A powerful headline is the golden door that stands between readers and a great piece of content. Without that gateway, the reader won’t have a reason to read on.

How can you ensure that each blog post is equipped with an intriguing headline? The secret lies in psychology, which allows you to use powerful words and research-backed phrases to create emotionally-driven headlines your audience can’t resist.

We’ve analyzed nine highly shared articles to explore how psychology can improve headline writing and your bottom line.

Headline Formulas

Headline: New Alzheimer’s Treatment Fully Restores Memory Function

This article by ScienceAlert garnered 5 million shares on Facebook and landed the No. 1 spot on Social Media Today’s list of most shared articles in 2016. What makes this headline so clickable? Beyond the fact that the topic itself is relatable (most people have a basic understanding of the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease), it stirs emotion. In just seven words, this article makes a massive claim that has the potential to improve millions of lives.

The headline also follows a specific headline formula associated with viral content.

Amber Horsburgh, VP of Strategy at Downtown Records, explains the formula as follows: “[Rare, awesome or unique thing] + [Desirable outcome] = Curiosity gap.”

In the ScienceAlert example, the new treatment is the rare thing, and the desirable outcome is that memory function is improved. Putting the word “new” at the beginning of the headline further amplifies the curiosity, reinforcing the fact that the article includes something the reader does not yet know.

There is one major downfall to this headline, though. A new treatment did restore memory function, but it was in mice – probably not what the audience was expecting. When you make a promise in the headline, it’s important that the content delivers on that promise in order to maintain trust.

Setting Expectations

Headline: Internet Ad Spend Is About to Surpass TV Ad Spend [New Report]

Unlike the previous example – which uses a somewhat misleading claim to rope users in – this article delivers upon the expectations it sets. Writer Sophia Bernazzani uses the headline as a signal for readers to understand exactly what they will learn from reading her piece.

Another reason this headline succeeds is because it isn’t universally relevant. Rather, it provides an opportunity for a target audience to learn more about a topic that interests them.

Using Power Words

Headline: Heineken’s new ad gets totally political, and it’s surprisingly great.

This piece, written by Parker Molloy, about a new Heineken ad campaign has garnered a whopping 408,000 engagements on Facebook since it was published in April 2017. There are many reasons why this headline is successful, but let’s focus on word choice.

The power of this headline hinges upon two key words: “totally” and “surprisingly.” These words have a distinctly conversational nature, which helps the article stand out when placed alongside articles that feature ordinary language. In turn, the headline comes across as a friend sharing a fun tidbit of information, rather than an article trying to promote something.


‘How To’ Headlines

Headline: There Are Dimes In Circulation Worth $1.9 Million And Here’s How To Spot Them

The how-to post is one of the most popular blog post formats, and for good reason. How-to posts set high expectations, promising to improve readers’ lives by teaching them a skill or lesson.

In this headline, Ileana Paules-Bronet places the “how to” in the second half of the sentence rather than at the beginning. This helps set up the expectation by delivering an intriguing fact – there could be a dime worth $1.9 million in your pocket. That’s clear intrigue.

Further, the headlines lists a specific dollar number to catch the reader’s attention, and then goes a step further by delivering a powerful promise. This reverse how-to format is a more sophisticated approach to the standard “how to XX” headline.

Tapping Into Emotion

Headline: No, You Can’t Use My Photos on Your Brand’s Instagram for Free

Photographer Max Dubler’s article about brands swiping people’s photos shares two similar traits to the Alzheimer’s article analyzed above: It’s both relatable and emotionally driven.

It is relatable because it taps into the subtle fears and anxiety that we all have about using social media. When we put our content out into the world, can someone use it without our consent? The headline expertly answers that emotionally driven inquiry by taking a firm, hard stance on the matter.

It also hits at the pain points of both amateur and professional photographers, who may be struggling to enforce the rights to their work in a digitally driven world. Any photographer who’s had a brand’s social media person reach out to use a photo — usually for free — will read this headline and nod, “Mm-hmm.”

Using Triads, Including ‘Will Make You’

Headline: If You Ever Feel Sad, These 10+ Highland Cattle Calves Will Make You Smile

According to Buzzsumo, this article about calves was one of the most-shared articles of 2017, clocking in at 1.4 million Facebook engagements. Sure, calves are cute, but how could a headline about cows garner that many engagements?

Actually, there is a psychological reason why this headline works so well. It all comes down to the powerful three-word phrase, or trigram, “will make you.”

Glenn Leibowitz, head of marketing at McKinsey China, explains that headlines using trigrams generated the most engagement in a Buzzsumo analysis of over 100 million headlines. This trigram in particular generated more average engagement than any three-word phrase.

The headline format creates a clear expectation that’s easy to consume and share. According to Buzzsumo executive Steve Rayson, this format is also successful because it “promises that the content will have a direct impact on the reader, often an emotional reaction.”


Leveraging Pain Points

Headline: Why Social Media is Not Smart for Middle School Kids

Written by RN and Families Managing Media founder Melanie Hemp, this article had more than 230,000 engagements on Facebook. It serves as a great example of how simplicity can achieve big wins with headline writing, especially when writing about pain points.

The topic is straightforward and direct, but it still packs a big punch. Why? Because most middle school kids these days are already using social media to interact. And for the children who aren’t, it’s likely their parents are thinking deeply about it.

This target market cares about doing what’s best for middle school kids. For teachers, parents and other adults involved in children’s lives, this headline poses a frightening idea. The use of the phrase “not smart” tugs at a parent’s deepest insecurity: Am I raising my kids correctly?

Nailing a headline this well requires a thorough understanding of your target audience and the things that keep them up at night.

Using ‘You’ and ‘Your’

Headline: These 5 Genius Baking Hacks Are Gonna Change Your Life

Rachel Gaewski and Alvin Zhou, Jr., video producers at Buzzfeed, achieved more than 320,000 Pinterest shares with this article. Aside from the use of the word “genius” and “hacks,” both of which tend to garner high engagement, the headline also contains one of the most important emotional power words: your.

Headlines that contain either the word “you” or “your” have a deeply moving effect because they establish a personal connection between the writer and reader.

According to Tom Southern, a copywriter and blogging coach, “People share content to increase their self esteem, popularity and standing among their peers.” Sharing content gets us noticed, makes us feel helpful and fulfills our need for self-actualization in a world where we’re constantly vying for attention.

So, when people share content that contains the words “you” or “your” in the headline, it creates a personal connection between the person who shared the content and the person who ultimately decides to click.

Numbers and Lists

Headline: 50 Questions To Ask Your Kids Instead Of Asking “How Was Your Day”

The benefit of including numbers in headlines has long been known. Marketing and communications expert Karen Taylor points to a study by the content intelligence platform Conductor that found 36 percent of respondents preferred headlines with numbers.

The headline above is from a lifestyle magazine founded by Leslie Means, and serves as a strong example of how to use numbers in a headline. Numbers set expectations and deliver them in a way that leaves readers satisfied.

Courtney Seiter at Buffer explains that “numbers work well in headlines because humans like predictability and dislike uncertainty.” In many ways, a number helps a potential reader quantify the value of reading that post.

Images by: cuncon, Pexels, rawpixel

Casey Meehan