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With the growing number of digital publishers, there are more channels and content competing for your audience’s attention. A great headline is arguably the most effective way to break through the noise, but what’s in a headline that compels readers to clickread, and share?

We decided to take a fresh approach to looking at what’s low-performing to see if we could uncover patterns that should be avoided (i.e., the specific words that earn low shares, etc.). BuzzStream partnered with Fractl and turned to a publisher that dominates in social shares: BuzzFeed. Using BuzzSumo, we pulled all the English-language headlines from April 2014 to April 2015 and their corresponding social shares.

We analyzed the data to determine variances in where the articles were shared as well as unique patterns of speech. Here are three best practices that will help you optimize your headline’s ability to earn shares:

1. Make sure your content is easily shared on multiple social networks, especially Pinterest.

There’s no denying the power of Facebook and its role in high social shares: It earned nearly 5 million shares for all the combined headlines we examined. Without the social network, eight of the 10 lowest-performing headlines earned more than 90 percent fewer shares. However, an effective outreach strategy shouldn’t rely on one social network. So where can you earn additional shares? After eliminating Facebook, Pinterest emerged as the new powerhouse.

When we compared all headlines with a minimum of 10 records, X Disney and X Charts earned more than 4,000 shares through Pinterest while All The earned upward of 10,000 shares through the social platform – nearly 975 percent more than some of the highest Twitter shares.

 2. Avoid presenting your headline as a question.

It’s easy to understand why writers use questions as headlines: They promise readers that they will find the answer if they read the article. However, our research indicates that readers prefer to know some sort of answer before they read your content.

After comparing all the question headlines to the top 15 most shared headlines, our results revealed that questions earned 24,951 shares per article while non-question headlines earned 83,475 – nearly 110 percent increase.

Moreover, Are You was one of the worst-performing headlines of the entire data set and showed up on nearly every low-performing list we created. It ranked third for the fewest shares, earning slightly more than 14,000 shares per article. Further analysis revealed the following:

  • Are You earned only one share per article on LinkedIn.
  • The headline was one of the 10 lowest-performing headlines for three social networks – Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn.
  • Without Facebook, it became the second lowest-performing headline of the data set, earning only 365 shares per article.

3. Use general terms instead of specifics (i.e., “holiday” instead of “Christmas”) to optimize shares.

Some of our more interesting insights came when we looked at patterns in speech. When we looked at the top five three-word combinations for the 10 lowest-performing headlines along with the most popular two-word clusters, our results indicated readers have a preference for more general terms over specifics. More specifically:

  • Mentions of particular holidays – including Christmas and Valentine’s Day – were frequently found in low-performing, three-word combinations for X GIFs and X Gifts.
  • Nearly 40 percent of the most frequent two-word clusters were specifically answering questions.
  • Although the Internet (and particularly BuzzFeed) can seem full of cats and celebrities, Cats Who and Taylor Swift were two of the most frequently used two-word clusters in headlines that earned low shares.

The biggest takeaway from our research? Headlines matter: The 10 lowest-performing headlines earned 415 percent fewer shares than the 10 highest-performing. Our research indicates that readers have a preference, so remember to avoid these worst practices if you want to create a headline that will have a significant impact on social traction.

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