How to Create Headlines That Go Viral With Social Media

Are you struggling to get more clicks and bookmarks on your articles? Possibly there is one area in which your content is letting you down. Even the best blog post writers sometimes make this mistake.

One aspect of your writing requires a great deal of effort getting right, and it is so obvious it is commonly overlooked. What is the first thing a social media user sees?

“I glance at the headlines just to kind of get a flavor for what’s moving. I rarely read the stories, and I get briefed by people who probably read the news themselves.”
George W. Bush

“It has been found that the less an advertisement looks like an advertisement, and the more it looks like an editorial, the more readers stop, look and read.”
David Ogilvy

Yes, you guessed it. It’s the headline.

Without a compelling headline, you will not attract attention, and your article will not spread as easily. If you do write a killer headline then you will get more clicks, more bookmarks, and your readers will be compelled to share it with their friends and contacts.

Creating Compelling Headlines

Take a look at the last article you wrote that did spectacularly well (or if you do not have a great example, choose a disaster).

  • Does it grab attention? The first job you have to get right when producing a new article is to get it read, and your first task toward getting your article read is grabbing the reader’s attention.
  • Will it target a particular audience? We are largely driven by self-interest and our brains are wired to look out and listen for any message that addresses us. If your headline identifies a target group specifically, then that group, if they have an affinity for it, will take notice. Be careful though, this can backfire!
  • Is it specific? Highly specific approaches work much better to draw attention and create belief than generic and vague statements that can come across as untrustworthy. Rather than say “get great results” say “achieve 147.2% increase in profits with this simple tweak.”
  • Are you generating a great deal of curiosity? What is going to get the reader not only to take notice but also take action? You need to give him or her a good reason to keep reading past the headline into the full article, and this is where curiosity comes in. Create a feeling of incompleteness; hold off on the punch line, so the reader has to find the answer to feel satisfied.
  • Is the headline promising powerful benefits? Does your headline answer “So what?” Above all, there has to be a payoff. Your readers need to know what is in it for them, why should they care.

5 Types of Headline

The standard social media headline types tend toward the following categories:

  1. News—Particularly breaking news, is very popular. Announce something, share a piece of gossip, and let people know what is happening now. Social news has made traditional news media look slow and dated because by the time the news has spread around the social sites, mainstream media is only just picking it up. The downside of this, of course, is that your content is not going to be perceived as evergreen—there will always be something newer, shinier, and trendier. For example: “Breaking News: White House Moves to Ban Bacon”
  2. Goals—Offer a way to achieve a goal, get more, be more powerful, wealthy, attractive, healthier… whole magazines are full of this stuff. Just take a look next time you are at the supermarket checkout. For example: “101 Tried and Tested Dating Secrets to Win the Partner of Your Dreams”
  3. Problems—The flipside to the goal is the problem. Fear sells just as well as positives; just ask the newspapers. The economy, health, worries about global politics, you name it. For example: “Finally! Make Your Computer Virus-Free With Open-Source Software”
  4. How-to—Share a technique, tutorial, recipe or formula to achieve something practical and beneficial. It is kind of the same as the goal, but rather than a dream, it gives you the steps to create something in reality. For example: “How to Win Friends and Influence People”
  5. Entertaining—Social media is full of pure entertainment. It might be a funny video, a cute picture, a joke or even a link to an accidentally funny forum thread. This is the coffee break content that social media was built upon. For example: “Nasty or Nice? Take The Ultimate Personality Test”

Most of all, you need to trigger an emotional reaction. Remember we do not just want “interest,” we want the reader to take an action—even if that action is just to hit the vote-up button.

Emotional Hot Buttons

If you want to really draw attention and get your readers to take action, even if it is only to comment or pass along your link to their friends, you need to grab them where it counts: show empathy and make them feel. Can you get your reader to laugh, cry, or shout at their screen? Take a tip from Hollywood and move your audience emotionally using these hot buttons.

  1. Boost and Slam—What is the best/worst/most/least? Compare and contrast, particularly if you can combine with Contrary (see #10).
  2. Laugh, Cheer, Snigger or Cry—Human interest that tugs the heartstrings always works. Especially when you combine weep, snigger and cheer. Just ask Susan Boyle.
  3. Outrage, Anger, and Righteous Indignation—Listen to talk radio or the talking heads and their jabbing fingers on any cable news network.
  4. Fear, Scams, Problems and Looming Disasters—Be afraid, get clicks.
  5. Sexy, Cute and Attractive—Sex sells. Lust draws attention.
  6. Divide and Conquer (Us versus Them)—Polarize your audience, get attention. Many of the chain letters you get asked to pass on are all about supporting one side of an argument while attacking another, particularly when it comes to politics.
  7. Shock and Awe—Take someone by surprise, present something as outrageously and wildly different.
  8. Curiosity, Confusion, Riddles and Puzzles—Make readers have to read just to get your idea out of their heads.
  9. Caught in the Act—People love it when the rich, powerful and famous are caught doing something they shouldn’t, especially when it is against their accepted brand or persona.
  10. Contrary, Contentious and Devil’s Advocate—Challenge accepted wisdom, deep-seated stereotypes and assumptions.

10 Headline Formulas That Work

To get you started creating compelling headlines, use the following “fill in the blanks” headline formulas.

  1. Do You Make These ________ Mistakes?
  2. The Secrets of ___________
  3. What ______ Can Teach Us About ________
  4. Everything You Know About _____ Is Wrong<
  5. How _______ Made _____ and You Can Too!
  6. If You ________, You Can ___________
  7. Finally, No More _______
  8. At Last! _________
  9. Learn How Millions of ______ ________
  10. How to Get More/Better/Cheaper _______

If you like these headline ideas, make sure you click here to download the free PDF 102 Proven Headline Formulas now.

Over to You

Share some of your best headlines with us in the comments!

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About the Author, Chris Garrett

Chris Garrett is co-author of the book Problogger, professional blogger, Internet Marketing Consultant, new media industry commentator, writer, coach, speaker, trainer and web geek. Other posts by »




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  • http://twitter.com/StevenAitchison Steven Aitchison

    Great post Chris. I have found a great headline that works every time, and I mean every time, is:
    100 Ways to _________________________
    I have studied this type of headline and I haven’t found 1 blog post that hasn’t done well when this headline has been posted. Yes, it’s hard work but well worth the hours put in to do research and writing, and it quickly becomes a blogs ‘pillar post.’

  • Anonymous

    Good tip Steven :)

  • http://thedanielrichard.com Daniel Richard

    Agreeing with Steve’s tip. Specific numbers or huge numbers works.

    Eg: 27 Ways _________
    is definitely better than 4 Ways ________ (*yawn* to this).

  • http://www.beremarkable.in Ramkarthik

    Nice post Chris. I agree with all your points.

    Joe Sugarman said in his copywriting book that (not exactly the below lines):

    The purpose of a headline is to make the reader read the first line. The first lines purpose? To read the second line. And the purpose of second line? If you said it is to read the third line, then you are absolutely right.

    I have heard people say that they have doubled their conversions by only changing the headline.

    I downloaded your workbook and it is really good.

    There is another headline format that works(I don’t remember seeing that in the workbook. Forgive me if you have already included that):

    When [Industry Experts] [Problem] This Is What They Do

    It follows the famous headline:

    When Doctors “Feel Rotten” This Is What They Do

    Enjoyed the post Chris.

    Cheers,
    Ramkarthik

  • Anonymous

    Good point but you also have to use caution with huge numbers as a headline has to be *believable* – so sometimes a smaller number works better because of the credulity factor :)

  • Anonymous

    Nice! Thanks for that @Ramkarthik

  • http://thedanielrichard.com Daniel Richard

    *believable* and have to deliver. :)

  • http://www.webuildyourblog.com/ Andrew Rondeau

    I recently did a little bit of analysis on my blog post headings and every one that asked a question (bar one) attracted comments.

    Andrew

  • http://www.webuildyourblog.com/ Andrew Rondeau

    I recently did a little bit of analysis on my blog post headings and every one that asked a question (bar one) attracted comments.

    Andrew

  • http://www.kaplancopy.com/blog Jodi Kaplan

    A few more formulas:

    ___ Little Things That Mess Up Your _____

    ____ Secrets of Highly Successful______

    ____ Things You Didn’t Know Your _____ Could Do

    Oh, and questions are a great way to get attention. Make sure that the answer isn’t clearly “yes” or “no.”

  • http://www.kaplancopy.com/blog Jodi Kaplan

    A few more formulas:

    ___ Little Things That Mess Up Your _____

    ____ Secrets of Highly Successful______

    ____ Things You Didn’t Know Your _____ Could Do

    Oh, and questions are a great way to get attention. Make sure that the answer isn’t clearly “yes” or “no.”

  • http://www.thenichethinktank.com The Niche Think Tank

    Thanks for the article and the free headlines. much appreciated, definitely a resource to help my blog.

  • http://www.thenichethinktank.com The Niche Think Tank

    Thanks for the article and the free headlines. much appreciated, definitely a resource to help my blog.

  • Anonymous

    Do you come up with the headline before you write the post? I find the satisfaction of completing a post and eagerness to get it published means I skimp on spending time on the headline.

  • http://NaomiTrower.com Naomi Trower

    List headlines are very popular as well. My latest headline that was RT’ed quite a bit on Twitter was #140tc Top 7 Newest Twitter Applications. I find it a FUN challenge to come up with catchy headlines. I already have a copy of your 102 headlines. Thanks so much for that resource. I refer to it often! :)

  • http://twtrcoach.com TwtrCoach

    Darn…. Chris… How do you get time to do all the things you are involved with? I’m impressed..

    You have to one of these days share your secret time management plan with me..

    I am trying to figure out which headline numbers that draw most attention…. tried both high and low…

    One of the articles for me that drawn some attention was “6 Simple Ways Finding Twitter Targeted Followers”..

    I also have your copy of the 102 headlines.. really a must have..

    Also use some of the tips I have in a ebook I had forever… Ted Nicholas ‘Magic Words That Brong You Riches’.. he has some great tips..

    Cheers.. Are

  • http://twtrcoach.com TwtrCoach

    Darn…. Chris… How do you get time to do all the things you are involved with? I’m impressed..

    You have to one of these days share your secret time management plan with me..

    I am trying to figure out which headline numbers that draw most attention…. tried both high and low…

    One of the articles for me that drawn some attention was “6 Simple Ways Finding Twitter Targeted Followers”..

    I also have your copy of the 102 headlines.. really a must have..

    Also use some of the tips I have in a ebook I had forever… Ted Nicholas ‘Magic Words That Brong You Riches’.. he has some great tips..

    Cheers.. Are

  • http://webdesignfan.com/ Tomas

    Great tips they will help me, thanks.

  • http://webdesignfan.com/ Tomas

    Great tips they will help me, thanks.

  • http://thatgirlisfunny.com/ Cheryl from thatgirlisfunny

    Hi Chris,
    This was timely as I was stuck on how to title my most recent post. After reviewing your list, I chose “What Balaclavas Can Teach Us About Courage”. Once I got the title, I realized what was missing in my post and why I was having trouble coming up with a title. The new title focused my efforts and I ended up with a post and a title that I’m delighted with.

    Having said that, I don’t expect everyone to agree with my choice for a title. We all have different points of reference for what works and what doesn’t. Many thanks for sharing this with us!

    http://thatgirlisfunny.com/2009/10/what-balaclavas-can-teach-us-about-courage/

  • http://thatgirlisfunny.com/ Cheryl from thatgirlisfunny

    Hi Chris,
    This was timely as I was stuck on how to title my most recent post. After reviewing your list, I chose “What Balaclavas Can Teach Us About Courage”. Once I got the title, I realized what was missing in my post and why I was having trouble coming up with a title. The new title focused my efforts and I ended up with a post and a title that I’m delighted with.

    Having said that, I don’t expect everyone to agree with my choice for a title. We all have different points of reference for what works and what doesn’t. Many thanks for sharing this with us!

    http://thatgirlisfunny.com/2009/10/what-balaclavas-can-teach-us-about-courage/

  • http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com Michael A. Stelzner

    I agree. Questions are super powerful.

  • http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com Michael A. Stelzner

    Usually I like to say that the headline should emerge from your writing. Write your post and then come up with the headline. Unless you select one of these headlines that clearly need some connections: Like what does a _____ have in common with a ____________

  • http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com Michael A. Stelzner

    Usually I like to say that the headline should emerge from your writing. Write your post and then come up with the headline. Unless you select one of these headlines that clearly need some connections: Like what does a _____ have in common with a ____________

  • http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com Michael A. Stelzner

    Susan – Give it a try. Something like, “Are You Making These 10 Marketing Mistakes?” can be really powerful. – Mike

  • http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com Michael A. Stelzner

    Susan – Give it a try. Something like, “Are You Making These 10 Marketing Mistakes?” can be really powerful. – Mike

  • Anonymous

    Thanks. The trouble is, those that emerge aren’t particularly powerful!I need to keep working at it

  • Anonymous

    Thanks. The trouble is, those that emerge aren’t particularly powerful!I need to keep working at it

  • Anonymous

    Very very helpful post. Thanks so much

  • Anonymous

    Very very helpful post. Thanks so much

  • http://mraffilate.blogspot.com/ sudhanshu

    its cool its always the catchy thing with full on spices that work…..make it interesting, have some suspense and some mystery, let it be uncommon..ppl will follow…

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  • http://tyronneratcliff.com/ Tyronne Ratcliff

    Thanks for the informative content Chris. Polarization is an extremely effective marketing tactic. The media (FOX News,CNBC,etc) are really good at this, actually their flat out experts! Have a good one.







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