- Titanic Sinks
- VE-Day It’s All Over
- Man Walks on the Moon
- Mandela goes free today
- Diana is Dead
Headlines have shaped our world! Where were you when you heard the news? If it’s a big story that affected you, you’ll remember. However it’s not just news stories that hang on a good headline, but also advertising copy. We read a fascinating article on BuzzSomu and have summarised it for you!
KEY REPORT HIGHLIGHTS
- Headline phrases that drive most engagement on Facebook
- Worst performing headline phrases on Facebook
- Most effective phrases that start or end headlines
- Optimum number of words and characters to use in a headline
- Most impactful numbers to use in headlines
- Most engaging Twitter headline phrases
- Differences between B2C and B2B headlines
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. You know this, but do you know what makes a good headline?
Researches looked at R 100 million article headlines. This is what they found.
Headlines that drive the most engagements on Facebook strike an emotional chord with the user.
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.
Research looked at the most shared headlines on Facebook and Twitter, which tend to be dominated by major publishers and consumer content.
Most Engaging Headline Phrases: The Data
In a survey of 100m headlines published between 1st March 2017 and 10th May 2017, researchers examined the three word phrases or trigrams that gained the most Facebook engagements (likes, shares, comments).
They could be nostalgic, sad, funny, quirky or surprising. The three-word phases that came up trumps was: “Will make you”…
- What this father of the bride did will make you cry…
- This carrot and apple juice will make you rethink your diet…
- How this little boy reacted to his baby sister will make you laugh!
You get where they are going with this. “Will make you…” guarantees your emotional response to their content. Carry on reading this article and it WILL MAKE YOU super savvy!
Here are the top headline phrases on Facebook:
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. Cause and effect – If you do this, you will feel, learn, or experience something different. You will for a few moments be transported from your reality.
The bride’s father stops mid-way up the aisle and grabs the hand of his daughter’s step-father to accompany them! Ahhh, feel good moments like this work!
Headline formats that tick the boxes:
- 10 pictures that will restore your faith in humanity
- When this grade 4 teacher told her class she had cancer, she never expected this reaction
- 6 uncomfortable facts that you need to hear in order to become a kinder person
- “Carpool Karaoke” videos that will make you laugh out loud
- 13 Sun tips that will save your skin
Emotional Headlines Drive Facebook Interactions
Human behaviour is driven largely by emotion rather than reason. I feel happy, excited, tender, sad, angry or scared. Not surprising that analysis found that emotional phrases were consistently effective on Facebook. For example:
- Tears of joy
- Shrieks of laughter
- Make you cry
- Give you goosebumps
- Is too cute
- Shocked to see
- Melt your heart
- Can’t stop laughing
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. It plays into many emotions from the surprise element to happy, excited and tender.
Despite the strong performance of emotional posts, content writers increasingly have to be careful with 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.” Clickbait detectors will smell a fishy story! So don’t even try posting: “Proven herbal remedy that will halt ageing.” Not only is this unethical, but Facebook will crack down on you!
Curiosity and Voyeurism Also Gains Facebook Engagement
Let’s face it. A huge part of the attraction of social media is peeping into each other’s lives. And of course more often that not we are looking at an airbrushed picture, yet the voyeurism factor is real.
Headline phrases that provoke curiosity and a sense of voyeurism also gained a high level of engagement on Facebook. For example:
- What happened next
- Talking about it
- Twitter reacts to
- Are freaking out
- Top x songs
FOMO is for real! 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.
Be careful about writing headlines in the ‘what happened next’ style. While they have previously performed well, Facebook now categorises headlines that withhold information as clickbait and demotes them.
Other Engaging Headline Phrases
- This is why
- The reason is
These phrases are also linked to curiosity. For example:
- And this is why women live longer than men
- This is why you should floss every day
After reading a piece of content, our reward is to feel brighter or better informed. Explainer articles promise you an extra nugget of insight, whether it’s promising you a good night’s sleep or job interview skills. 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 an action, reading the article.
Me, Myself and I. We love anything that is about yours truly. And we love nothing more than understanding ourselves better. From astronomy to psychotherapy to quizzes. Yes that last word was not a typo, as people are attracted to quizzes to find out and prove something about themselves in relation to others. “I told you I was a Harry Potter fan”. Furthermore quizzes are fabulously shareable. “I belong in Gryffindor, what Hogwarts house do you belong in?” Quiz’s appeal to our need to know factor, and our vanity!
These phrases are used in popular quiz headlines, for example:
- And we guess
- Only x in
- Can We Guess Your Real Age?
- Only 1 In 50 People Can Identify These 16 Grammar Mistakes. Can You? (Yes, you can because the Grammar Mistakes are so easy even a grade 1 could crack it, but that’s irrelevant here!)
Quizzes remain an engaging format on Facebook.
The first of these headline types is a quiz variation, it challenges you to answer 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 90’s, we are living in the right city, or whatever it might be. The quizzes are hard to ignore. The ancient Greek aphorism, “Know thyself” is still relevant today.
These popular headlines appeal to a sense of tribal belonging. We’re all part of the same club by proxy of the fact that others aren’t.
- 50 things only dancers will get! (Isn’t it great if you haven’t danced for years and still get it, proves you are still part of the ballet club!)
- 17 things that Only Moms of Twins Understand! (Even though your arms are full of two crying babies, you’re going to read this.)
- 6 Things only middle children understand! (say no more.)
Here are the most shared examples of ‘things only’ headlines in the last year. Chances are you’re only going to give these the time of day if they apply to you!
We are all looking for ways to make sense of life and, believe it all not, “Things” posts do just that!
There has been a significant growth in tribal headlines, particularly politically partisan headlines. From “Yes we Can” to “Make America great again, “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 strong headlines more frequently.
The Worst Performing Phrases
Certain commonly in-used phrases in headlines receive the lowest Facebook engagement. They are cold, clinical and do not play into users’ emotions. What they are good for is an insomniac. “The introduction to”…. has a wonderful soporific effect.
Note: this research only looked at phrases or trigrams that were used on a minimum of 100 different domains.
Phrases like ‘on a budget’ performed poorly 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. When you’re looking to transform your garage into a playroom, do you look for ideas on Facebook or Pinterest? Exactly, Facebook is not a place where someone is actively looking for tips to save money and thus 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 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. Think about your user!
Phrases That Start Or End 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.
While 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 start headlines by the number of Facebook interactions (x represents a number).
Below are the most popular phrases that end headlines by the number of Facebook interactions (x represents a number).
Finally, below are the most popular first words that start headlines by the average Facebook interactions.
Two word phrases
Analysis showed that often the most shared bigrams or two word combinations were part of longer three word phrases or trigrams that we have previously identified, for example:
- ‘Make you’ – is part of ‘will make you’
- ‘Is why’ – is part of ‘this is why’
There were, however, a few exceptional two-word phrases that gained a high level of average engagements. These included:
- ‘Goes viral’ 9,746 average engagements
- ‘Most beautiful’ 3,921 average engagements
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: ‘Laughing Chewbacca Mask lady”. What could possible be so funny about a mom putting on a Chewbacca Mask? Four minutes of complete joy.
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.
The Power of List Posts and the Number 10 in Headlines
Many of the most engaging phrases contain numbers, and many use a list post format i.e. headlines that start with a number. Perhaps this mind maps a vivid picture for the reader. It is well known that list posts gain above average social shares. It is interesting 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 the sample.
We can see that the number 10 was the highest performing headline number, which confirms previous research in this area. 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.
How Many Words Should be in your Headlines? More Than You Think
Opinions differ about headline length:
- Jacob Neilsonadvocates that the best headlines for news sites are 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.
- Research from Outbrainlooking 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.
These assumptions were tested with a sample of 100m articles published between 1st March and 10 May 2017. 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 be clear about the topic, format and use an effective trigram you will need them. Here are some examples:
The relationship between the number of characters in a headline and average FB engagements is evident:
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 research findings would tend to support Outbrain’s previous research that longer headlines work better when it comes to engagement.
Headline Phrases That Engage On Twitter
Will a headline that works on Facebook work equally well on Twitter? Not necessarily. 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 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:
- The truth about
- The rise of
- Things to know
- This is what
- What we know
You can test the impact of different headlines on Twitter by trying different texts in your tweets.
You share your child’s first step on Facebook, not on Twitter. It’s not a platform to gush.
An analysis of the best B2B (business to business) headlines reviewed the 10 million most shared posts on LinkedIn in 2017. There were 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.
There was 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 crystal ball when it comes to determining popular headlines, you need to research and understand the headlines that resonate with your audience and industry.
Expert Reflections and Advice
Here are the thoughts, reflections and advice for content writers form content experts:
“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!)
That’s a facile (and ridiculous) interpretation. Instead, the broader messages here are:
- Spend as much time writing the headline as you do an entire blog post or social post. Why? Because the headline matters. (Really matters.) (I do this, by the way.)
- Test what resonates with YOUR audience. (Not mine. And not your co-working neighbour’s. And not your dog sitter’s uncle’s audience. YOURS.)
- Burn some brain cells getting a little creative with your headlines. This research hopefully inspires you to rethink headlines, because it tells you what kind of headlines have worked for 100m posts in the past. But of course, it’s just a measure of what has worked, not what will work. Think more deeply: What does it suggest? What might it inspire? Use this data as a kind of guidepost to inspire your own, new, never-before-trodden path.”
“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:
- Take as many words as you need to make the case that the click is worth it
- Be specific (this is why, this is how, the reason is)
- If it’s not emotional, it better be useful (work for you, x simple tips, you should use)
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 and 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.”
Headline Review Questions
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 headlines that resonate with readers. The research suggests that the characteristics of engaging headlines typically include one or more of the following:
- A focus on why the reader should care
- Clarity and promise
- Emotional hooks
- Provoke curiosity
- Provide explanations
- Appeal to a tribe
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:
- Why should the reader care about your content?
- Can you make a promise or claim about the impact of your article on the reader?
- Can you include an emotional element – especially if looking to gain traction on Facebook?
- Are you tapping into a trending topic, if so can you call it out in the headline?
- Can you make it a quiz or challenge?
- Could you position it as an explanation or answer post?
- Who’s your tribe – what headlines resonate with them?
- Will a more partisan or controversial headline appeal to your tribe?
- Are you aiming for 12-18 words in your headline?
How did the writers decide On The Headline For This Post?
They brainstormed a range of possible headlines including ones such as ‘Headlines That Engage: Insights from 100m Posts.’ We Analysed 1 Million Google Search Results. Here’s What We Learned About SEE Methodology (7.5k Shares and 1,400 links)
They 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.
They specifically looked at top trigrams (three word phrases) used in headlines.
Popular sites can skew the results; therefore for this analysis they only included one headline trigram example per domain. For instance, “can we guess” is a very popular BuzzFeed trigram thus they only included one “can we guess” headline from BuzzFeed in their trigram analysis. From the subsequent list they 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 an analysis of the optimum number of words and characters in headlines they included all 100m posts.
How To Analyse Headline Phrases Using BuzzSumo
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:
- Search in any language
- Restrict searches to country top level domains
- Restrict searches to just headlines used for say infographics or videos
- View successful headlines of long form or short form content, here are most shared “need to know” headlines for posts over 2,000 words
- Check the most shared headlines for specific domains such as New York Times
- View the performance of specific phrases on domains, such as “need to know” on New York Times