3 Secrets Behind BuzzFeed's Viral Headlines

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BuzzFeed is a new media empire built upon virality. Since its launch in 2006, BuzzFeed has popularized the listsicle, proliferated the GIF as a means of self-expression, and produced hundreds of posts a day ranging from “The 33 Most Unfortunate Typos Of All Time” to “This Is Jordan’s Newest And Biggest Refugee Camp For Syrians Still Fleeing The War”.

In short, BuzzFeed has developed as a legitimate journalistic establishment, purveyor of viral phenomena, and wellspring for many an office worker’s distraction du jour. But just what is it about BuzzFeed headlines that makes you click?

To find out, we took a closer look at some of BuzzFeed’s most successful headlines over the past year.

1. Want To Pique Reader Curiosity? Ask A Question.

The graph below is a longitudinal view of social shares for BuzzFeed’s daily publications over time. The greatest peak in BuzzFeed’s daily social shares came on March 7th, with a total of 3,247,423 post shares for the day. What did the headlines for these top-performing posts all have in common?

You guessed it – they’re all questions.

Questions like this…

And this…

And my personal favorite…

The interactivity of a quiz may or may not fit into your content marketing strategy, but you don’t have to have a quiz format in your content to employ a question headline.

We’ve written numerous times about how phrasing a headline or email subject line as a question can drive increased engagement, and we covered it in greater detail in our Colossal Content Marketing Report.

Out of the 1.2 million blog posts we analyzed for our report, 94.89% of blog post titles did not include a question mark, but the 5.01% that did yielded 46.30% of social shares for the data set.

But it’s important to note that BuzzFeed’s question headlines aren’t generic or esoteric. They are specific to you, the reader, zeroing in on who you should marry, or which classic Disney character best defines you.

By directly addressing the reader, these headlines invite and challenge you to better understand yourself (and laugh about it in the process).

2. Numbered Lists Give Structure (And An End-Point!)

When BuzzFeed isn’t getting inquisitive with their headlines, they often use lists and highly-targeted keywords to get right at the heart of their post’s subject matter. By and large, their declarative headlines follow this general formula:

Headline = Number + (Adjective) + Noun + Descriptive Clause

Here are just a few of the most successful examples:

While BuzzFeed’s “listicles” might sound small, notice the larger numbers featured throughout these top-performing headlines (28, 23, 31, 33, 26).

Why would you settle for a post from somewhere else that offers a Top 5 or Top 10 list, when you could get a more comprehensive (and hilarious) list from BuzzFeed?

Lists are easier for our brains to digest because they give our brains the taxonomy they crave. Lists give readers both a means to an end (by enumerating the points), and a longer list offers greater satisfaction upon completion.

3. Pump Your Headlines Full Of Emotional Context Clues

Even when BuzzFeed writes a declarative headline in non-listicle form, the specificity of the title remains, often with an explicit clue to the emotional response the article is going to elicit. Take this headline as an example:

Notice it’s not just “a dad” – it’s this dad. And it’s not just “reaction,” it’s the most adorable reaction. The adjectives in the title prepare the reader to experience something of above-average cuteness. These extra details lend the headline specificity and emotional cues that entice you into clicking.

Takeaways

To round out this quick case study, we analyzed the frequency of words used in BuzzFeed’s headlines over the past 18 months. Here are the site’s top 50 most common headline words and characters, ordered by frequency.

BuzzFeed Headline Words/Punctuation By Frequency

Again, you’ll notice that the 2nd-person “You” and “Your” are near the top of the list, highlighting the prevalence of BuzzFeed’s headline personalization tactic.

Peppered among the top of this list are also the clausal words “That,” “This,” and “Which,” as well as question words “What,” “Who,” and “How.” And as punctuation goes, notice that the question mark was used more often than a period.

So, what can you learn from BuzzFeed’s headline-writing tactics? Here are the keys to BuzzFeed’s headline magnetism:

  • Try phrasing your headlines as questions
  • Reference the reader directly with the 2nd person (“you” and “your”)
  • Use lists to guide the reader through the post
  • Use adjectives with emotional cues

For more content marketing tips and tricks, get your copy of our Colossal Content Marketing Report!