How do you not only tell a great story, but sell a great story? We look at the best tactics for headlines from July’s top stories on Facebook. 

This past weekend, Chrissy Teigen told the story of a snail’s slow travels across a wooden deck.
Bear with us.

The story was documented on Instagram Stories and was viewed by 3 million people, all invested in the snail’s journey. In today’s noisy landscape, you need to understand formatting and packaging your content in a way that both stands out compared to other content, and delivers what it’s promised.

Last week, we looked at the top publishers on Facebook for July 2018. This week, we’re digging into why they’re successful. What did publishers get right about news reporting and storytelling last month?

We used NewsWhip Analytics to take a look. (Check out our Fall 2018 Content Creation guide for all of our latest data-driven tips and tricks). 

The top headlines on social media 

When we looked at the top engaging stories of July 2018 on Facebook, we noticed a couple trends around the top performing headlines of established sites.

Headlines top Facebook
The top headlines were descriptive, but they also invoked either an emotional response or a sense of urgency. The top stories from the Daily Mail speak to the idea of the underdog character, and invoke a sense of outrage. The stories from LGBTQ Nation, the New York Times, and BBC, are much more timely and immediate.

Some stories were weird or eclectic — you could envision them popping out at you while scrolling through a news feed. For example, one of the top reoccurring stories was about rhino poachers being eaten by lions.

rhino poachers eaten by lions bbc
Even without some kind of “extraordinary” factor, you can still appeal to social readers. Focusing on the most interesting angle, quote, or fact of a story can catch readers’ attention.

When creating your content, thinking of a compelling headline can make or break your article’s distribution potential. Here are a few other tactics that stood out for us about the top headlines. 

How long are top headlines? 

There was an average of 11 words per headline in the top 100 articles of July.

The shortest was “Thai cave mission paused overnight,” from BBC News, at five words.

The longest was 26 words: “92-year-old Mexican man beaten with a brick, told to ‘go back to your own country’ by a pack of attackers — WARNING: GRAPHIC VIDEO – NY Daily News“.
When we looked at leading publishers, we saw a notable difference in the length of their headlines.

Word length July
As above, BBC News had the shortest headlines, on average. Business Insider had the longest, at an average of 17 words per headline. Across these publishers, the average was 11 words per headline. That’s the same as for the top 100 articles overall.

That said, these headlines might differ between what appears for distribution and what appears on the article itself. Aiming for maximum distribution. For example, the top article of the month, from the Daily Mail, appears as “McDonald’s worker body-slams customer who threw a milkshake over her”.
However, on the site itself, it’s much longer.

Daily Mail July Top Story
This version on the page gives more context to the story and entices viewers to keep reading with a compelling quote. Most publishers aim to optimize their headlines for distribution, so keep that in mind when creating variations.

What makes a good headline?

So far we’ve seen that succinct, but descriptive headlines perform well on social. We decided to dig a little further.

It was hard to qualify the stories with a specific emotion since it’s fairly open to interpretation. However, we associated 37 percent of the top 100 articles as being associated with negative feelings — anger, fear, outrage, shock. We associated 49 percent as being positive — uplifting, relieving, or funny.

A final 14 percent could be construed either way, depending on the audience. The way that these publishers are achieving an emotional response in the headlines is three-fold:

  1. Strong action verbs
  2. Emotionally-charged or provocative statements
  3. Breaking news topics that already have readers invested or would incite a kneejerk reaction

Approximately 57 percent of the top 100 headlines were about significant breaking news or related to ongoing stories. A few stories that appeared multiple times in the top 100 articles were about: the Thai cave boys, the poachers eaten by lions, and a grieving orca whale carrying her calf’s body.

Out of the 100 top headlines, 20 percent mentioned Trump.

Politically-charged stories that appeared multiple times were: Trump’s Hollywood star being vandalized, Scott Pruitt’s resignation from the EPA, the Trump “baby balloon” in the U.K., and a 92-year-old man being beaten with a brick and told to go back to Mexico. 

Which publishers have mastered headlines? 

Across the top 100 stories, BBC and CNN both accounted for nine of the top stories each. UNILAD followed at eight headlines, and the Daily Mail and Fox News (including local properties) accounted for six each.

What can we discern from their headline strategies?

  1. BBC and CNN tended to be very straightforward and matter-of-fact, letting the story inform and carry itself
  2. Daily Mail and Fox News tended to be a bit bolder in word choice, using stronger verbs
  3. UNILAD’s headlines were a mix of the two tactics. The top headlines were straightforward but focused on bizarre or unique angles, that often carried an emotion in their own way

We also wanted to highlight how prevalent both niche and local publishers were within the top stories. Approximately 44 percent of the top 100 came from traditional news outlets.

About 18 percent came from those with niche focuses or niche audiences, and 12 percent from viral publishers. Six percent came from “news magazine” sites like the Atlantic and 7 percent came from local publishers.

This story from Alabama Local drove 650k engagements on Facebook.

Four came from junk/fake news sources, two from hyperpartisan, and two from other sources.

Crafting the right headline can have a major impact, leading to a publisher dominating a significant share of a story’s reach. We’ve compared this before, but it’s worth understanding how important that headline is for reaching and spreading across audiences.  

You won’t believe this SHOCKING fact about clickbait

It’s worth mentioning that both clickbait and fake news were quite pervasive in our analysis.

We filtered out low-quality clickbait sites for our detailed analysis above, but leaving them in, we saw that 30 of the top 100 English-language stories were from those sources. By low quality, we mean that the articles were hosted on domains that were little more than out-of-the-box website templates. The articles were often poorly written, with many errors.

The headlines tend to be shocking, fearmongering, or otherwise provocative.

It’s easy to see how someone might get bamboozled by headlines like “Let kid use mobile phone in the car at the gas station, the whole family exploded in horror” or “Pay attention and keep your eyes on your baby or you can lose him within only one minute“, and share to their friends to warn them.
In the top 100, three stories were outright fake news, from the site YourNewswire, which we’ve analyzed on this blog before.  

Understand your top headlines

So how can you get started understanding where your strongest headlines are?

It’s worth analyzing a few things: your own headlines, your competitors’ headlines, the headlines that are working with your target audience or topic, and the best practices overall. Headlines can differ further, as you may choose to hone in on certain metrics.

As we saw in July’s publisher rankings, some stories drive a considerable amount of comments. Sites like the LAD bible and UNILAD, saw more than double the number of comments over shares.

LAD Bible comments July Facebook
So, how do the most commented or most shared headlines differ? We’ve previously compared the most liked, most shared, and most commented stories of the month.

Getting laser-focused about your headlines and what’s driving each type of audience behavior is paramount to success.

The Economist Facebook Comments
To do this in an easy and effective way, take a demo of NewsWhip Spike now.

Gabriele Boland

Gabriele Boland is manager of content strategy and comms at NewsWhip. Endlessly fascinated by the evolving digital space, she researches the latest trends in marketing and social media. She has been featured on Huffington Post, Anderson Cooper 360, CNN Money, and Mashable.
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