When it comes to content marketing, no matter how often you tweak a title, or how many tools you have available , getting a headline right seems to be a hit-or-miss affair.
That may change however, thanks to a new study from Buzzsumo . The content marketing solution provider analyzed 100 million headlines and what they learned just might be the key to knowing how to write a headline that will get more engagement (shares, likes, and comments) on Facebook.
Methodology and Purpose
Over the course of the study, Buzzsumo looked at the headlines of 100m articles published from March 1st, 2017 to May 10, 2017 and analyzed those that gained the most social shares. While there was some research into Twitter engagement, the majority of the findings focused on Facebook so this post will do the same.
It’s important to note that these headlines were aimed directly at consumers. This means that the findings below will be useful to companies that speak directly to customers, or business-to-consumer (B2C) companies. Buzzsumo does plan to focus on business-to-business (B2B) headlines when they repeat this study later in the year.
The results of the study were both detailed and high-level and all of it was interesting. Let’s dive right in with the “three word phrases or trigrams that gained the most Facebook engagements (likes, shares, comments)”:
This section of the study  breaks down the reasons why these tops headline phrases work including:
- “Will make you” is more than twice as effective as the next closest phrase: This surprised the folks at Buzzsumo mostly because it’s a linking phrase. However, it’s what comes after these three words that makes it so powerful. As the study states, “This headline format sets out why the reader should care about the content. It also promises that the content will have a direct impact on the reader, often an emotional reaction.”
- Emotional headlines drive Facebook interactions: phrases such as “tears of joy”, “make you cry”, “give you goosebumps”, “is too cute”, “shocked to see”, “melt your heart”, and “can’t stop laughing” all proved to be effective, especially when paired with video content.
- Curiosity and voyeurism also gain Facebook engagement: “what happened next”, “talking about it”, “twitter reacts to”, “are freaking out”, and “top x songs” all appeal to people’s innate need to be “in the know” and “fear of missing out”.
- Tribal headlines: “X things only” is often used to appeal to a specific group or community. For example, “25 Things Only Teachers Will Understand” is one of the top headlines the study mentions.
On the flip side, these three word phrases performed the worst on Facebook:
The study  doesn’t dive too deeply into these phrases however, the company put forth this hypothesis to explain the low performance:
“It was interesting to see how poorly phrases like ‘on a budget’ performed on Facebook,” the study elaborated. “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.”
This highlights the importance of context,” the study added. “It may simply be that Facebook is not a place where someone is actively looking for tips to save money and that the 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.”
The study next turned to phrases that began and ended headlines. While there was not a ton of analysis done in this portion , it’s interesting to note what performed best for each:
One of the most interesting findings of the study was which number worked best in “List Post ” headlines on Facebook:
According to Buzzsumo, “Many marketers have advocated using unique numbers or much longer numbers for comprehensive articles. Buzzfeed have (sic) 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.”
Finally, the study takes a look at headline length, both words and characters. If you thought shorter was better, you may be in for a surprise, however, running too long was ineffective as well. These charts show the sweet spots for boosting Facebook engagement:
How to Write a Headline that Gets More Shares on Facebook
Perhaps the best takeaway from this study came from Ann Handley in the, “Expert Reflections and Advice” section:
“I love research that quantifies content marketing success,” Handley wrote. “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!)”
While the research shows what works overall, you need to discover what works best for your audience. Test, test, test and, if something works, but contradicts the findings above, then go with it.