What Viral Headlines Can Teach Us

Virality is lightning striking a firefly in the dead of night. It is a jolt of being chosen, of being seen. In an age where a majority of the developed world is connected to their black screens and reading more and more online, abandoning the littered newsstands, virality also happens faster, quicker, and more often.

You have every chance of going viral by posting a picture of your dog in a funny hat as you do writing a 20-minute in-depth article on the factors contributing to the decline of western civilization. But what is it about these images, these words, these ideas that spark such joy in a wide swath of the population? Is it how they make us feel? Is it what they remind us of? Or is it something else?

In a way, virality crosses borders, cultures, and languages. It connects us. So instead of thinking about going viral as hitting the lottery or being struck by lightning, let’s see it as a way to connect our ideas, ourselves, with a wide audience. After doing the research and examining viral articles and their headlines, I learned that at the core of all of them was connectivity.

I’m specifically focusing on the headlines because when an article is shared, usually the title and subtitle are the first words readers see. It’s what makes someone decide whether they’ll click on your story or pass it over. As a first-line, it is the hook to a story.

Use Your Headline To Connect to Your Reader

The definition of going viral isn’t so much about the number of views a story gets. It’s about the number of shares a story gets within a certain time period. Whether that be a quick spike and then nothing or a longer trend. Virality hinges on connectedness.

Even if an article gets 10,000 views, it isn’t considered viral until it has been spread widely. Connecting people across platforms and divides.

That’s why so often in articles about going viral the advice is all about sharing the article. Best practices when it comes to upping your chances of going viral are to share your stories as soon as you can with your social networks, email groups, and asking people to do the same. Some writers even have a team or group of people they rely on to instantly share their stories, upping their chances of going viral.

How do you write something worth sharing, worth connecting with? By breaking down and examining viral headlines and what the authors themselves have said about them, I present a way to think about relational writing, viral marketing, and how to write in the digital age.

Viral Headline #1

“Amazon Accidentally Sent Out Their Email Template: Here’s what you can learn from it” by Aaron Schnoor

Schnoor’s article capitalized off of a trending topic that had not hit Medium yet. Simply put, Medium’s slow to the world. What is going on for the rest of the internet and world takes a while to catch on in the land of Medium. Abena D has also noticed this with her articles that have gone viral. They didn’t happen instantly but took a couple of months before they took off.

Schnoor’s headline and subtitle are what captured people and pulled them in. Delivering on both, kept people reading and made them share the article.

Amazon and email are sorta like death and taxes. One or the other connects a majority of us either negatively or positively. They are the great equalizers. Some writers might think that the ticket to connecting to the most people would be by targeting the most people. That’s wrong, though.

“Instead of attempting to reach a broad audience with a single article, you might find it more beneficial to focus on a specific group of readers.”—Aaron Schnoor

Casting a wide and generalized net doesn’t lend itself to resonating with anyone. And that’s what you want. You want people to resonate so they can connect. Though Schnoor’s title can reach a wide audience, when you look closer, it is actually specific to three types of audiences.

Technology, business, and writing.

When writing your headlines are you asking yourself who they connect to, who they are for, and why this one is unique for them? What will the reader learn from your article? Who will benefit from the article? Write with a reader in mind so that you can connect to that reader, prompting them to want to share the advice or words that touched them.

Viral Headline #2

“Six Habits of Deeply Miserable People: Psychologists say these are the giveaways to watch out for” by Zulie Rane

There are tons of articles out there on how putting a number in your title will up your chances of it getting read. Was that the case here? Rane definitely thinks so. She believes the success of most of her viral articles has to do with that title framework.

Zulie Rane's Successful Title Template:
[Number] [Habits/Traits] of [Intensifying Adverb] [Negative Adjective] [Group Person Noun]

That isn’t the main reason for the success of the article. What is more important is what it tells readers they will learn. It also targets not a particular group of people, but a particular feeling. A feeling of being miserable, conflicted, trapped. Published in 2020, those are all feelings a lot of people no matter where they lived felt.

“I think it struck a chord that resonated with many.” — Zulie Rane

Not only did Rane connect people through shared emotions, but she also added science to back it up, making it an informative and helpful read. People couldn’t not share it.

While doing your title crafting before you write your article, keep in mind the emotions that you’re evoking with the words. Are you coming across as informative, snarky, helpful, mean, humorous? Is the tone in the headline representative of what the readers will experience while reading? Make your readers feel something with your headline and deliver on that feeling throughout the piece.

Viral Headline #3

“How to Find Stocks That Go Up 1,000% Before Everone Else: Get the big gains before word gets out” by Marc Guberti

Unlike the other two articles, this one leans more toward the clickbait end of the title pool. But when you actually dive into the article, it’s well-researched, informative, and in no way clickbaity. Guberti outlines a way to study stocks and analyze them to help investors invest better. Essentially he helps people understand what it takes to invest smartly.

What he accomplished with his title, however, was shocking, angering, and enthralling the reader. Guberti captured them with his headline and then knocked them out with the actual article itself. Filled with yummy stats and data, Guberti targeted his audience and made them feel something before they even started reading the piece.

“Create a strong emotional response.”—Marc Guberti

Guberti like Rane has a huge audience base and a sturdy brand to lean on, so their chances of going viral are way higher than for the average writer. But they still stick to the mindset of connecting to the reader. When you read their articles, it’s like you’re having a private conversation with them. They connect to you the reader and make you want to share that connection with others so they can learn and feel, too.

Don’t Write Viral, Write Connected

At the end of the day, what are you here for? Who do you write to, connect with? The internet, your phones, computers, and TVs can be the way for you to disconnect and use as your own mirror. Or they can be a place for you to foster a deeper bond with the world around you.

Discover what it is that connects you with other people. Dig into the remarkable breathtaking act of being human and showcase it for all to see. Because without connection, what are we but future ghosts?

Aigner Loren Wilson is a queer Black Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer of America, Horror Writer of America, and Codex writer. Her work has appeared in and is forthcoming from WIRED, Anathema, Tordotcom, Fiyah, and more. She is a Hugo Award finalist for her editing and is the author of several speculative fiction books and games. She has also served as guest editor and judge of numerous professional publications and contests.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s