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The Surprising Secret to Writing Viral Social Media Headlines

Creating a blog post, video, meme or other social media content that goes viral is every small business owner’s dream. How can you boost your chances of achieving instant fame (and massive attention to your business)? When it comes to achieving virality, headlines can make all the difference. BuzzSumo recently conducted a study identifying the elements and words most likely to create viral social media headlines.


Headlines for viral social media posts typically contain one or more of the following elements — the more, the better:

  • Emotional element: The words amusing, surprising, heartwarming, inspiring, beautiful, warning, or shocking
  • Content element: Images, facts, charts, quotes, videos or interactions
  • Topic element: Trending topic (such as the election), health, cats or dogs, babies, long life or love
  • Format element: List post, quiz, story, curated or research report
  • Promise element: How to, “Complete guide to,” practical tips or “Improve your”

For example, a headline such as “14 Heartwarming Photos of Puppies That Will Instantly Make Your Day” contains all of the elements needed for a viral post.

When it comes to “topic” elements, tying a headline into trending news topics, trending topics on the social media platform where you’re posting, or trending topics in your industry can help your headline get attention.

How about “format” elements? Format is one of the most important features in helping your post go viral. There’s a reason you see so many lists online: It’s because they get attention. Lists, how-tos and quizzes are by far the top three most popular types of content, the study reports; people love these formats because they know what to expect from them. However, there are slight differences in which formats perform better on which social media channels:

  • Pictures, Quotes, Facts and Tips perform best on Facebook
  • Facts and Tips perform best on Twitter
  • Tips, Habits and Mistakes perform best on LinkedIn

The “promise” element of your headline is especially important. If your headline is enough of a “cliffhanger” — that is, if what it promises to share is interesting enough — a promise can stand alone as a potentially viral social media headline. One example the study shares: “This Life-Changing, True Story Reveals the Secret To Success.” Yep, that’s a pretty big promise — but can you resist clicking on it? (Of course, if you promise something this big, you’d better deliver.)


There are some trigrams, or three-word phrases, that really boost your chances of going viral. According to the study, the trigrams that get the most likes/shares on Facebook are:

  • X pictures that
  • X signs you’re
  • make you laugh
  • how well do
  • X photos that
  • can we guess
  • you should never
  • X things only
  • are the best
  • X things to

On Twitter, the story is a little different. There, the most effective trigrams are:

  • the science of
  • the case for
  • you can now
  • history of the
  • the art of
  • the rise of
  • first time in
  • the future of
  • the age of

Of course, this formula isn’t foolproof — but it does explain why so many headlines online are so similar. Play around with the concepts BuzzSumo shares, track your results and you’re likely to see a surge in your content’s popularity.

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Author information

Rieva Lesonsky

Rieva Lesonsky is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media and custom content company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship. Email Rieva at [email protected], follow her on Google+ and, and visit her website,, to get the scoop on business trends and sign up for Rieva’s free TrendCast reports.