Headlines are absolutely crucial to the success of content. 

Smart marketers don't save them until the last minute and write them haphazardly. In fact, leading experts advise authors to spend as much time writing the headline as they do the entire blog post.

There is no magic formula to create engaging headlines. But researching the headlines that resonate with your audience can go a long way.

In this post we look at:

  • What makes an engaging headline
  • The structure of viral headlines
  • Five steps to research headline ideas using BuzzSumo

What makes an engaging headline?

Our headlines research suggests the most engaging headlines typically do one of five things:

  • Tell readers why they should care
  • Make a clear promise
  • Hook readers’ emotions
  • Provoke curiosity
  • Provide explanations
  • Appeal to a tribe

The structure of viral headlines

In the same study, we found that viral headline structures typically contain three or more of the following elements.

Here is an example from BuzzFeed that contains all five of these elements.

This post gained over 2.5m shares on social networks.

How to research the headlines that resonate with your audience

The real value of research is a better understanding of the formats and principles of the headlines that resonate with your readers. Not readers in general but your target audience.

Step 1 - Analyze the top headlines for your topic or industry

Start with a search for the most shared content for your topic using the Most Shared section of BuzzSumo. This will return the top posts for the period you select. You will quickly get a sense of the type of content and headlines that engage your readers by scrolling through the first page or two results.

For example, a quick search for 3d printing reveals that even medically groundbreaking news can't beat our love for cats.

By contrast if we search for kitchen design we find that list posts are very popular.

Note: You can search for headlines in any language by using top level domain filters (e.g. .fr or .de), or language filters.

Step 2 - Analyze your competitor's headlines

You can quickly analyze your competitor's headlines by searching for their top content. To do this, search for the most shared content from their domain.

You can search multiple competitor domains at the same time by using this format:

  • domainA.com OR domainB.com OR domainC.com

This will give you a good sense of the headlines they are using to engage readers in your industry and how successful they have been. (See also: How to do competitor analysis with BuzzSumo)

You can also view the most shared headlines for specific domains or popular sites such as New York Times by searching for nytimes.com.

Once you have an overview of the headlines that work, you can drill down into more specific headline formats. In BuzzSumo, you can use content type filters to search for popular headline formats such as ‘how to’ posts, 'what' posts, and 'why' posts. Below is an example of ‘how to’ headlines for the topic of marketing.

You can also search for 'list' posts, which remain a popular format in many industries. Below is a search for 'list' posts for the topic of marketing.

A headline 'list' search will reveal the most popular list numbers and how engaging they have been.

Step 4 - Search for Specific Words and Phrases

As you review headlines, you may see certain patterns emerging such as the use of a particular word or phrase. You can test how well these words or phrases perform by searching for them alongside your topic. For example, if we were thinking of using the phrase, "ways to" in the title of our marketing article, we can search for this phrase to see how well it has resonated in the past.

We can do this for popular phrases such as “the future of" or any other headline phrase.

5. Advanced Headline Phrase Mining

Phrase mining takes the guesswork out of finding these other popular phrases. Export all the headlines from a BuzzSumo search and paste them into a Text Analyzer tool. This will give you a quick overview of the most used phrases in the headlines.

Take the three- or two-word phrases you are interested in and search for them in BuzzSumo alongside your topic. For example:


Create headlines that:

  • Tell readers why they should care
  • Make a clear promise
  • Hook readers’ emotions
  • Provoke curiosity
  • Provide explanations
  • Appeal to a tribe

Structure headlines with:

  • an emotion element
  • a content element
  • a topic element
  • a promise element
  • a format element

After you have analyzed headlines, a good next step is to learn more about content formats and lengths in Content Analysis.

Want to know more? Check out the free BuzzSumo Essentials course!

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