What Makes a Headline Go Viral? You Won’t Believe the Answer

by Ed on May 2, 2014

website headline titleArtists, writers, and designers spend a lot of time crafting superior products, art, and stories, but there’s one thing that could make their websites stand out from the pack that they are most likely not doing: crafting superior headlines. In fact, a neglected headline may leave a top-notch piece of work in obscurity.

Thankfully, crafting an attention-grabbing headline isn’t rocket science. Having said that, some websites such as Upworthy have managed to turn their headlines into the most irresistible links around. They are shared on social media in shocking numbers, calling attention to worthy news, stories, and products. While the topics of most Upworthy stories are quite interesting and well-curated to begin with, the real turning point is the way Upworthy pulls in unusually high numbers of clicks with its titles.

What You Don’t Know About Blog Post Titles

Some believe that Upworthy’s success is linked to its skillful use of the “curiosity gap” when writing headlines. The curiosity gap relies on presenting a fascinating fact, a forgotten truth, exclusive information, or an expectation that is overturned. The majority of readers will not know what follows, and that is where the clicks come in.

The title of this post was a playful use of this approach to headlines.

Readers who encounter the “curiosity gap” will feel the “pain” of not knowing that fascinating piece of information, and the most effective way to relieve that pain is the click on the headline in order to learn more. There is a strong incentive to click through on the blog post or article title if it is appealing enough.

The problem with the curiosity gap on a personal website is that you can’t use it quite as often as Upworthy, unless you want to risk annoying your readers. You don’t want to be accused of only writing “link bait” headlines.

Website creators, especially small business owners, artists, and those who are self-employed, have to balance teasing their readers with information that will spark their curiosity without sounding like a bad rip off of Upworthy.

A good place to start with headline writing is a question like this: “Why do my readers need THIS information?”

Having said that, there is a lot more to writing a solid blog post headline than merely sparking curiosity.

Use Lists to Offer a “Quick Win” Headline

Readers are also attracted to blog post headlines that are lists. This is for good reason. These lists are often practical and informative, such as “5 Ways to Save Money on Vacation.” Who wouldn’t want to learn more about that?

These lists often put the curiosity gap into practice, but most importantly they provide a very simple and satisfying way to learn something. You can just scan the list to grab the main points. If you want to learn more, you can read the content in each section.

Lists force bloggers to create content that is broken up into smaller sections, making for an easier reading experience for visitors. Best yet, since readers are more likely to finish a blog post with a list, they’ll also be more likely to share it.

Always Revise Headlines

While there are some quick hacks for writing better headlines like offering riddles, teasing readers, or boiling down your concept to a list of appealing facts your readers will want to know, there’s no replacing the hard work of knowing your audience and using keywords and phrases that resonate with them.

Never use the first headline you write for a blog post. If possible, compare keywords in Google’s Adwords tool. Mix up how your phrase your titles, but always look for ways that you can put your own spin on topics that are familiar to your readers or add to their knowledge. If your headline blends into the pack too much, it will most likely be lost in the crowd. If you venture too far into something that is unique, your target readers won’t recognize that it applies to them.

All that to say, there is a delicate balance to maintain here!

Are Your Headlines “Unbelievable”?

Perhaps some of these headline writing tips aren’t that shocking. It’s conventional wisdom to rely on lists and strong keywords to write a solid headline. However, there is something to be said for seeking out the unconventional, teasing, or shocking angle for a headline on your website. Your work is important enough that you should put in the extra work for a headline that will draw in the readers you need.

Asking yourself, “What will shock my readers?” will help you tap into the angles that lead to far more fascinating titles on your website. While you never want to venture into deception, exploiting a reader’s curiosity may push him/her over the edge into reading your about your work or business.


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