Up and to the right graphThere is no one way to create viral content.

So many different variables go into a viral post—timing, emotion, engagement, and so many others that you cannot control. There is no viral blueprint. The greatest chance we have to understand viral content is to study the posts and places that do it best, figure out what worked for them, and try it for ourselves.

Thanks to some incredible work by the team at Ripenn, we have access to headline analysis from four of the top viral sites on the web—who happen to be really good at headline writing. Based on this information—plus a little extra from our own Buffer favorites—we can get a glimpse into the science of how to write a great headline and what words to choose.

The top words used in viral headlines

The headline data from Ripenn came from four of the most click-worthy sites on the web—BuzzFeed, ViralNova, UpWorthy and Wimp. Each of these sites receives more than 4,000,000 monthly unique visits, and headlines are a big reason why.

To give some variety to the list, I added the top headlines from 20 different tech, social media and productivity sites that we find ourselves reading and sharing often here at Buffer—sites like Seth Godin, 99u, Social Media Explorer and more (the full list is available in spreadsheet form)—for an additional 400 headlines to be analyzed.

In total, I examined 3,016 headlines from 24 top content sites. Here are the most popular words found in their headlines.

(The table at left shows common words—articles, prepositions, pronouns, etc.—and the table at right shows less common, more specific words—nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.)

Top words used in viral headlines  Most popular uncommon words in viral headlines

Click here to see a more complete list of top words beyond the 50 mentioned above.

Let’s dig in, shall we?

Analyzing top headlines: Which words stand out?

There’s a lot to glean from here, and everyone has a unique way of implementing data like this on their site. Although you can interpret this data any number of different ways, here are my top observations.

You and Your

Content’s No. 1 goal is to help other people. This is evident in the viral headlines examined here. “You” was the No. 5 most popular word, and we find “your” in the Top 20 as well. Combined, these two pronouns appeared in 16 percent of all the headlines in this study.

What does this say about viral headlines? They seek to add value for you, the reader. Make content about the reader, not about the writer.

You and Your examples from the study include:

  • What Would You Buy With an Extra $12,000?
  • A Chart About Silence That Will Leave You Speechless
  • 6 Things You Need to Know Today

Academic research supports this concept. A Norwegian business school experimented with different headline structures, including referential headlines, rhetorical headlines, and declarative headlines. They found that question headlines referencing the reader were the most effective.


The power of “this” is in its specificity. When you use “this” in a headline, the reader’s mind switches to a concrete view of whatever you’re talking about, as if the object in question were imminent and attainable. There is an immediacy to the word.

See these three examples of headlines from the study:

  • This Guy Sticks Household Objects in His Beard and It’s Weirdly Mesmerizing
  • This Woman’s Massive Instagram Following Helped Her Launch a Business
  • Is This the Airport of the Future?

What, Which, and When

What do all these words have in common? (OK, I kind of gave away the answer.) They are all about questions.

Here are some examples of question headlines from the study:

  • Which Countries Pay Its Teachers What They’re Worth?
  • Which Old-School Pro Wrestling Legend Are You?
  • What Happens When a Dump Truck Going 50mph Hits a Military-Grade Concrete Barrier?

Copyblogger’s Jerod Morris has preached the value of question headlines before, and his conclusions are definitely supported in this study. What are the advantages of headlines as questions?

It turns out that phrasing headlines in the form of a question … does indeed increase click-through rates. In fact it more than doubles them, on average.


This one, too, could be about questions, but digging deeper into the individual instances of “why” in viral headlines revealed that there’s more here: “Why” promises an explanation. Here are some examples:

  • Why Your Brand Shouldn’t Fear Assigning Authorship
  • Why So Many Creatives Love Working on Trains
  • Why the Best Social Media Education Might Be Right Under Your Nose

Finding out “why” is satisfying to us because of a phenomenon called the curiosity gap. Carnegie Melon University professor George Loewenstein coined this term to describe the gap between what we know and what we want to know. This gap creates something like an itch in your brain, and it can only be “scratched” by learning more (and thus, clicking on the post).

Upworthy cofounder Peter Koechley says the site uses the curiosity gap to create headlines that tells the reader enough to pique curiosity but not enough to give the whole story away.

And these headlines play a huge role in the virality of Upworthy content.

Viral content formula


As the number one uncommon word in the headline study, “people” came up a lot and very often in a similar fashion:

  • The most successful people
  • The happiest people
  • The most interesting people

The superlatives in these headlines make promises that the reader finds intriguing. We want to know what the most successful people are doing, how the happiest people live, and what makes the most interesting people interesting. Similar to some of the single words listed above like “why” and “this,” readers enjoy discovering, learning, and challenging the details behind blanket assertions like this.


You likely know the value of video in content marketing, but in headlines specifically? Turns out that being up front that your post contains video is a good tactic to use when writing your headline. Many places find a way to stick the word “video” into the headline naturally, but when a natural fit can’t happen, there was no hesitation to place the word at the end surrounded by parentheses or brackets. Some examples:

  • Why You Should Listen First, Market Later (Video)
  • Superstars of Psychology: 10 Best Short Talks (Video)
  • Everything You Need to Know About Facebook Buttons [Video]

The most common viral headline phrases

To take things one step further, I also looked at the top phrases that appeared in these popular headlines. The numbers were smaller here compared to instances of single words, but some patterns did develop. Let’s start with the two-word phrases.

Two-word phrases in viral headlines

Top 2-word phrases in viral headlines

The Most

Like the phrase “this is,” there is a certain level of authority when you say “the most.” It also taps into a reader’s argumentative side, giving them an opportunity to challenge you as to whether or not your superlative really rings true.

Previous headline studies—like this one at Startup Moon—show that other words that indicate a comprehensive or superlative resource can lead to success.

The most viral posts also tend to include the following in their titles: Smart, surprising, science, history, hacks (hacking, hackers, etc), huge/ big, critical.

How To

You’ve probably seen and used this one many times over, and for good reason: “How to” is popular because it’s effective. These how-to posts promise a certain level of education, and provided the subject matter has value to the reader, you can expect lots of clicks.

Startup Moon also noticed positive results for posts titled with “beginner’s guide,” “introductory,” and “in 5 minutes,” showing that the blog reading audience loves to learn how to as quickly as possible.

Three-word phrases in viral headlines

Top 3-word phrases in viral headlines

The notable ones for me from this list were “what happens when” and “this is what.” Both are explanatory and promise a certain level of discovery.

(And for an even deeper level of phrases, here is a chart of the top four-word phrases.)

Even more viral headline stats

I went ahead and pulled some additional numbers of elements that intrigued me. Ripenn was nice enough to open the data up to a creative commons license for anyone to use with attribution. Dig in. It’s neat to be able to see what kind of insights you can draw from such a deep well of viral data. For instance …

The average length of a viral headline is 62 characters.

To give you an idea of what that might look like, here’s a headline that is 60 characters: The Best Time to Write and Get Ideas, According to Science.

The percentage of headlines with a number was 19%.

This shows both the draw of the listicle and the ability of other headlines to still pull big numbers.


After looking at the initial data, Ripenn found seven key commonalities. I’ve reworded them here into some helpful headline tips:

  1. Make the most of current events: Tie your headline to news and newsmakers
  2. Break some “rules” of headline writing, like length
  3. Seek to pique the reader’s curiosity
  4. Never underestimate the emotional factor of a headline
  5. Call the reader to action with direct action words
  6. Make bold claims
  7. Sound like a human, not a robot

Play around with some of the most popular headline words mentioned above to test some new, unique combinations in your own content.

What words stood out to you in this headline study? How do you plan to integrate this with your next headline? Shoot me some links of what you come up with. I’d love to see what you come up with!

P.S. If you liked this post, you might also like 5 Key Elements for Your Content to Go Viral and A Scientific Guide to Writing Great Headlines.

Image credit: baboon, Slideshare

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Written by Kevan Lee

Director of marketing at Buffer, the social media publishing tool for brands, agencies, and marketers. We’ve got a new podcast! ?

  • Hey Kevan – We are thrilled that you were able to use the data from our study and take it to the next level! Loved the breakdown of most popular phrases…really helpful to keep some of these “viral words” on tap!

    We also created a simple tool to test titles that a lot of readers have found helpful: http://www.titletester.com. It’s a way to get feedback on your potential titles before going live.

    Thanks again for putting the data to good use. A+ work!

    • Thanks so much, Josh! You guys deserve all the credit for starting this conversation. I had a blast building on your good foundation!

      Excited to try Title Tester on my next post. 🙂

  • Roger

    Hi Kevan & Josh. Thank you for laying out the process of writing eye catching headlines. Your research and suggestions make a lot of sense. I’ll be adding value to my future social media use by following your ‘How To’ tips.

    • Thanks, Roger! Looking forward to good results for you.

  • Really good post !

  • Heather YamadaHosley

    I think the part about using “The Most” to get people’s attention and create discussion (via them challenging your assertion).

    • That was one of my favorites, too! (Or should I say “the most favorite”?)

  • I found this post extremely helpful. Thanks, @kevanlee:disqus. Hopefully we will see more engagement with our posts as a result.

  • Sid

    is it only me who found it not so useful..it would have been interesting to see the actual words/phrases excluding these pronouns/articles.

    • Hi, Sid. You’re absolutely right about the value of specific words and phrases, as opposed to pronouns/articles. I tried to highlight uncommon words in the companion chart near the top of the article. Let me know if that helps or If there is any other data I can send your way!

  • Very true Kevan Lee, its like appealing in a very personal level and in a friendly way, emotional appeal will make them click.

  • This is the most abuse-able bit of information in the world.

    I loath clickbait, thanks for showing me how to spot it! I can’t wait til you realize that this was already covered by a relevant xkcd! https://xkcd.com/1283/

    When you see what this guy did, it will make you laugh at what happened to a ted talk that optimizes for the wrong things: http://www.ted.com/talks/lies_damned_lies_and_statistics_about_tedtalks

    What he did will make you take a second look at how you handle your headlines.

    When you see what happens when you take a closer took at how to make an impact, the difference will blow your mind. This is what makes a normal TED talk the best thing I’ve ever seen: http://www.ted.com/talks/nancy_duarte_the_secret_structure_of_great_talks

    (I’m so meta, even this note is what happens when you incorporate headline metrics.)

    • You make a good point, Nicholas. There’s definitely a fine line between clickbait and viral headlines.

  • Candy Donovan

    Great article, thanks Kevan. It’s the one area that I am always trying to improve on.

  • Kevan, I’ve just scheduled my newsletter with “this is the..” in the subject line. Your practical articles are great, thanks!

    • Awesome! I hope you see some good results!

    • nhocks

      You should split test that newsletter subject line against another top performer to see what your subscribers are more drawn to.

  • Akash Agarwal

    Headline is one of the most important things of a article or
    blog. Thanks for sharing knowledge on how to write headline.

  • Cbailey

    Emotional appeal can be a stepping stone leading to creativity and innovation that boosts the discovery of analytical solutions…CBailey

  • Jennifer Adams

    This post was extremely helpful. When I thought about what I read in regards to these top words I found that I read the ones with “you” and “your” the most.

  • Very interesting, especially when I compare this list to the list of one, two, and three word phrases that my analytics software catalogues for my site. Definitely some work to be done.

    • Anything in particular stand out that was different, John? We’ve found that the word “science” is typically a big performer in our headlines. 🙂

      • It’s funny, but my standout word on my blog is “quotes.” I’m surprised that didn’t make the list…

  • Great case study, Kevan. Over the past few months I’ve taken interest in the headlines of Buzzfeed, Upworthy, etc & how they increase click through and conversion. Nice to see it all in one place.

    In headline writing You has always been my favorite word.

  • Nice work Kevan.

  • that is a really cool breakdown of the best headline words. I found that testing out different ones with my email list works best for me. but thanks for sharing.

  • Darcie Buzzelle

    Hot Damn . . great food for thought . . .rollin’ up my sleeves to have a BIG word feast. Thank You! 🙂

  • Goodcontent

    the buffer blog is really interessting and helpful and I enjoy reading it 🙂

  • priya

    Great Information! thanks for sharing…


  • Jill Powers

    That is one great article and thanks for the reference to the other articles too! Will definitely check them out…!

  • Adeoba Oguntonade

    This looks cool…

  • Ugh.

    No. Please stop.

    “You won’t believe what happens when this nun crosses the road, it will blow your mind” is slimy – and it’s slimy because it’s manipulative.

    “This guy went to get a smoothie. What happened next changed how I feel about 7-11 FOREVER.”

    Please stop writing manipulative headlines. It’s a hideous practice and once everybody manipulates their audiences into no longer reading, we’ll have to resort to nudity.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Haha! It does sometimes seem like we’re all in in an escalating headline arms race. 🙂

      • those are great headlines nick, i would read them 😉 I don’t know, I think it only seems manipulative because you’re consciously learning it. look back at what you’ve learned before about headlines- isn’t that also “manipulative”?

        • Not really (sorry for the late reply, I didn’t get a notification on this one).

          When writing content, you can “bury the lead” behind a cheap emotional appeal/mystery/high-pressure manipulation of wonder — or you can tell the reader what the article is about.

          I’m not saying you have to be devoid of ANY emotion or even teasing curiosity, but even list posts go too far sometimes: “the 20 things that will blow your mind about serving the perfect hot dog/blog post/website!?!?!11!”

          Write for people who like to read your subject or are interested in learning (edges of the market), don’t manipulate the barely interested/uninterested into clicking because you can serve them ads.

    • Sherrin Bull

      Agreed. But it works. As long as it works, we’ll keep having the escalating headline arms race. (:

      • It only works because it’s novel; eventually the dogs stop drooling at the sound of the bell. There’s nothing wrong with an emotional appeal. But we’re better than cheap manipulative ploys!

    • Mark

      I could not agree more. I own a small legal services firm, I need to find headlines that would work – but if I tried some of these my clients would be running for the hills. Yes, maybe they work on some, but I notice many of them are really slimy – they might work on so-called “internet marketing” but not sure of broader use in more genuine markets.

      • Mostly I suspect this is a tactic to generate clicks to serve ads. In which case, it’s probably very effective – but it diminishes trust and the value of the content that’s written.

  • Rey Ty

    Common sense dictates that the words “the, a, this, you, in, of” etc. should automatically be removed in counting viral words. Viral words to be counted should point towards substantive elements, such as names of persons, neologism, sich as “twerk”, and so so.

    • Mark

      I would agree, I thought those words merely inflated the list but most were hardly substantive.

  • JessieCoan

    The research in this article is interesting. I think what marketers also need to keep in mind is what THEIR audience is reacting to. If every headline includes some of these techniques, then maybe you should try something new – but once in awhile and used for a purpose, then I see no harm done.

    • Hazza Jay

      So true.

    • nhocks

      You definitely have to try something new. It could turn out to be an even better performer than what’s listed.

  • Carol Graham

    So many helps here — thank you.

  • marivi

    very useful post! thank you

  • You guys always share excellent posts. I love the depth and the ability to cover every angle. Buffer consistently wins!

    The only thing I would add is this. What is a viral headline? The response, the shares, etc to the content is what makes it viral.

    Write for your audience and deliver consistently.

    • Great way of looking at things! Love this! There could be lots of different ways to look at virality, depending on your intentions. Good thought to keep in mind. 🙂

  • brilliant, thanks 🙂

  • And in Spanish?

  • gina

    WHERE’S CAT?!?

  • Brzezina

    Give me a break. You present some wordcounts, then extrapolate to give significance to words like “this” and “why”. Try randomly selecting 100 sentences from books, magazines, or newspapers. You’ll come up with the same list of words.
    This isn’t useful at all.

    • Cock

      I thought it was a joke at first

    • Mark

      Thank you; I was hoping I was not the only one wondering that. I am not at all opposed to finding real headlines that work – but this stuff just seems so deceptive and low-brow; most of that list is not useful to me and tells me very little.

  • nhocks

    Another good opportunity would be to look at list based content, specifically in relation to the most popular number used.

    • Oh, that’s a great idea! Personally, we’ve noticed that odd-numbered lists are somewhat a little more attractive than even-numbered ones. Go figure!

  • Deb McAlister

    But what’s the bounce rate on content with that kind of click-bait headline? It’s one thing to get someone to click, but it’s something else to get them to read the content and take some action that benefits the content publisher — whether that’s staying on the website long enough to view some ads, clicking on a link in the published content, or signing up/subscribing for more.
    I’d be interested in seeing your analysis go the next step and look at bounce rates, subscription rates, and click-through rates on posts and how headlines affect those.

    • Mark

      Deb raises a great question; the headline itself is not enough, but it runs the risk of being all sizzle and no steak – that site, whatever it is, better deliver the goods or potential customers are just going to walk away or unsubscribe. I do that all the time, if a site does not deliver, unsubscribe is used with ruthless efficiency.

  • Francisco Baptista Burgos

    For someone who is going up in english I realize that I´m improving very much with your posts.Tia

  • Joseph Erle

    Don’t forget the word, ‘Congratulations.’ For FB, it is very powerful.

  • Great headline phrases rating! It’s seems to be a good idea of mostly used phrases in conversation. If any person or specially athletes have problem of fungal and viral infection in foot then they can use the best antibacterial foot soap.

  • Nye Liu


  • Awesome post.

  • Ed Challinor

    I’m not sure why everyone is hating on poor old Kevan’s extremely well researched article. Thanks for this, I’m a Dentist and we provide really quality work. I came here for inspiration and tested “5 Surprising things you didn’t know about getting braces” and my old headline, “5 Braces questions for your Dentist” The new one almost doubled my CTR. It’s not manipulative it’s just being the best you can be in the market. If you are frustrated by click-bait then why are you here?