What makes you click through this article? What is reason why some people may have the urge to share this article without even reading it?

Business man hands holding newspaper with world news words headline, abstract text and photo, coffee break, lunch, reading, breakfast, news paper modern design vector illustration isolated on green

I think making and spending weeks to do some research for this topic,writing up the analysis or deciding on the tables and graphics is not the most important element. But probably the most influential element is the headline itself. The headline itself will determine the number of people that will not just click but to read the post, share it without even reading it.

Through research you will know the formula to viral headlines.

  • 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

Common elements of viral headlines

Here are the identified number of common elements to viral posts. These are outlined in the table below.


Actually on reviewing the headline of the viral posts these are frequent elements that occurs in the headline.  Through the research it is found out that those are the common elements for a viral headline. Those are usually familiar for those that browse the most shared articles on BuzzSumo.

Here is an example headline from BuzzFeed which received over 650,000 shares and 2.6m views.


As you can see I might chose other headlines that is similar to this one but honestly it is obviously recognizable. When trying to check all the details it consists all of the five elements that is common to viral posts.

Most shared headline trigrams (three word phrases)

When it comes out to most shared trigrams (three word phrases) in headlines the research goal is to find out if there were any common patterns: The following can be found below:

  • 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’

Superlative words in headlines

As we want to know the impact of superlative words used on headlines we conduct a test specifically in different social networks. To do this we must identify some of the high performing words and phrases that can found above. Then pulled at least 10,000 examples of those words and phrases in order to explore how sharing varies across networks. But take note most of the people share it for many reasons such as the author, the website, the topic, the headline structure.

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.


Content types in headlines

One important aspect of the viral headline structure is the type of content and this indicates to readers what is the exact type of topic/content they can expect when they hit the click button. Such as “amazing images” or “shocking facts” you may know.


With the image above where analysis is given, the picture itself tells the content type appears to work well on Facebook but less on Twitter or LinkedIn. Tips, Quotes and Facts all indicates that it all 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.

Content formats

Throughout experience the content format can be the single most vital aspect of a headline. With the content types it makes clear that the user can expect more 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 am almost disappointed to say but the samples of 10,000 lists posts with the numbers performed greatly on Facebook, with an average of 45,000 shares and likes. The average number is altered by some high performing posts but even so, the number of shares 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.


Below are the topics that seems to produce permanently and are shared consistently on networks. These includes cats, dogs, babies, love, fitness, secrets to a long life etc. We share some of this 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 the most familiar viral headline and by no means it is the only structure that works. Using a well used variations on viral headline structure is a headline that usually focuses on the promise element. This includes the prospect of giving out the answer on a secret or a story.

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

How to create a viral headline

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:

  1. Structure: Use a viral headline structure with at least three of the key elements below.viral-headline-format
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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”.
  5. 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 analyze these.
  6. 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 analyzer (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’.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

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