It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when online headlines began to converge on the now-familiar set of tropes that dominate our Facebook feeds, but a good guess might be 2012—the year Upworthy was founded and BuzzFeed’s traffic boomed. “You’ll Never Guess … ”; “33 Animals Who … ”; “What Happened Next”: Listicles and curiosity gap headlines proliferated as sites across the Web sought to mimic the viral success of posts painstakingly engineered to generate likes and clicks on social media. (For a stroll down memory lane, you can try our Facebook news feed headline quiz.)
It wasn’t long, of course, before the tropes became overly familiar, the gimmicks stale. By 2014, Upworthy had already peaked, and the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal reported that the curiosity gap was closing. Indeed, Upworthy announced in 2015 that it was pivoting from viral aggregation to original video content. Yet BuzzFeed has managed to sustain its upward trajectory by continually reinventing itself. And Upworthy’s abandonment of its once-successful formula in 2015 has not proved quite the death knell for social-media growth-hacking that it might have seemed at the time.
A new study of social media headlines from the content-analytics firm BuzzSumo suggests that the curiosity gap remains very much open in 2017, and the listicle’s appeal has endured as well. That said, some popular headline formulas appear to be working much better than others these days.
The study looked at 100 million headlines published between March 1 and May 10, 2017 to find the popular three-word phrases, or trigrams, that correlated with the highest and lowest levels of engagement on Facebook. Here are the top performers:
What’s surprising here is just how effective second-person headlines seem to be in provoking reactions from readers. “Will make you” is not only the highest-rated trigram for social engagement, but headlines that include the phrase drive more than twice as much traffic as any others in the study. (Note that BuzzSumo did not evaluate every possible trigram; the study’s author, Steve Rayson, told me it included only those that appeared in headlines on at least 100 different domains.) Typical “will make you” headlines, according to BuzzSumo, include “24 Pictures That Will Make You Feel Better About The World” and “What This Airline Did For Its Passengers Will Make You Tear Up — So Heartwarming.”
At first glance, the key commonality seems to be the direct appeal to readers’ emotions, which was one of Upworthy’s founding insights. The importance of emotion in a Facebook headline is underscored by the presence on the list of phrases such as “are freaking out,” “tears of joy,” “give you goosebumps,” and “melt your heart.”
But Rayson pointed out to me in an email interview that there is a second genus of “will make you” post that also performs extremely well: the productivity/life-hack listicle. One of the most-shared headlines in the whole study, for instance, was, “10 Graphs That Will Make You Pro at Cleaning Anything.” (Ten, incidentally, is the optimal length for a listicle, according to BuzzSumo’s data.)
This suggests that the secret to the phrase’s success lies not only in its appeal to emotion, but also in its explicit promise to impact the reader in a specific way. These headlines work, in other words, by acknowledging the transactionality of the relationship between publisher and reader: You give us a click, and here’s exactly what we’ll give you in return. Another way of looking at it: These headlines make the story about you, the reader, rather than about some third-party subject.
That’s also true, in different ways, of the second and third top-performing phrases in the study: “this is why” and “can we guess.” The first promises to answer a specific question that the reader is curious about. The second, associated with quizzes such as BuzzFeed’s “Can We Guess Your Age Based on Your Sense of Humor?,” promises to hold a mirror to the reader based on her habits and tastes.
Interestingly, the phrase “what happened next”—one of the most infamous of the original Upworthy clichés—still seems to resonate, making the list at No. 20. But “you’ll never guess” is nowhere to be found: At some point, it evidently crossed the line into parody.
The phrases that generate the least Facebook engagement are instructive in their own right.
The bottom three—“control of your,” “your own business,” and “work for you”—all include the word “you,” which indicates that lots of publishers have internalized the notion that the second person works well on Facebook but haven’t quite figured out how to make it, well, work for them. One trend here is the emphasis on work or business: Facebook, it seems, is a place where people go to avoid work, and they don’t seem to like being reminded of it. Perhaps these headlines would fare better on LinkedIn.
Likewise, Rayson points out in his blog post that the phrase “on a budget” seems to be a turnoff on Facebook, yet it performs much better on Pinterest in conjunction with DIY projects. One lesson might be that each social media platform demands a different framing, which poses a challenge for headline writers accustomed to writing just one or two headlines per story.
There’s much more of interest in Rayson’s long post, and it’s worth reading in full for those who care about how social media shapes communication. It’s also worth a closer look at the study’s methodology before you draw firm conclusions from it.
By focusing on trigrams, BuzzSumo appears to have followed a similar approach to that employed by Max Woolf in a 2015 post that looked exclusively at BuzzFeed headlines. Yet whereas Woolf went deep on a single site, BuzzSumo did the opposite, including in its analysis no more than one headline per trigram from a given site in order to avoid overweighting posts from the most popular publishers. This led to some significant differences in the results: Whereas BuzzSumo identified the most popular listicle length as 10, Woolf found that the best-performing BuzzFeed listicles were much longer, often upwards of 30 items. Still, the trigram results should be familiar: the top headline phrases in Woolf’s 2015 analysis were “Character are you,” “before you die,” and “you probably didn’t.” Again, the word “you” is in all of them.
One error of interpretation that would be easy to make: assuming that the use of these phrases necessarily causes headlines to succeed or fail on Facebook. “Will make you” headlines may work at least in part because they tend to be attached to content that actually does resonate with a lot of readers in some way. Slapping that phrase on a post that doesn’t actually make readers do anything is likely to backfire, especially since Facebook has repeatedly altered its news feed rankings to punish publishers whose headlines make promises that their content doesn’t fulfill. To its credit, BuzzSumo makes this point in its own post about the study, including commentary from several social media pros who warn against using the trigram charts as a headline-writing cheat sheet.
This study might read as depressing to those who had hoped the worst of the headline-gimmick era was behind us. But there are at least two good reasons not to weep for the future of journalism and online discourse. (Aren’t you curious to know what they are?)
The first is that the study doesn’t actually tell us much about the relative prevalence of headline cliches on the web today versus any other point in time. Because the study only includes phrases that appear in headlines on at least 100 sites, the ones that make the cut are bound to be generic and formulaic-sounding—anything distinctive or unique is ruled out of the running. Its conceivable that the best-performing headlines of all are those that eschew these stock phrases altogether, but the study can’t tell us that.
The second consolation is that headline clichés have existed for just about as long as headlines have. In the print era, they tended toward terse, impersonal jargon rather than pathetic entreaty, but that didn't necessarily make them better. “Dems Seek to Interview Aide” is a headline you’re unlikely to run across in your Facebook feed, and good riddance to it and its ilk.
Today’s social media headlines may appear gimmicky, and no doubt some still are. But when a gimmick endures after the novelty wears off—when it proves resilient to the backlash and to changing tastes and algorithms and market conditions—eventually it’s no longer a gimmick. At this point, motifs such as “will make you” and “10 reasons why” are simply embedded in the social media firmament.