Creating Viral Content Begins With a Powerful and Engaging Headline…

Want your content to go viral? Follow these rules when writing headlines

Matt Duczeminski
January 30 2019

 “On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” – David Ogilvy, Confessions of An Advertising Man

While there are a lot of factors that contribute to whether or not a piece of content goes viral, today we’re going to focus on what many consider to be the most influential factor: the headline.

Without an incredible headline, your content might not even earn a quick browse. The headline shouldn’t just hint at what the piece covers. It must also:

  • Grab the audience’s attention
  • Get them invested in your content from the start
  • Prepare them for a transformative experience after further engaging with your content
  • Prime readers to share the content with others in their network

From a marketing standpoint, there’s a catch to chasing that perfect headline that ‘breaks the internet’; going viral purely for the sake of going viral just isn’t good practice, and can drain precious resources.

An exclusive focus on going viral emphasizes the quantity of your audience over quality. You may draw in thousands of new viewers with your viral content, but only a small percentage of them will be qualified leads.

Going viral won’t automatically lead your brand to huge success. It’s what you do with your newfound fame that can lead to big things for your organization. Just as you’d need a plan for any other campaign, an initiative that’ll elicit massive response rates also requires a strategy for keeping those viewers engaged.

Ready to Create Your Next Viral Headline? Here’s What You Need to Know

Creating a headline (and accompanying content) that goes viral is much less about luck than it is about your strategic approach.

Your first order of business is to understand why certain headlines catch an audience’s attention. The majority of the time, it’s because the headline does one or more of the following:

  • Elicits an emotional response
  • Makes a valuable promise
  • Opens a “loop” to be closed by the accompanying content
  • Reaches targets on a personal level
  • Fosters a sense of camaraderie with the target audience

Check out how these successful content marketers and brands created attention-grabbing headlines.

Emotion-Evoking Headlines

Last year, CoSchedule’s Garrett Moon analyzed over one million blog post headlines to determine what motivated people to click on a specific article.

One of the most valuable insights was that readers share emotion-driven headlines more than “mechanical” varieties.

Moon ran some of CoSchedule’s best-performing content through Advanced Marketing Institute’s Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer and found that the best performers had a higher EMV score.


We can see more of the link between the emotionality of a headline and its propensity to go viral in the examples below:


If you’ve participated in any sort of blogging during the past decade, you’ll recognize Jon Morrow’s post. Morrow’s article is one of ProBlogger’s most successful pieces of all time, generating over 500 comments to date.

Chris Brogan elected to ‘call out’ his audience:


Here’s how a headline like this one works:

First, the audience reads it and thinks “How dare you tell me I’m not great, and that I make excuses.” Then, they read the article and realize, “Oh sh*t, this does ring a few bells. That was worth my precious subway reading time.” They’ll share the post with friends and family members – and the cycle continues.

As explained by HubSpot’s Megan Conley:

“But no matter the format, it ultimately comes down to emotion. Does the story make you feel enraged, inspired, understood? With everything you create you have to ask: If this scrolled by on my newsfeed, would I care? If the answer is no, it’s not worth it.”

Creating an emotional headline boils down to three main factors:

  • Knowing where your audience struggles
  • Highlighting their potential worth
  • Using power words to bring out their emotions

If you can do all three in one short headline, you’re on your way to virility.

Include a Value Proposition

If your headline doesn’t immediately tell your audience what they stand to gain from your content, they’re going to pass it right by.

The most effective headlines touch on at least a couple of SMART goals:


Take a look at this headline from SEO guru Brian Dean:


Dean provides specific and measurable data regarding his accomplishments, communicates the notion that these results are possible for anyone to achieve, and defines a set span of time within which readers can achieve results. And he does this in less than 50 characters.

The easier it is for your audience to understand what they’ll know and/or be able to do once they’re finished with your content, the more likely they are to engage.

Open a Loop with your Headline

Take a look at the following headline:


If you’re anything like me, you have at least a few questions about this:

  • What’s the ‘Diderot Effect?’
  • Why do we want things we don’t need?
  • How do I fix this problem?
  • Is this article going to answer all of these questions?

The only way to answer any of these questions is to read the article.

That’s open-loop psychology.

It’s why television episodes end on cliffhangers – and why headlines sometimes leave a bit of mystery in the air. Use your headline to generate a sense of curiosity with your audience by:

  • Introducing a new term (such as the “Diderot Effect”)
  • Asking a broad, sometimes rhetorical question
  • Pondering a hot-button or emotionally-driven topic


In both of the above examples, it’s clear that by the end of the article, you’ll learn about the Diderot Effect or whether you’re “good enough.”

On that note, we’d be remiss if we didn’t bring up clickbait.


Clickbait-y headlines like this one have been written to death by now; most of us see these headlines and just keep on scrolling.

We’ve learned to feel disappointed by the content that accompanies headlines like these. We’re left rolling our eyes and feeling duped into clicking to a terrible article. Unfortunately for us content creators, this means that if our headlines even hint at clickbait, our target audience will probably ignore it.

Personal and Personable Headlines

It’s not enough to write for “your audience.” The goal is to create content that’s made for specific people within your audience. Individuals want to read your headline and think to themselves, “This really speaks to me.”


If you were just getting into photography and saw this headline, you’d probably check out the article and maybe even pass it forward.

Another way to achieve relatability is through first-person headlines:


While you’ll typically want to focus on the reader, flip the script a bit by displaying some humility regarding your own less-than-stellar experiences. Communicate the idea that “we’ve all been there” – then make a promise to help them overcome their struggle.

Build Camaraderie With Your Audience

Build a sense of community among your audience members from the get-go.

Buzzfeed has this down to a science:




These highly-focused headlines narrow the scope a bit. Only teachers, former drama club members, and younger siblings are likely to read the above articles.

And that’s perfectly fine.

If your headline makes readers believe your content speaks directly to them and that they’re not alone, the more likely they’ll read and share it.

Testing and Assessing Your Headlines

Headline tools can help distinguish good copy from average. A few of the best headline analysis tools are:

Use these resources as a guide, not written law. They can help you avoid headline faux pas, but to gauge their effectiveness, you have to get it out into the real world.

The best course of action is to come up with several headlines for a given article, then combine your understanding of your audience with the above tools to identify the two or three best of the bunch. You can then A/B test your headlines by scheduling separate social media posts and analyzing the results.

Before you wrap things up and move on to the next piece of content, you’ll want to go back and answer an important question:

Why did one headline perform so well, while the others didn’t?

The more you focus on learning why some headlines perform better than others, the easier writing potentially viral copy becomes.


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