What were the social media headline trends at the end of 2017, and how can we expect them to change in 2018? 

Earlier this month, we took a look at the average word count of the most viral stories on social media, and found that of the top 100 most engaging pieces in a month, 82 percent were 1,610 words long, or less, and a median word count of 578 words.

But what about the headlines of the most popular stories – are there any findings there that may be useful to publishers, marketers and content creators in posting to social media? And how have social media headlines changed during 2017?

This analysis comes at an interesting time in social publishing. Facebook’s recent well-publicised move to change the composition of the news feed away from ‘professional pages’ and towards interactions from friends could have potentially significant implications for the type of stories that appear in these ‘most engaged’ lists.

A change is certainly expected in the composition of content in the news feed, but to what extent? If Facebook’s intention to remove low-quality content from the feed transpires, it stands to reason that many of the stories that made it into the top 100 list in December won’t appear again. But what type of stories might take their place is less clear. Publishers are already very familiar with the knowledge that the number of hours dedicated to an exclusive story or investigation doesn’t necessarily always correlate with its popularity on social media.

In a recent Twitter thread, Denver Post reporter John Ingold explained the issue that many newsrooms see with their stories.

What is probable is that the new changes will not result in more ‘old-fashioned’ stories or headlines appearing more frequently on Facebook. The new changes are not intended to make Facebook a more grave, or ‘newsy’ environment, but there will still very much be a place for content on the platform. So we’ll probably see less clickbait, perhaps replaced by a content style and format that is yet to emerge. As Adam Moressi, vice-president in charge of the newsfeed, told WIRED last week:

Ultimately, if a publisher posts something that is valuable, that credit should accrue to the publisher and having a more prominent brand would help that happen. And if a publisher shared something on the platform that is upsetting or problematic in some way, they should also be accountable. So we think more effectively helping publishers communicate their brand in news feed is a good thing.

With this in mind, we took a look at how publishers have adapted their headline style for social media in recent times. We looked at stories from December 2017, the most recent full month of data available from NewsWhip Analytics, to see what commonalities the top 100 most shared stories on social media (ranked by total engagements on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest), had in common. The stories included came from a broad range of publishers, from viral-focussed sites like Bored Panda to regional news outlets like the Chicago Tribune. The full list can be seen here.  

Average length 

First, we examined the average length of the headlines. Of the top 100, the shortest title was just two words long, “Generation Screwed” from the Huffington Post. The longest headline came from Bored Panda, at 20 words: “Woman Who Used To Weigh Almost 500lbs Recreates Her Old Photos, And It’s Hard To Believe It’s The Same Person”.

The most common word count range was from 10 to 12 words long. 22 of the top 100 stories fell into this category, with the next most common word count at 12 to 14 words (17 stories), as this histogram shows:
Headline word count of top 100 stories, December 2017
Of course, it’s now possible to try multiple titles. Many publishers are already using A/B testing for their headlines, and using technology like Chartbeat to see what’s resonating best with readers from different channels. If one title isn’t having the expected effect, vary it to try and achieve your metrics.

Numbers and lists, questions and explainers

The list and numbered article has been a staple of social publishing since the early days of BuzzFeed, but how popular is the format now? Looking at the top 100 stories, it seems as though it’s declined in engagement. Just seven of the top 100 stories were old-fashioned ‘listicles’.

Having said that, the most engaged story of the month (“5 Church Signs With Wise Words To Live By”) was a listicle. Now, it’s Bored Panda that rules the listicle roost on Facebook, with lists of photos and scenarios that, as recently as one month ago, were still racking up engagement scores in the hundreds of thousands.
Listicles in Top 100 Most-Shared Stories, December 2017
Interactive quizzes, once also a staple of social publishing, have also receded in visibility, likely largely due to adjustments in the news feed over the years. Meanwhile, a larger proportion of headlines fell into the ‘explainer’ or ‘question’ category. These included stories using variations of the ‘X did Y – Here’s Why’ formula, and styles such as ‘Why You Should Surround Yourself With More Books Than You’ll Ever Have Time to Read’ (Inc.com), as well as more conventional question-led headlines, such as USA Today’s ‘Will Trump’s lows ever hit rock bottom? 


In general, the types of stories that tended to appear in the top 100 most shared list include all manners of stories, with a heavy focus on curiosity gaps (example: “Boy Cries To Be Left Alone By Bullies In Heartbreaking Video, Doesn’t Expect A Reaction Like This”).

It’s not all viral content though. There was plenty of space amongst the top headlines for politics, while TIME’s ‘Person of the Year’ accolade was the fourth most-engaged story of the month as a whole. As a general rule, headlines from news and current affairs publishers skewed much shorter than those of the viral and entertainment sites.

And although it’s too small of a sample to draw any real conclusions from, it’s interesting to note the term with the most mentions in the top 100 headlines in December: ‘Trump’, with ten appearances.
With potential Facebook changes on the way however, this data may serve as an interesting ‘before’ comparison once the new strategy takes effect. However, the advice mentioned on this blog last year on the style of social headlines remains valid:

Imposing very strict headline word or character counts could lead to missed opportunities for sites. It’s better to have a general headline style and tone policy, recommended lengths for different platforms, and then leave it to the various editors to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. 

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