How To

The Ultimate Guide To Writing Attention Grabbing Headlines

By Editorial Staff

The purported “father of advertising” David Ogilvy once said: “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

Ogilvy said this in 1963. Fifty years later, his statement is truer than ever. We live in a world where the virality of your content is directly correlated to the success of your business. Yet, breaking through the noise and attracting people to your site remains an imprecise art.

While people’s attention spans are shrinking, the number of companies competing for their attention is exploding. With a limited supply of consumer attention and a skyrocketing demand for that attention, winning the viral game is harder than ever before.


So how can you set your content apart?

Well, the most important piece to the viral content puzzle is an attention-grabbing headline. Of course, you can’t stop there: your body copy has to be good enough for visitors to consume and share it. But get your headline right and you’re 80% of the way to winning the viral game.


Newsjacking is the use of what’s hot to market loosely related content. Such a stratagem can be useful, and harmless. But be wary—using a popular controversy to market something otherwise unrelated is often a great way to invoke the wrath of the masses. As Digital Marketing service Rallyverse asks: “Are you making an amazing joke? Or just a joke? Think hard.”

Even if done cautiously, newsjacking squelches with disingenuousness, and the consumer will see through it. Even so, it can be cute and topical, and effective.

A good example of newsjacking came during the ALS ice bucket challenge craze last summer. Numerous websites made fair use of Pratt’s Youtube video. Huffington Post’s headline “Chris Pratt Did The Ice Bucket Challenge Better Than Your Facebook Friends” serves as a perfect example of good newsjacking.

Leverage the “Why”

“Why you’ve been doing such-and-such activity wrong this whole time!”

“Why Taylor Swift is the best songwriter of our generation!”

or even the sort of depressing: “ Why you’re still single.”

Making any bold declaration following “why” entices consumers into clicks. Whether the consumer agrees or not, the promise of opinion that a reader can love or hate catches attention. Being controversial raises interest, but know the limits…

Are you questioning me?

Buzzfeed uses the question format 4 times as much as non-question format, according to

Site Question Avg No Question Avg
Buzzfeed 32,549 7,295


The word “this” is possibly the most important word in the writing of a good attention grabbing headline. “This” entices consumers in two powerful but opposite ways—specificity and ambiguity.

The vagueness of “This will change how you think about…” is simple titillation that can lead to a cheap click. But these get boring pretty fast. Instead, using “this” to set the subject apart from its ordinary counterparts stirs curiosity extremely effectively. The formula “This guy seems normal, but actually he’s quite special,” is a perfect way to tempt a reader with a unique human-interest piece. “These” works in the same fashion.

Blogger Kevan Lee of Buffer recently found that “this” was the third most popular word used in the headlines of viral posts. In terms of word-combinations, “this is” was the most popular, and shortly after that at #5 was “the most”, and at #17 was another superlative, “the best.”

At first…But then…

People crave to learn new things. But they want the learnings handed to them on a silver platter. This formula shows the reader where you started (At first…) and where you ended (But then…) and leaves them pondering on how you got there.

In essence, this strategy is the same as the above. It takes something ordinary, something that “at first” seems typical. “But then,” something amazing is revealed!

You wouldn’t believe…

Where these child stars are now… That these products actually exist… What happened to this girl. It’s a challenge, and one that the consumer subconsciously wants to accept, with the hope that perhaps they really won’t believe it.

The Last Picture Broke My Heart

Another sort of challenge. Can you handle the tragedy that you are about to awaken with a single-click? Of course, you must find out for yourself.


ViralNova uses this stratagem often. E.g. You’ll NEVER guess. Mind BLOWN. WHOA. Eye-catching. Attention-grabbing.

Here’s How-to…

Method, strategy, Do-it-yourself. A practical click for the consumer, and a rewarding one. Brian Clark of Copyblogger recommends emphasizing the benefit of doing the action. Do-it-yourself isn’t just about building an IKEA lamp, it’s about becoming an overall better or happier person as a result of reading a quick little article.

My Favorite is #7!

A little editorial can be endearing, and tantalizing. What’s so good about #7?! I must find out for myself. Mustn’t I?

Opinion in the title can be the difference between a fascinating headline and a mundane one. For example, Buzzfeed’s most liked article on Facebook from last year bore the headline “Canada’s Response To Russia’s Anti-LGBT Propaganda Law Is Totally Awesome.” Had the headline writer stuck to cold, hard journalism and omitted the “is totally awesome,” the article would have been destined to be read by the esoteric group of people who still read news on the Internet.

The answer might surprise you. 

Then again, it might not, but you’ve already clicked, haven’t you? This has come to be called the “Upworthy format” as it is heavily used by

Numbers & Lists

BuzzFeed is exceptionally good at these. Numbers and lists are great because the consumer instantly knows what to expect and the time commitment he or she is making. A list is extra-shareable because any single item on the list could resonate with a consumer. How often do you see a buzzfeed list shared between friends with the caption: “#4 is so us?”

Exhortative Phrasing

Use the imperative: “Watch what happens when someone does the unthinkable!” Implicit in that headline is the fact that YOU HAVE NO CHOICE. MUST…WATCH…THING. A good, attention-grabbing headline makes it feel like one has to click, or he or she is missing out.

Take for instance’s most shared articles (on Facebook) in 2013, “Watch This Incredible Young Woman Render Jon Stewart Speechless” and “Watch A Lesbian Attack The Word ‘Gay,’”.

 How could you resist that?

Things only certain people will understand

And it just so happens that the category of people selected is a HUGE demographic, such as “long-haired,” “waitress,” “Out-of-state student,” “Watcher of Scandal.’” An article that seems perfectly designed uniquely for you, and a few of your friends, with whom you will certainly share it. Even if the article itself is not great, it will be shared. Because it was made to be.

An excellent example is: “You’re a ‘90s kid if…” The 19-22 year olds that share and consume most voraciously today grew up at the same time. Placing a picture of an old Nickelodeon show and using the term “90s kid” in your headline guarantees that you’ll hit one of the largest demographics of viral-content consumers, while offering a sense of personalization for the consumer.

You’re a ’90s kid if… (buzzfeed)

Adverb-Adjective Combo

In this day and age, that which is “insane” is merely run-of-the-mill. The average reader has seen so much, that even the most “unbelievable” of occurrences, he or she will take in stride.

But something “unbelievably insane?”

Now that’s hard to ignore… Sensationalism in its purest form.

Things you missed

During last night’s Oscars. Like Taylor Swift and Jennifer Lawrence dancing. Or something. Nobody wants to miss a single juicy moment!

Headline Optimization

So far we’ve discussed how to craft attractive headlines. But how can you know if your headline is actually working? What if your second option was more compelling? In fact, Upworthy’s writers crap out 25 headlines per article, then narrow it down to two before finally selecting the perfect title.


But wouldn’t it be useful to test your headlines’ effectiveness to make sure you’re picking a winner? After all, even the best headline-instinct is not infallible.

Turns out, AppSumo has built an application to test different headlines and identify the ones that are getting the highest Click Through Rates. They have a convenient WordPress integration so you can get set up in minutes. Thank me later. 

“The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife.”

Ogilvy said that too. He warns that you cannot build a sustainable business by duping your consumers. They aren’t morons. Instead, they are your friends, your partners—and with any good friendship, both parties should benefit (please forgive the implicit sexism in this statement, The father of advertising lived in a different time). You may earn a few points by promising to take him out to his favorite restaurant, but break your promise too many times and he’ll be going out to dinner with your best friend. So, when you make that promise, mean it. Think of the consumer/creator relationship as a marriage; work at it, try new things, be empathetic, and you both will benefit.

Although a powerful attention-grabbing headline is by far the most important element of your article virality, you need to ride the hype-wave it creates with equally compelling content. Read our writing guide for more ammunition.

Pro tip: Beyond the content

We’ve all been there: we spend hours finding excruciatingly interesting topics, writing heartfelt content, and crafting addictive headlines. Yet when we finally hit publish… nothing happens.

You see, in this hyper-competitive age, you won’t break through the noise based on the quality of your content alone. Nowadays more than ever, promoting your content in the right way through the right channels is fundamental. Viral streaks are like snowballs: they need an initial push.

Visit our website to learn more about effectively seeding your content on social media. Or, if you’re an individual with a growing online following, learn how you can earn revenue by sharing viral content.

This article was written by Editorial Staff

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