The Dead Simple Headline Formula You Can Use To Generate Millions of Pageviews

‘Click-bait’ needn’t be a dirty word. It’s just the practice of writing viral headlines for the social media space however tacky, sappy or idiotic it reads.

Sites like Upworthy, Uproxx and Distractify have nailed down the art of viral content. While blogs were busy keyword stuffing articles to win the search game, these progressive curation sites were focused on writing for the social ecosystem. This meant finessing click-baity headlines to lure massive amounts of traffic to their sites, and then serving up only the content that is the most socially sharable. Stories with a strong emotional or ethical hook, or ones that simply make you feel good, practical resources, or things that make people feel smarter. For Upworthy, their most shared content last year hit hard on the emotional and ethical points, body image, cancer and standard of beauty. Of the 16 article on those topics they were shared upwards of 12.4 millions times. We could definitely take a leaf or two from their books on social media strategy in 2014.

Upworthy’s approach to writing social headlines aims to create a ‘curiosity gap’ between the reader and the piece of content. The headline creates an intriguing state that the reader wants to know about without giving away the answer in the headline, and in effect stroking our social FOMO. The user clicks on the article, gets the answer posed in the headline and shares the article. It sounds like this: “Within 5 seconds, you won’t like him. By the time he laughs, you’ll hate him” or “He died too young. So All His Friends Got Together To Make Sure Future Generations Of Kids Don’t.” And the formula for writing click-baity headlines goes like this:

[Rare, awesome or unique thing] + [Desirable outcome] = Curiosity gap

This method is neither new or revolutionary, but it is progressive in terms of content publishing. Before we were inundated with keyword stuffed listicles, which were crafted precisely to take advantage of Google’s search spiders (that prioritized keyword dense articles on a certain topic at the top of search results). Now it’s content publishing specifically for the social ecosystem – click-bait lures traffic in social sphere, shareworthy content pushes content out.

So how it works exactly: A/B tested headlines paired with emotional subject matter

Upworthy takes subject matter that is inherently important for a broad mainstream audience, like causes. They write the story or whatever the content is to hit on the common characteristics that makes something go viral. Content that:

  • Makes people feel smarter once they’ve read about it

  • Triggers a memory of something. Either topically relevant or super bizarre.

  • Is a remarkable story

  • Has a strong emotional or ethical level appeal

  • Promises practicality

Their staff of curators scour the internet for these types of content. Once they hit on a winner they craft at least 25 different headlines for the article. Each of which creates a curiosity gap. Every headline is run through A/B testing to find the most effective at yielding clicks. The winner is the one published on social media sites.

In Upworthy’s own words, their content is run through the filter of the below:

  • Is the content substantive, engaging, and maybe even entertaining?

  • If 1 million people saw it, would the world be a better place? […VOMIT]

  • Does the content actually deliver on the promise of the headline?

What we can learn from this way of content marketing in 2014.

  1. When writing social copy or article headlines, create a curiosity gap between the reader and the content.

Upworthy-esque headlines could pay off for gaining more site hits and social reach. But if you cringe at the thought of writing to the tune of “The Things This 4 Year Old Is Doing Is Cute. But The Reason He Is Doing Them Is Heartbreaking” then you can slow it down. Journalists have been practicing the curiosity gap well before Upworthy type sites.

Curiosity gap = [rare, awesome or unique things] + [desirable outcome]

Name dropping is effective. Celebrities, companies and public figures help define the rare, awesome or unique thing. Emotionally charged language to describe the desired outcome helps. And focus on the reader’s feelings as they read the headline. Ensure as they read they understand why the outcome of clicking on the link will benefit them.

  1. Be rigorous with headlines and employ the help of A/B testing to do so.

Before you put any line of copy out into the social internets (tweets, headlines and status updates) try pushing for 25 alternatives. The exercise in itself will help finesse copywriting. Keep track of the best performing copy, note the language that is used. Reuse the things that went well.

  1. Be deliberate in how you write for social media audience or search engines.

If you are producing resourceful pieces of content such as a recipe or health, financial or technical advice, which people seek out ensure the best practices for SEO are followed. But if you are writing content for social media such as entertainment or getting the word out about new causes and brands then take a few pointers out of Upworthy’s book.

Amber Horsburgh is a Strategist at Brooklyn digital creative agency Big Spaceship. At the very minute she leads digital strategy for AXE and YouTube. She teaches Google Analytics and Digital Strategy at Skillshare.


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    Great article, with a good break down. Thank you for sharing.

  5. stephenbooth Replied

    The downside is that click-bait headlines like those have become so over used and misused (used to promote articles that are unrelated to the headline and/or are promotional in nature) that we’re starting to see a push back. Upworthy can get away with it as they’ve been in the game a long time and have proven their credibility, new players don’t have that benefit of the doubt paid to them.

    Click-bait headlines are now deemed ‘scam until proven otherwise’ by a growing number of people.

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