In an Analysis of 100 Million Headlines, This 3-Word Phrase Was the Viral Winner

This simple 3-word phrase can determine whether your article takes off–or doesn’t.

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BY Glenn Leibowitz - 11 Jul 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

In a world where 4.9 billion pieces of content are published every day, writing headlines that break-through the clutter and get people to click is a skill that every content marketer needs to master.

But advice like "spend lots of time crafting a great headline" can only take you so far. What exactly makes one headline attract thousands of clicks and social shares, while another headline--even one written for the same article--is quickly ignored by readers?

In an effort to unlock this mystery, the folks at Buzzsumo decided to crunch the numbers. From a meticulous analysis of 100 million different headlines published between March 10 and May 10, 2017, they derived several fascinating insights into the elements that make up a viral headline.

One such insight was the three-word phrases that drive the most social engagement (likes, shares, and comments) on Facebook. The three-word phrase (or "trigram" as they call it), "will make you", rose to the top of the list, generating an astounding average engagement of 8,961. The next most popular phrase, "this is why", came in at a distant second, with an average social engagement on Facebook of 4,099.

The difference in social engagement between the most popular phrase--"will make you"--and the 20th most popular phrase--"what happened next"--is even more striking, with the most popular phrase registering 9 times more social engagement than the 20th most popular phrase.

Even the authors of the study were surprised that "will make you" emerged as the most popular trigram of all. "When we started out looking for top trigrams, this one wasn't even on our list", says Steve Rayson, co-author of the study.

So why does this particular trigram work so well? "It doesn't start or end a headline, rather it makes explicit the linkage between the content and the potential impact on the reader. 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", Rayson explains.

Typical headlines using this trigram include:

• 24 Pictures That Will Make You Feel Better About The World

• What This Airline Did for Its Passengers Will Make You Tear Up--So Heartwarming

• 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person

Rayson and his team also looked at the worst-performing headline phrases, and shared a list of the poorest performers, topped by "control of your", "your own business", and "work for you".

Phrases embedded within a headline can drive significant social engagement, as this analysis shows, but so too are the first words in a headlines, which previous research has shown to be the most critical. According to their analysis, the top three-word phrases that drive the most social engagement are "X reasons why", "X things you", and "This is what".

These results were based on the social engagement performance of headlines on Facebook. But what about other platforms like B2B websites and other social media platforms? Buzzsumo found that what works on Facebook does not necessarily work equally well on other platforms.

For example, in a separate analysis they conducted of 500,000 business-related articles on marketing and technology topics, the three headline phrases that were most popular were "the age of", "the impact of", and "the rise of".

The research is packed with other useful insights like the optimal number of words that a headline should contain. Read more about it on Buzzsumo.