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What Content Really Gets Shared On BuzzFeed?

Why do certain content pieces go viral and get large numbers of shares and citations while others barely get a few? The headline is one of the most important factors. A title that is thought-provoking, original and intriguing is much more likely to entice readers to click and share it. Creating a viral post that gains shares and earns enduring SEO value is a trophy among content marketers.

The content marketing company, Ripenn collected data on the number of social shares from 600 posts from BuzzFeed.com and other social news destinations. I spent some time pouring over their data for the super popular BuzzFeed and found some interesting commonalities between those that received the most shares. Here are some lessons I learned about creating viral headlines.

List Posts Are Shared Twice As Often

It’s not uncommon to hear bloggers lauding the list post as a way to gain more shares. My research supports their anecdotal evidence.

I found that 50% of the posts analyzed from BuzzFeed received at least 735 shares on Facebook and 77 shares on Twitter. On the other hand, half of the list posts we looked at received at least 2,079 Facebook shares and 119 shares on Twitter.

The number of items included in the list may help determine whether the post goes viral. A large proportion of the most viral posts were list with 21, 22 or 27 items. It isn’t clear why these posts would be more likely to go viral, but people do tend to be more influenced by some numbers than others. Fiction writers and comedians have lived by the “rule of three” for ages. Brian Clark, the editor of Copyblogger, wrote that the rule of three is still used frequently in blogging. Some numbers clearly seem to stand out more than others, even if the reasons aren’t entirely clear.

Viral Headlines Are Usually Short and Sweet

Assuming the headline and title tag are the same, most SEO and social media-conscious writers try to keep headlines below the character level where they truncate in SERPs. The same guideline seems to be good advice for writing viral posts as well. I found that posts with over 74 characters received an average of 44% fewer Facebook shares and 12% fewer Twitter shares. There are many possible explanations:

  • Google truncates the title after the first 74 characters, which means that readers won’t see the entire title. They may be more likely to read the article if they see the entire title in the search results.
  • Social Media Today states that many surveys show readers prefer shorter titles. Many readers claim that they understand the purpose of an article better if the title is short and sweet.
  • Shorter titles leave more room for Twitter users to include headlines or tags, which helps increase exposure.

There are a number of reasons that shorter titles may get more shares. It is a good idea to keep them concise.

Headlines With Questions Are More Likely to Go Viral

My research found that posts with questions for headlines receive about 24% more shares than the average post. There are a number of reasons asking questions in titles may be a good approach:

  • You take a conversational tone. This seems to entice more people to view your post.
  • You spark the reader’s curiosity. People don’t see questions in titles very often which encourages them to click for more information.
  • You touch on a problem they want answered. They are more likely to click the post if they expect the question will be answered.

Questions can be a great way to hook the reader. You may want to consider using them in titles since the data shows they tend increase the likelihood that your post will go viral.

Viral Headlines Weren’t Written for Google

Headlines not written for Google

Non-Google-friendly Titles

Every single post that we reviewed had one thing in common. It was written for human beings rather than search engines. The article’s purpose was immediately clear. Every word in the headline was used to stimulate the reader and tempt to click for more information. I couldn’t even tell what keywords the articles were optimized for.

That doesn’t mean that the authors ignored SEO entirely. Many of these headlines were probably optimized for some long-tail keywords. However, they were written primarily to connect with readers.

People Don’t Like Sharing Sex Related Posts

The old adage “sex sells” doesn’t appear to be true with social media. I found that very few posts with sexual content were shared. The only exceptions were posts related to promoting LGBT rights.

This may seem surprising given the amount of adult content on the web, but it makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Most people are probably reluctant to alienate their friend and followers on social media by sharing anything that could be perceived as offensive. People have also found that the content they share on social media can have negative implications for their career or other parts of their lives. They would probably be cautious about sharing anything of a sexual nature.

Popular Posts Tend to Break the Status Quo

People seem to ignore information that confirms what they already know or believe. Information tends to stand out more if it challenges the status quo or sheds a new light on something.

The majority of the most popular posts either took a different position or sought to shape people’s opinions. Here are some of the most popular posts:

  • 44 Stock Photos That Hope To Change The Way We Look At Women
  • This Short Film Shows Just How Terrifying Life Is For LGBT People In Russia
  • Canada’s Response To Russia’s Anti-LGBT Propaganda Law Is Totally Awesome
  • 22 Messages From Creationists To People Who Believe In Evolution
  • Why Are You Single?
  • 23 Things All Servers Will Understand
  • 27 Weird And Creepy Vintage Valentine’s Day Cards
  • 27 Real Struggles That Only RAs Will Understand

Some of these articles were clearly written to educate people about a topic they aren’t familiar with. Others were written to give people a new perspective.

People Love Sharing Posts With Newsworthy Headlines

Posts written around newsworthy information are highly likely to go viral. This is likely because people want to know more about what is happening in the real world. They read as many articles as they can about major events to learn more. They are also likely to share these stories with friends that are interested in them as well.

Fewer than 5% of the posts that I analyzed were written around current events, but they were substantially more likely to be shared. In fact, four of the fifteen most popular posts were geared around something that took place in the news recently.

Viral Posts Tend to Be Rich in Visual Content

All of the most popular posts that I reviewed either had a video or multiple images. The truth is that people don’t like reading a lot of written content on the web. Jacob Nielson of the Nielson Norman Group recently discovered that readers only read about 20% of the words on a page.

They may have a slow attention span when it comes to reading, but images and videos seem to keep them stimulated. This is probably why posts with a lot of visual content are more likely to be shared.

Published 04/10/14, Edited 08/02/18.

About Kalen Smith

Kalen Smith has been an online content marketer and SEO analytics researcher for the past five years. He has been published on the Content Marketing Institute, Hubspot, Business Insider and other entrepreneurial publications. He is also the author of "The Ultimate Guide to Guest Blogging" and several other informational products on digital marketing. Read more of Kalen's posts here. Google+.

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10 comments

  1. Hi Kalen – thanks for the shout out! I’m glad our research (ripenn) was helpful for your analysis.

    Your point about using sexual themes in content is really important for readers to understand. When I was researching headlines initially, I found a slide deck by UpWorthy. They mentioned that part of their editorial process is make sure the content is “something your mom would approve”.

    When we share things on social media, it’s like the words are coming out of our mouth.s Within a community like Facbeook, people are wary of sharing over sexualized content with their friends, nieces, moms, etc.

    Nice job, and thanks for taking the research to the next level!

    • Thanks Josh! Yeah I think it is important to be careful about what types of headlines you use. If your mom wouldn’t approve, then she probably won’t share it.

  2. Thanks, Kalen! That was a brilliant article and I can’t help myself but bookmark it. I’m one of those geeky type that could use more time on the headline. So, thank you :D

    -Deborah

    • Thanks Deborah. Coming up with a great headline can be tough sometimes, but it is something we should all invest time in. I appreciate you stopping by!

  3. Thanks for a well researched article – lots of tidbits to create shareable titles.

    With Google’s new user interface the title tag may be more like 65 characters now.

    • Thanks Tom and that is a good point. Google is always changing its interface so I think we should all be wary about it. Your point seemed to be reflected in the data as well so I appreciate you mentioning it!

  4. Tyler Banfield April 26, 2014

    A good reminder that even though list posts may seem overused, it’s still a format that people REALLY like to read/skim.

  5. Virgil Contos March 12, 2015

    This is a useful post. Some of these facts are hard to swallow. Especially about the one that shows that people hate reading now. It’s quite a shame because there is only so much you can learn from visual content.

    What are your thoughts on using social auto posters such as SNAP for WordPress? Does Google penalize sites for using these types of plugins? Thanks again for the interesting and informative read.

    Virgil

    • Emory Rowland April 2, 2015

      “…there is only so much you can learn from visual content.”

      That’s a powerful statement, Virgil. Everyone is on the visual bandwagon but it does have its limitations.

      I don’t use auto posters nowadays not so much because of a potential Google penalty but just because of the robotic way it can come across to users.

  6. Pingback: 6 Crucial Content Marketing Lessons from BuzzFeed - GetResponse Blog

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