7 Things Marketers Can Learn From 2,616 Viral Headlines.

Bonus giveaways: If you make it to the end of the post, we have made these 2,616 titles and all of their social share data available for download. There’s also a free tool for you to check out. Enjoy!Alot of people have written about what goes into the perfect title. I’ve listed some great resources at the end of this post. They offer sound advice that won’t lead you astray.

But sometimes the best advice doesn’t come from the “thought leaders”, it comes from people who are crushing it in practice. They don’t always follow the so-called rules.

We scraped 2,616 headlines from four different sites that have mastered the art of writing clicky titles. These guys get a lot of traffic:


I’m not advocating for the dark arts of click-baiting.

Marketers, especially those in a B2B space have to deliver the goods after bringing a visitor to their site. But there is a lot we can learn from writers who have built multi-million dollar media companies by writing clever titles.

Here is a look at Upworthy’s growth in 12 months:

That’s insane growth for a site that is simply curating the web and adding their own titles. Don’t be fooled, though, writing sticky titles takes a LOT of work.

The guys at Upworthy write 25 versions of each title. Then they choose two to A/B test. It takes discipline and a lot of practice.

So here’s what we’ve learned from the click bait gurus in this sample of 2,616 titles:

1) They are masters at finding common ground

Viral sites name drop like crazy. They use celebrities, names of popular movies, or cite the latest trends. It leverages  their widespread recognition and in some cases, mass obsession. Some of the best titles include a mashup of multiple popular items, like this one from Buzzfeed:

Olympic Ice Dancing Routine Matches Up Flawlessly With Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love”

Olympics: Leverages a current event (2014 winter olympics in Sochi)

Beyoncé: International pop-star with near universal recognition

Drunk In Love: At the time of this writing, the song is #5 on Billboard’s  charts.

Obviously, this tactic has to make sense for your content piece. Don’t promise Beyoncé if she isn’t in the building.  You should keep this principle in mind while you’re in the early stages of framing your content.

Marketing Takeaway: Link your content to popular people or anything else that is easily recognizable by your audience. The key is not to force it. If done well, this will improve your titles and spice up your writing.

Let’s say you have an article to write about “avoiding common payroll mistakes”. No problem, try this one out: “8 Horrific Lady Gaga Outfits That Give Great Payroll Advice“.

Ok – that might be kind of scary to research, but you get the point. Have some fun and try out new angles that will hook your audience.

2) They know that good titles don’t always obey the rules

The age-old advice is to keep your titles short, typically less than 8 words or less than 70 characters. Granted, search engines will cut off titles in the search results after 70 chars, so that’s a good reason to keep it short. But viral sites don’t always follow this advice. Mainly, because the bulk of their traffic comes from social media channels like Facebook rather than search engines.

Take this example from ViralNova:

At First, I Felt Sorry For The People Who Live In This Tiny House. Then I Looked Closer…Now I’m Jealous.

That’s 104 characters long…roughly 50% over the maximum recommended length for a title. Even so, you were probably bummed out that I didn’t link to the video. Ok, here it is :).

Marketing Takeaway: Don’t place rigid rules on your writing just because a “guru” or “rockstar” tells you that’s the way it should be done. The video above with the long title…it attracted 116,331 Facebook likes, comments and shares.

Once you’re done drooling over that level traffic and social engagement, understand that writing good titles is simply a matter of understanding human nature. By nature, we are curious. Which leads me to the next point…

3) They know that curiosity is the crack rock of the internet

Strobist: SB-800 Left on 60x60cm softbox, SB-900 Right on 60x60cm softbox

Viral sites know how to write a good hook. If you think about it, titles and headlines are the writer’s version of creating a movie trailer. You have to tell just enough of the story to draw people in, while keeping the good stuff for the full theatre experience. 

Here’s another great example from ViralNova:

This Guy’s Wife Got Cancer, So He Did Something Unforgettable. The Last 3 Photos Destroyed Me.

Got cancer: We all know someone whose life has been impacted by cancer. Cancer sucks. We all know it and can relate to it.

Something unforgettable: We all understand what cancer can do to someone, but what could this husband possibly have done that is so unforgettable?

Marketing Takeaway: Inject your titles with a high dose of curiosity and back it up with great content. The result is an epic reach for your brand. The above video attracted 881,836 likes, comments and shares on Facebook. It also brought a lot of attention to a worthy cause (here is the original post).

The third component of that wildly successful title is explained in the next tip…

4) They aren’t afraid of getting emotional

Viral sites use a lot of emotional trigger words: touching, goosebumps, tears, cry, hilarious, OMG, Whoa! Go re-read the last title example, where the writer reveals how impacted he was by the content: The Last 3 Photos Destroyed Me.

Humans crave the opportunity to release their emotions. There’s support in the medical community for the health benefits of a good cry, which could be the reason why we crave it. There are actually clubs in Japan designed to make you cry with other strangers by showing tear-jerking movie clips.

Whether you’re a hardened stoic with rambo-like tear-ducts, or a cry-me-a-river type, you can’t deny the power of signaling emotion in your titles.

Marketing Takeaway: Emotion is what fuels people to click and share. Just because you have an un-emotional product or service doesn’t mean that you can’t leverage it in your content strategy.

5) They know how to call people to action (discreetly)

Sometimes the most powerful call to action isn’t overt, it’s implied. There’s a time to be very bold with your call to action so that site visitors have no other choice but to “buy now”. But titles aren’t always the best place to use this tactic.

Viral sites discreetly make use of action words, like this one from Upworthy:

The Most Creative Drinking And Driving PSA I’ve Ever Seen

Here, the action word is “seen”. The writer mentions that there is a PSA to watch if you click, and it happens to be the most creative one he has ever seen when it comes to the hot button issue of drunk driving.

Consider the alternative: “See the Most Creative Drinking And Driving PSA Ever Made”.

Sometimes we don’t want to be told what to do. Especially when we are just killing time on Facebook. Be magnetic, show that there is an action for people to take, but leverage curiosity to win the click rather than brute force.

Marketing Takeaway: It’s better to cleverly lead people into making a decision rather than force one on them. Also, don’t forget, in some ways your title turns into words spoken by the person who shares your content. They don’t want to be bossy either.

6) They make some bold claims.

Viral sites know how to make definitive statements by using keywords like: ever, most, best, first, last, or epic. Does your content really deserve a superlative like this? Maybe not. But it’s become a manner of speaking and can be an acceptable technique for writing a title.

When you tell a friend that you just had “the best burger EVER, for REALZ”, he or she isn’t going to split hairs and question whether or not this burger deserves such a coveted place in history. They will understand that you just ate a really tasty piece of meat, and that you’re excited about it.

Marketing Takeaway: Don’t shy away from getting bold with your titles. As long as your content can back up the claim, you have nothing to worry about.

7) They know how to speak like human beings

You have a choice when writing a title, or really when writing anything. You can either be (a) Robotic and extremely accurate or (b) Human and relatable.

Unless you are writing documents for rocket scientists concerning NASA’s next launch, please ALWAYS choose “b”.

Viral sites have not been shy about using first person titles.  These titles are conversational and highly shareable because they’ve cleverly articulated what the person sharing it wants to communicate to their friends and followers.

Marketing takeaway: Look, the exact form or voice isn’t what’s important here. You might be tasked with writing as your “brand” and first person style is out of the picture. That’s okay. Just do your best to be conversational. Remember, people like to interact with other people. Don’t try to sound too smart, it can come off as robotic and distant.

Bonus #1:

We are open sourcing the data from our research under a Creative Commons license. We would love to see what you come up with and just ask for a little hat-tip link in whatever you create. We have scraped every post title and URL and identified the following:

  • Character count
  • Presence of a numerical value in the headline
  • Filter by questions
  • Social share counts by URL:
    • FB Likes, Shares, Comments
    • Twitter shares
    • Google +1’s
    • LinkedIn Shares
    • Delicious, StumbleUpon and Reddit shares

Download the Excel Data

Bonus #2:

Now that you are more focused on writing great titles, wouldn’t it be nice to have an internal testing tool?

I launched a really simple tool that lets you create a quick survey for your titles and get the pre-publishing feedback that you need.

Just create a free account, add some titles and then send the survey link off to a few friends or trusted followers.

Further Reading

An epic slide deck put out by Upworthy

How to draw readers into your blog (Problogger)

Master the art of exceptional titles (HubSpot)

Write an attention grabbing title (Unbounce)

Need some help planning your content? Ripenn offers editorial calendar software that can help you keep track of your titles and new content pieces. Turn your editorial calendar into something that you love to work on :)