Secrets for Writing Killer Headlines, Subject Lines and Articles

Every marketer and copywriter can learn something from an analysis of 11,541 viral articles. This analysis reveals the top seven formulas that not only grab your reader’s attention, but gets shared to their friends.

The analysis was done by Neil Patel and detailed in his blog titled “How to Give Your Content Wings: We Analyzed 11,541 Viral Articles from 2016 to Uncover the Secret Formula.” In his post, he reveals ideas, and confirms based on my own experience, formulas that every marketer and copywriter should know. 

It’s no surprise that the primary secret is writing killer headlines. Which might make you wonder if these were spammy, or worse, fake news. Patel says that he removed articles that were “complete spam” from the analysis (good).

So even if you don’t write content articles, there is something here to be learned for copywriters.

Here is an overview of Patel’s top seven data-driven tactics in headlines that drive more social shares:

1.    Use numbers. 

Patel says, “Use numbers in at least half of your articles.” In his analysis, 61% of top performing article headlines had a number. A reason people click on titles with a number is certainty of what they will read. Another observation: you don’t necessarily need the number at the beginning of the title.

2.    “This is what…” 

Because headlines with the highest engagement have 16-18 words, Patel looked for phrases that have been repeated. The phrase “this is what” was used often. Again, probably because of the certainty created with the definitive and authoritative phrase.

3.    500 +/- words

More traffic may come from longer articles (due to higher rankings and traffic). But for sharing, shorter works. Images also impact social sharing. If you are publishing breaking news, write articles around 500 words.

4.    “How to” still works

The phrase “how to” has been known to work for generations. No surprise here. An article in the vein of “how to” is usually informative, and teaches.

5.    Question titles

Two-word phrases forming questions like “Do you…?” “Can you…?” and “Is the…?” work. So does this 3-word phrase: “Do you agree…?”

6.    Controversy

2016 was certainly a year of controversy, especially with a nasty election. But controversy sparks curiosity and interest, according to Patel. His reco: create a title that contains a controversial issue.

7.    Video

Another non-surprise was that using the word “video” resulted in higher shares. That’s been true of email subject lines for some time. So, whenever possible, post videos and include “video” in the title.

Want to energize your copy? Use the right combination of truly shareable words and ideas, but without crossing the line of becoming fake news. 

It’s always helpful to see an analysis like this. Use it these findings whether you’re writing online articles, email subject lines, or direct mail headlines.


Gary Hennerberg

After a lot of years in marketing and sales, this is what I know works:

Stories sell. Think unique. Stimulate emotion. Close deals. And here are a few other gems from my new book, “Crack the Customer Mind Code.” Know the persona, interpret your offer and let your prospect give themselves permission to buy. That’s how the brain is wired. It’s how people think.

What else? When I’m not breaking down complex topics (or ones marketers over-complicate) into easy-to-grasp stories that sell, I crunch numbers. Manage projects. Write. Teach. Lead.