We’ve all heard it: while 80% of people read headlines, only 20% read body copy.
What does that mean in practice, though?
In other words, how do you create headlines that entice that elusive 20% to keep reading? Or to share, comment, and convert?
The truth is that viral headlines are rare, and they take time, effort, and skill to master.
Fortunately, the content marketers who develop solid headline skills have a better chance of standing out from the crowd. Modern customers are attracted to quality and effort, and a great headline reflects both.
The good news is that headlines like these aren’t out of reach. Here’s your complete guide to creating them.
What Makes a Headline Viral?
If you want to create viral headlines, you must first understand what, exactly, makes them go viral. What are the components they include, and what’s their foundational structure look like?
Here are a few critical elements of every good headline, as laid out by Steve Rayson in a BuzzSumo article:
- Viral headlines have an emotional element
- Viral headlines use content elements to their advantage
- Viral content covers trending topics
- Viral headlines follow a format
- Viral headlines promise the reader something
Here’s Rayson’s table, to illustrate:
According to him, most viral headlines employ not one, not two, but three or four of these elements. This combination allows them to perform in a unique way, and to grab your readers’ attention.
Which Headlines Get Shared?
The good things about learning to write viral headlines is that there’s a lot of information about which headlines get shared and which don’t, and this can help guide your efforts.
For example, in 2014, OkDork published a post that showcased the results of a survey that analyzed more than 1 million headlines. Here’s what they found:
The Most Popular Phrases in Viral Headlines
The OkDork survey found that the most popular words and phrases in headlines were:
As you can see, list posts top the charts time and time again. And this makes sense – they’re easy to skim, valuable for readers, and ideal for virtually all industries.
Beyond that, the survey also made it clear that people love personalization, and that content that addresses the reader personally (by using the words “you” and “your”) sat at the top of the list, as well.
Readers also loved any post that promised a better situation or hinted it would teach them to do something. As you can see, using the right words in your headline is essential, and can make all the difference in your readership.
As the web has become more personalized and targeted, there’s been a push toward emotional headlines. These headlines take all forms. They can be shocking, infuriating, laugh-inducing, or curiosity-inspiring. Readers just want to feel something when they read your headline.
This requires the use of power words. Some power words, like free, easy, and DIY are already included in the list above. There are many others besides these, though. Terms like approved, competitive, unsurpassed, and confidential all inspire strong emotional reactions in readers, and help drive shares for your content.
There’s science to back this up, too.
According to CoSchedule, posts with a higher emotional value earn more shares than posts with little emotional value.
Headlines That Utilize Trigrams
A trigram is a three-word phrase used in a headline.
While the number 3 has significance throughout nature and mythology, it’s also a powerhouse in the world of writing and, specifically, headlines. The rule of three states that things that come in packs of three are funnier, more impactful, and more satisfying than things that don’t and this holds true for a viral title. BuzzSumo reports that certain trigrams within headlines earn more shares and likes than others.
Here are a few to get you started:
- X Pictures That
- X Signs You’re
- How Well Do
- Can We Guess
- You Should Never
- X Things Only
- The Science Of
- History Of The
- The Art Of
- The Future Of
As you can see, these trigrams are just a skeletal structure that you can apply to any headline in any industry.
If you’re like most writers, you’ve been taught not to use superlatives in your writing. It’s time to turn that on its head, though. According to BuzzSumo, superlatives can increase the share volume of your headline when used correctly. Because they boost the emotional value of a headline and make it easier for readers to get excited about them, superlatives are ideal for creating viral posts that spread widely across the web.
Here are a few superlatives to get started with:
Particularly useful for content designed to be shared on social, superlatives can make your headlines more impactful, promising, and exiting for your readers.
There are a few content formats that get shared more often than others, and using them is a great way to make your content more viral. These include lists of ten things, how-to guides, and quizzes. Quizzes are especially exciting since they represent a form of interactive content many marketers aren’t creating. In addition to going viral, interactive content like this also allows you to expand your reach and help you stand out as a leader in your industry.
How to Write Viral Headlines: 5 Tips
Now that you know which types of headlines go viral let’s talk about how to write them for yourself.
1. Evaluate The Headline’s Emotional Impact
Remember: headlines with a high emotional impact get shared more frequently than minimally emotional headlines.
With this in mind, use a tool like the Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer from AMI. Designed to evaluate the way your headline’s word groups come together to elicit emotional responses from readers, this tool is free and easy to use.
Here’s an example of what it looks like in action:
2. Follow a Formula
If you’re just getting started with headlines, and you want to ensure yours perform well, look for ways to include tried-and-true methods in your headline approach. Trigrams like those mentioned by BuzzSumo are always a fantastic jumping-off point.
In addition to making your headlines more impactful, using these trigrams as a structure is an excellent way to get out of a rut and ensure your headlines are performing the way you want them to.
Here are a few examples of what you could do with the trigram structure:
As you can see, it’s easy to take these headlines and run with them, tweaking them to your preference to ensure they fit your industry and cater to your audience.
3. Choose a Trending Topic
It bears mentioning here that creating viral content is a different animal than creating evergreen content. When you create evergreen content, you want to choose a historically useful topic that will appeal to your readers for years to come. Since evergreen content is meant to attract traffic to a post or page long after its publish date, it wouldn’t make any sense to use a fleeting, trending topic as the foundation.
When it comes to viral headlines, though, the approach is different. Because viral headlines are meant to drive a significant amount of traffic to a site or post in a short period, they thrive on trending topics.
This means anything in global, national, or industry news is fair game.
For example, check out this screenshot of some “trending” topics from Facebook:
You can also use Google Trends to discover trending topics, and build a headline from those. Since it’s Google, the data capabilities behind the trends you can search here are massive!
Be sure you keep the headline ideas from trends relevant to your industry, or else you stand the chance of missing out on the audience-specific traffic your headline could be generating.
4. Make a Promise
If you’ll remember from above, some of the top-performing headlines included words like “how to” and “DIY.” The reason for this is simple: these headlines make a promise. By telling the audience they’ll teach them something, these headlines get a jump start on providing value and relevance to readers.
To make your headlines more viral, include an element of promise within them. This promise can revolve around revealing a story, telling a secret, or offering insider tips.
No matter what you do, the more exciting you manage to make your headlines, the more likely your readers are to bite.
5. Make it Emotional
Today’s best headlines are highly emotional. In addition to inspiring readers to share, highly emotional headlines also stick with people and promote recall long past the point a customer would typically remember a headline. This allows these headlines to stand out as monsters in their industries, and to be shared widely across the web.
To make your headlines as emotional as possible, include power words that make people want to click. The more of these you can include, the more impactful your headline will be.
Keep in mind that, while a good headline is emotional, it should also be natural. Readers don’t want to feel like a used car salesman is writing their blog headlines.
What Not to Do With Your Headlines
While there are a lot of dos when it comes to writing viral headlines, there are also dozens of don’ts. It’s true that headlines follow a formula and that good ones often have several things in common. You do need to be careful, though, that you’re not getting too formulaic or standardized with your headlines, or else you’ll risk coming off as spammy and untrustworthy.
Here are a few simple don’ts to keep in mind as you work toward the perfect headline.
Don’t Cram Your Headline With Exact Match Keywords
Exact match keywords are, by and large, a thing of the past. While they can be useful to guide your content, they shouldn’t act as its backbone. In addition to the fact that they look spammy, they’re not often very organic, and can cripple an otherwise great headline. Instead of relying on exact match keywords as you work your headline out, look for semantic matches, synonyms, or other phrases that get at your user’s intent but don’t feel artificial or plastic. This will make your headlines more emotional while also ensuring you’re doing a good job of matching the questions, topics, and interests your readers want.
Don’t Make A Promise And Not Deliver
As we mentioned earlier, great headlines make promises to their readers. Whether that promise is to teach a reader to do something or expose an industry secret, promises are compelling and exciting. As such, one of the worst things you can do in your headlines is make a promise and not deliver on it. In addition to being disrespectful to the reader, this also doesn’t do much for your reputation as a trustworthy source, and can harm your readership in the short and long-term. That said, make sure any promise leveraged in your headline is also supported by your body copy.
Don’t Get Too Short With Your Lists
While list posts rule, some are stronger than others. Most research suggests that 25 is the magic number when it comes to list posts and that longer lists may perform better than shorter lists.
With this in mind, don’t sell your readers short with your list posts. Instead of skimming the surface with a list of three or four things, go longer and stretch the list out to include 15 or 20 points.
Don’t Stop With Clickbait
Viral headlines are more durable than pure clickbait. They inform readers while they excite them, and they deliver on their promises. While creating run-of-the-mill clickbait headlines can be enticing, you’ll find these fall short with your readers. Instead of just flashing something shiny before their eyes, go deeper and write headlines that are as informative as they are exciting. What, exactly, will your reader learn from your content? Which questions will you answer? These elements prove your headline has substance and work to make it stand out from the crowd.
Don’t Get Overly Complex
A good headline is simple, precise, and to-the-point. If you get too complex with jargon or lingo, you risk losing readers and making your material harder to relate to or interact with. What’s more, the best headlines are the ones that can spread the furthest, and this is unlikely if you’re only writing for a specific audience. With that in mind, make your headlines appealing to as many people as possible. Not only will your readership balloon, but your headlines will more likely go viral as a result.
Viral Headlines Made Simple
If you’ve been in pursuit of viral headlines, you’re not alone. Luckily, they’re not as challenging to create as you may think. While it’s true that learning to write viral headlines is a process, it’s also entirely attainable and isn’t outside the reach of any moderately talented copywriter. That said, these simple tips are all you’ll need to learn to write viral headlines that resonate with your audience and earn your content the reach it deserves.
When you take the step toward viral headlines, your entire content strategy benefits. Not only do you rise above the sea of so-so, boring content, but you also enter a place that few content marketers know how to access. By mastering the art of the viral headline, you stand to improve your content’s value, drive more traffic to your site, and become a better content marketer, starting right now.
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