is debunk the myths surrounding their own activity and drill down into strategy to make their dollars work harder.

How can data help?

Data is pivotal. Armed with information, marketers and communications professionals have a window into the opinions, passions and motivations of their audience.

At Isentia we’ve seen this in our own business. The Research & Insights stream has grown by 25 per cent in the last year, as this market recognises the importance of data. I’m often told by clients that they’re just at the start of their measurement journey, but still desperately rely on data to convince the C-Suite to spend money on content marketing.

Research & Insights can be used to help inform content marketing strategy by highlighting what brand-relevant topics an organisation’s audience is engaging with. It can also help content marketers understand where their brand sits against those their competitors, by measuring their share of voice on a particular topic.

But most importantly, data can help marketing and communications practitioners build out content itself. By understanding what type of content receives the most engagement on the platform, they can tailor their content strategies and measure their success at the same time.

Data is the key to debunking the myths of what does or doesn’t work in a content marketing strategy. It gives marketers and communications professionals the opportunity to ensure they understand their audience first and foremost, in order to communicate in a way that connects.

This is where science can help inform the art in content marketing.

Asha Oberoi
Head of Insights, Australia 

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Is your content connecting?

Is content marketing an art or a science?

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Video content represents 80% of all internet traffic in 2019

Video content continues to rise in popularity. We have explored how marketers can connect with their video audience and drive strong engagements.

Download our whitepaper to learn more.

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Whitepaper
A marketer’s guide to connect with a video audience

Find out the importance of video content in 2019 and how you can connect with your video audience

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When it comes to reputation management, understanding your audience perception puts you a step ahead. Learning your audiences frustrations and what drives them, provides insight into how to positively engage with them. As a PR or comms professional, knowing which audience segment impacts or influences your brand reputation is key, especially when sharing messaging.

Reputation is important at the best of times, yet throughout the pandemic, pharmaceutical companies gained the media spotlight whilst their reputation was under scrutiny. As a result, they had to act swiftly and develop new vaccines for immediate and long term use on a global scale.

How do audiences perceive the pharmaceutical industry?

Since the pandemic, we've learned companies are expected to lead. Large companies that failed to take significant actions lost reputation. Those that acted on the opportunities presented to them, flourished. To build or maintain a positive reputation, companies needed to become agile and evolve their operations. 

By using media monitoring and audience intelligence tools, brand reputation and audience perception can be tracked and managed by monitoring traditional and social data, news and industry-specific artificial intelligence (AI). 

Audience perception comes from customer experience, functionality and reputation across mainstream and social media conversations. With social media being an unfiltered platform, it can be hard for brands to control their narrative. However, when you know what your audience is saying about your brand, you can better understand the influential voices and outlets leading the conversations. Monitoring traditional and social media allows you to:

The change in audience sentiment

As an industry that’s responsible for the research, development, production and distribution of medications around the world, having a positive reputation is invaluable.

Pharmaceutical companies frequently use social media to communicate health concerns, new advancements and potential outbreaks. Furthermore, they have been in the spotlight for the past 24 months, helping a society navigate through COVID-19 and out of lockdowns.

The pandemic led to a rapid change in public sentiments over a short span of time. People expressed sentiments of joy and gratitude toward good health, yet sadness and anger at the loss of life and stay at home orders. 

It’s important to understand audience perception toward health-related content, and how your audience perceives the news you share or is shared about you. As the world turned to pharmaceutical companies for vaccines, heightened media coverage meant the public were listening, watching and paying more attention than ever before. This gave those companies the opportunity to redefine what they stand for.

Australian trust in pharmaceutical companies versus global country average. Source: Ipsos and Statista

The role of social media

Historically, the sector had been tarnished by bad publicity. However, the Ipsos Global Trustworthiness Monitor 2021 report revealed pharmaceutical companies are now seen as more trustworthy than they were three years ago. 62% of Australians say they trust pharmaceuticals, in comparison to a global country average of 31%.

Social media intelligence plays an important role in how audiences discover, research and share information about a brand or product. Pharmaceutical companies need to continue their connection with their audiences, through storytelling. With this, they can influence a positive narrative and maintain the positive shift in reputation.

During the pandemic, Pfizer dominated social media. On Twitter, Pfizer was the most mentioned company compared to other competitors during the same period. Conversations about the actual brand were not as popular as vaccines, yet social media buzz was inline with Pfizer's consequential milestones and notable events during the pandemic.

Audience perception on twitter

With company mentions of this calibre, there’s no denying the number of conversations involving pharmaceutical companies. Audiences are talking in an unfiltered manner. Whether it's about their credibility, reputation, or the effectiveness of treatments, there’s no escaping the global conversations about the pharmaceutical industry.


Companies cannot afford to ignore conversations that could influence their reputation. Rather than treating it as something beyond their control, using reputation management tools within a media intelligence platform can assist in rolling out a more effective and efficient comms strategies on both traditional and social media.

The power of audience perception

A recent study on Eczema & Atopic Dermatitis by our sister company, Pulsar, shows a topic that is considered an intensely private conversation, has since moved online. An analysis was performed on the relationship between influential figures and wider audiences.

The below chart shows what the engagement metrics look like for the 19 most-engaged with accounts describable as either dermatologist, esthetician, medical doctor, nurse or pharmacist. 

From this chart it tells us dermatologists hold authority in this conversation with three of the highest engagement tallies originating from dermatology accounts. This suggests their audience trust their expertise and are favourably perceived.

Comparing the mentions and engagements of the top 19 influencers, by engagement, in the atopic dermatitis and eczema conversation. Sept 2020- Oct 2022. Source: Pulsar TRAC.

Audience perception on twitter
Audiences engaging in the conversation around both eczema/atopic dermatitis and medicalised skincare on Twitter, set against the more general eczema/atopic dermatitis conversation over the same period. Sept 2020 – Oct 2022. Source: Pulsar TRAC.

The above chart shows a comparison analysis on audiences engaging in conversations around both eczema/atopic dermatitis and medicalised skincare on Twitter. This is set against the more general eczema/atopic dermatitis conversation over the same period (Sept 2020 - Oct 2022).

Healthcare professionals remain a significant presence. Viewing the two audiences alongside each other:

  • Young black communities cohere into the single largest community.
  • LGBTQ+ communities emerge as a far greater presence in the wider conversation. 

From this study, we can see there is a seamless loop between conversation analysis and audience segmentation. This allows for a dynamic view of how each community talks about a topic differently. 

3 pillars to consider when repairing brand reputation

1. Be active and engaged on your social networks to help control the conversations. Turning the mythology around can be difficult, but with a compelling or positive evergreen story, it can change the perception audiences have about your company.

2. Monitor what is being said. Negative news gets more attention. This creates unwanted negative conversations and commentary. Tracking analytics, such as media mentions, share of voice and media outlets with a media intelligence solution allows you to keep a vigilant eye on the type of media coverage you’re receiving. When repairing a negative reputation, at least 35% of the company’s share of voice should involve company representatives.

3. Create a recovery roadmap to deliver on business improvements. Be transparent and authentic when it comes to communicating to customers and stakeholders. This will help with rebuilding trust and repairing your reputation. 

When a company needs to repair their reputation there is a need to use sources of traditional and social media. These will form the pillars of their repair strategy. These pillars can support a comms strategy with real-time data, identifying what's working and what isn’t.

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Blog
Reputation Management: How Important is Audience Perception?

Reputation management is crucial for any brand. With unfiltered social media, it is critical to understand your audience perception.

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