BuzzFeed is a joke.

Ridiculed far and wide.

But the savviest copywriters know that’s far from the truth.

They know BuzzFeed writers are alchemists. Able to make something out of nothing.

They possess an exceptional ability to use mystery, shock, intrigue and humor to get you to click… even when you know exactly what’s in store. The content might be rubbish, but the headlines are pure gold.

Here are 30 BuzzFeed headline tricks to emulate, broken down into categories.

Contents

Infographic: Steal these 5 BuzzFeed headline formulas to un-suck your own.

The Ultimate Newsjack: Newsjacking is a classic technique, ‘piggybacking’ on popular topics to get more attention. It’s effective because it works.

The Hot Topic: The Hot Topic is any racy subject like race, politics, sex, and religion used to cut through the noise.

The Cliffhanger: They tease you, but stop just short of finishing to leave you wanting more.

The Zen Master: Zen headlines compare where you are now, with where you want to be, promising a simple, pain-free way to get there.

The Inside Joke: ONLY your audience will understand (and appreciate) ‘inside joke’ headlines. They evoke empathy and goodwill.

 

Infographic: Steal these 5 BuzzFeed Headline Formulas to Un-Suck Your Own

BuzzFeed is a joke.

But their headlines get you to click by blending mystery, shock, intrigue and humor.

Here are 5 of their proven formulas you can start using immediately.

BuzzFeed headline tips

The Ultimate Newsjack

Newsjacking is a classic content technique to ‘borrow’ topics that are trending in the public eye to give your piece more attention, clout, or momentum.

It’s effective because it works. But Buzzstream, in all their hyperbolic glory, takes this to the extreme.

Here’s how.

1. “Donald Trump Secretly Told the New York Times What He Really Thinks About Immigration”

Yeah. That Donald.

What more could be said that John Oliver hasn’t already?

The key to newsjacking is through piggybacking on another’s infamy, attention, or credibility. Here, BuzzFeed expertly incorporates three (3 – count them!) for the price of one, with Donald Trump, the New York Times, and Immigration.

Those key phrases (SEO pun!) are also wrapped in innuendo with ‘secretly’ and ‘what he really thinks’, implying that there’s more to the story you’re not privy to (but should be).

One down, and already BuzzFeed’s proving their mettle.

2. “This Guy Re-Edited a Magazine Cover to Show Apparent Whitewashing on Black Actors”

Whitewashing has been under fire recently as tone-deaf movie studios continue this inane practice. Again, John Oliver comes to the rescue.

In response, BuzzFeed expertly picks up on any pop culture topic (you’ll see why a little later), capitalizing on the momentary attention to shine a spotlight of how this trend is affecting other media mediums. This phrasing in this headline reads almost like it’s an investigative piece, complete with a subhead quote that promises to show you the truth.

Telling someone about a ‘shocking truth’ in a headline is effective. But if you can somehow show them by illustrating it with an example, as BuzzFeed does here, you can take it to another level with extra credibility.

OK, that was heavy. How about a little levity?

3. “Kim Kardashian Has Shared the First Photo of Saint West”

Ah, Kim. The very definition of a media idiot savant. A topic for another day.

Here, BuzzFeed kicks off with Piggybacking on her celebrity. Incorporating famous brands and celebrities, especially ones that fall directly in line with your audience, are a can’t-fail proposition.

Next, they use the word, “First”, which implies novelty (and we humans love new stuff). It also alludes and hints at something unseen (that the audience should desperately want to see).

Simple and direct headlines work well when the story and angle are strong enough to stand on their own.

4. “A Casual Reminder That There’s an Instagram Account of Cats with Trump Toupees”

Our minds have a certain worldview of expectations when reading stories online or just browsing around. That’s why pattern interruptions work so well. They cut through the clutter of messages we see online.

Their momentarily confusing juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated elements stick out like a sore thumb (in a good way). And that unexpected surprise does just enough to stop our endless scanning, and focus for long enough to click.

Case in point: Trump, Toupees, Cats, and Instagram. Not exactly the ‘casual reminder’ you’d expect while browsing Facebook.

5. “Supermodel Cheryl Tiegs Says It’s Unheatly to Have a Size-16 Model On the Cover of ‘Sports Illustrated'”

Oh no she didn’t!

While most of the media is praising Sports Illustrated and Ashley Graham, BuzzFeed finds the one idiot who’s publicly going against the grain. Jackpot.

Controversy sells. And it’s a goldmine for pageviews and social sharing.

With the first word, “Supermodel”, BuzzFeed is framing this headline as the ‘established insiders’ against the up-and-comers. Their specificity with ‘Size-16’ means this person (or established elite) is not just against a single model, but ALL who’re of a certain size.

6. “Plus-Size Model Ashley Graham Had The Best Response to Cheryl Tiegs Calling Her Unhealthy”

When you have a hit story or topic, you should keep going back to the well with new facts, stats, or anecdotes.

BuzzFeed continues ‘the fight’ by exposing you to the other side of the story. The headline references the first story (but gives you enough detail that it can stand on it’s own), while also keeping the same frame by starting with ‘plus sized model’ vs. ‘ex-supermodel’.

You’ll notice that they’re incorporating a ‘cliffhanger’ technique where they give you a hint but refrain from actually telling you what she said. BuzzFeed excels at this style, so we’ll dive deeper into this technique in another section below).

The Hot Topic

A close cousin of newsjacking, the Hot Topic might capitalize on a trending topic, but otherwise tend to be more timeless.

Think race, politics, sex, religion. Basically, anything that’s sure to offend someone, somewhere. (Which isn’t difficult in today’s overly-obsessed, PC media environment.)

Here are a few examples of how to use these taboo topics to your advantage.

7. “A Black Man Wore Different Kinds of Clothing to See if People Treated Him Differently”

Question: What’s more divisive than America’s embarrassing racism?

Answer: Nothing.

(Well maybe the gays. But we’ll get to them in a minute.)

That’s not lost on BuzzFeed, who manages the delicate balancing act of both (a) exposing and playing on this controversial topic while still (b) avoiding backlash over inappropriate examples.

This headline walks that line by putting the focus on an individual and letting his story ring true. But framing it in such a way that you immediately understand where it’s going. They’re leading you to the answer, but subtle enough to let you find the answer yourself.

8. “This Photo of Two Dads Meeting Their Baby is Being Used in an Anti-Gay Campaign”

Question: What’s more embarrassing than America’s homophobia?

Answer: Only that little racism thing.

Bigotry is tough to tackle. But again BuzzFeed does it by sticking to the facts. ‘Two dads meeting their baby’ implies a sweet scene where two individuals – regardless of sexual orientation – come together to do something amazing. The accompanying photo perfectly supports this.

But then the touching moment is shattered as ‘Murica comes back into the picture, exposing a despicable anti-gay agenda. The headline uses one small example to tell a much bigger story.

In that way, good headlines are no different than good marketing. You can’t effectively promote a shitty product. Just like you can’t write a good headline without a good story or example to illustrate.

9. “Man At Trump Rally Yells ‘Go Back to Africa'”

Make no mistake: this is a complex headline.

Yes, it’s short. But there’s a lot of moving parts. They perfectly weave two hot topics together with an example as evidence (instead of exposition which declares – and underperforms stories by 2:1).

A textbook example of concision, where the sum is much greater than the parts.

The Cliffhanger

BuzzFeed is King of the Cliffhanger.

Their most effective headlines tease you just enough to stroke your interest, but stop just short of finishing to leave you wanting more.

Sure, many look and sound preposterous. But they’re among the most powerful and best-performing weapons in your arsenal.

If you take only one thing from this article, it’s this: write more cliffhangers.

Here’s how.

10. “These Couples Challenged Themselves To Have Sex Everyday For A Month And It Wasn’t As Fun As You’d Think”

That escalated quickly, didn’t it?!

Three keys to this one:

  1. “These Couples”: Not someone, or anyone, but these people specifically you can learn more about if you click on this headline.
  2. “Challenged Themselves to Have Sex Everyday for a Month”: Bold claim that everyone can relate to. An inspiring, noble challenge even!
  3. “It Wasn’t As Fun As You’d Think”: Most people would logically assume that having sex every day would be fun. Tiring. But fun. Apparently not, according to this anecdote. Unexpectedness keeps people reading.

11. “This Incredible Bridal Shoot is Changing Perceptions Of People With Down Syndrome”

Again, unexpected topics are brought together for pattern interruption. And again, it starts with “this” to reinforce specificity. Any old bridal shoot, with any old group of people, is boring and old news. Not here.

12. “I Went Undercover As A Hot Girl And Stole All Of Their Secrets”

Let’s be honest for a second: I would LOVE to be a hot girl. It seems like the ideal lifestyle, because I’m great at tanning at the beach all day, and drinking all night.

This headline is kinda like ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’, in that it appeals to your fantasies and aspirations. It promises to show how to become more desirable based on a real, unfiltered account. And that’s critical because someone’s personal experience becomes more credible and ultimately interesting than the alternative headline of just listing out ‘hot girl secrets’.

13. “Sex In The Movies Vs. In Real Life”

One of the best ways to use a cliffhanger is to compare and contrast. Especially when someone or something (as advertised) doesn’t meet expectations (in reality).

It also doesn’t hurt when you incorporate a ‘hot topic’ at the same time.

14. “Makeup On Instagram Vs. Makeup in Real Life”

A new twist, but same template and same result. Exposing when perceptions or expectations don’t always align with reality.

15. “Things Nobody Tells You About Long Distance Relationships”

Most brands are great at emphasizing the positives their products and services delivered. The percentage increase. The flowery adjectives.

But negative messaging can be even more powerful, especially as a purchasing event draws near.

In headlines, negative messaging is usually found in one of two forms:

  1. Internal Mistakes: Typically implied as mistakes or simple oversights that might come back to haunt you.
  2. Exerternal Threats: Protecting yourself to avoid impending doom caused by some external factor.

Here, tackles an already difficult topic and implies an internal mistake (‘things nobody tells you’) for maximum effect.

One way to make this headline even more powerful?

Add a number.

16. “This Stunning Birth Photo Capture Something That Occurs In Less Than 1 in 80,000 Births”

A lazy headline would use the word: ‘rare’.

But the first key to effective headlines is specificity. 1 in 80,000 is more powerful and more believable.

A ‘photo’ or visual examples lend additional proof or credibility while ‘stunning’ and ‘capture’ imply an unexpected surprise you have to see to believe.

17. “A Student Left A Tampon In For 9 Days And She Ended Up In Hospital”

Geez. How do you follow that up?

Specificity shows up in a big way. ‘Student’, ‘tampon’, ‘9 days’, and ‘hospital’ is pretty much all you need to say. It’s newsworthy and entertaining.

And it closely mimics Jeff Goins’ formula for writing catchy headlines: Trigger Word + Adjective + Keyword + Promise

The Zen Master

Life is hard. Messy and complex. Exhausting at times.

Everyone feels this way. Your customers are no different, regardless of size, race, gender or age. So be their sherpa.

‘Zen’-style headlines tend to focus on providing solutions to problems and pain points. They compare where you are now, with where you want to be, and promises a simple, pain-free way to get there.

That means instant results, hacks, tips, shortcuts, cheat sheets, and of course – listicles, in order to provide instant gratification.

Here’s how BuzzFeed does it.

18. “15 Mind-Blowing Breakfasts Guaranteed To Make You A Morning Person”

The full effect of these headlines sometimes needs a little context (which you’ll discover in the last section below).

But suffice to say, the typical BuzzFeed reader is not a morning person. Most people aren’t. Because it sucks.

However many would like to be and that’s the key. (Also, an internal rhyme.)

So what better way to solve this undesirable quality than a few simple, delicious ways to kick-start the morning?

Great adjectives don’t hurt, either. Don’t leave a noun without one.

19. “21 Mouthwatering Ways To Use Kale”

If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that kale tastes awful. In anything. No matter what you do to it.

Not so for these 21 recipes though (#CantStopWontStopRhyming). And therein lies the power of this headline.

The adjective is literally the perfect one to incorporate pattern interruption because at first glance nobody would place ‘mouthwatering’ and ‘kale’ in the same sentence together.

20. “19 Cheat Sheets to Help You Work Out Like a Pro”

How about another just for good measure?

‘Cheat sheets’ or ‘hacks’ are the perfect way to add more emphasis than ‘tips’. ‘Working out’ for most is an undesirable thing. But simply reading this article can transform your life, getting you from here to there.

21. “13 Life-Changing Products for Picky Eaters”

Now you’ve probably noticed the pattern.

  • # + [Perfect Adjective] + [Noun/Keyphrase Solution] + [To/For/Like] + [Fix Your Undesireable Thing]

22. “Find Your Next Great Book With The BuzzFeed Books Newsletter”

BuzzFeed fans read?! And they’re not coloring books?! I was surprised too.

But the best thing about this headline is that it actually fits in appropriately with all of their other content (even though it’s a CTA).

How? By focusing on the pain point first, then the CTA. Not the other way around.

Go look at your main landing pages now, and see if you follow this order. Chances are they’re in the wrong order, leading with ‘Sign Up’, or ‘Get’, or ‘Call’. Problem/benefit first, then your widget.

23. “Master This Whole Parenting Thing With The BuzzFeed Newsletter”

Despite being the same headline formula as the last, this one is arguably better. Largely because the topic is stronger (see #8 above).

Parenting, while desirable, is incredibly difficult and challenging. It’s kinda like a Rubix cube, in that it’s unsolvable too. (#SoManyRyhmez.)

But in any event, mastering parenting is more difficult than finding your next book. The need and value proposition is more visceral (as most parents can attest).

Your headline can use all the tricks in the world. But ultimately the one with the value proposition that elicits the most primal response will perform best.

24. “Here’s Exactly How To Meal Prep For Lunch This Week”

Q: Why is ‘Murica so damn fat?

A: Mainly because they eat too much.

Q: What’s the most effective method to stop eating so much?

A: Meal prep.

Q: If meal prep is the best way, why don’t more people do it?

A: It takes a lot of time and knowledge to know what to eat and how to prepare it.

Q: Why don’t we give this to people?

A: Great idea.

Q: But ‘meal prep’ isn’t sexy… how do we make it appealing?

A: Get specific.

Q: How?

A: By incorporating the lessons learned here so far.

‘Here’s exactly’ ‘how to meal prep’ ‘for lunch this week’ = [Promise Simplicity] + [Undesireable/Difficult Thing] + [Painlessly Get Benefit]

The Inside Joke

Knowing your audience, is vastly different than understanding them. Most companies grasp the basics, like their demographics.

But stop short on understanding what does (or doesn’t) motivate them to take action.

And these are the critical things that get them to purchase, sign up, even just read your blog post.

Not surprisingly, BuzzFeed knows exactly who their audience is, and why they’re reading BuzzFeed. Reading some of these headlines so far have driven home that point, that they know exactly who they are and why people come there.

But they take this to another level with the numerous ‘inside jokes’ that ONLY their audience would understand (and appreciate). These tend to be very meta and self-aware. And they work especially well with insular communities of people (like oh, I dunno, tech startups, and inbound marketers).

Here are a few examples.

25. “I Made My Dad Explain Why He Likes Donald Trump”

Yes, they’re newsjacking Trump (or should I say, Drumpf).

But they’re doing it by tapping into something else… crazy parents. Most people (especially in this group of readers) think their parents are slightly crazy and old school. From another generation with backward ideologies.

Remember it’s us versus them. The very definition of an inside joke is that it purposefully excludes others.

26. “23 Photos That Show The True Horrors Of What It’s Like To Have A Period”

One thing we can all agree on is that there are certain topics we don’t need visuals to understand. Periods are one of those.

That’s the joke here, an unexpected surprise that again – incorporates pattern interruption. It’s also a grandiose claim that pulls you in by cutting through the rest of the noise you’re browsing through (that is if you’re not afraid to look).

(As an aside, that was also the inspiration for the headline of this article. Yes, periods inspired this article headline you’re reading right now.)

27. “24 Struggles People Who Aren’t Dancers Won’t Understand”

The easiest way to establish us vs. them is to say it directly. This template is perfect because it (a) empathizes with their core readers while also (b) distancing themselves from those unlucky enough to be like them. It’s like rallying the troops around a common enemy. People like to fit in.

It also draws on a classic copywriting hook that says ‘it’s not your fault‘. It’s theirs. And it’s the simplest way to ingratiate yourself with readers.

28. “14 Things All Kuman Kids Will Remember”

People who don’t know what Kuman is won’t get this. And that’s the point.

BuzzFeed is trying to appeal to someone specific. Appealing to everyone is problematic, and almost always disastrous. Almost.

The ‘Kuman Kids’ and ‘remember’ also invokes nostalgia or an idealization of the past. Back to when things were fun. And easy. And simple. (The same primary benefit from the last ‘zen’ section.)

29. “Tyra Banks Is Embarassed By Old Throwback Photos Just Like The Rest Of Us”

By now you’ve probably guessed that females make up the majority of BuzzFeed readers. We can also surmise how tech savvy they are by the ‘throwback photo’ reference here (you know that whole #tbt thing). Jargon, in this case, works perfectly.

Think aaaaallllllll the way back to newsjacking and piggybacking for a second. The celebrities or brands you pick can all be inside jokes if they’re niche or meta.

For example, Kelly Kapowski.

30. “13 TV Stars from the ’90s You Probably Had a Crush On”

It’s all here. The listicle. The nostalgia. The meta references.

If you grew up in the 90’s and had a pulse, this article’s for you.

Conclusion

BuzzFeed’s content is the subject of ridicule. And rightfully so.

But their headlines are a different story entirely.

They’re bold, clever, incisive, entertaining, specific, nostalgic, and meta.

And most of all, effective.

Over two million posts published each day. And yet BuzzFeed cuts through the noise, racking up pageviews and social shares that would make ANY media entity jealous.

And it’s not because of their content.

But their headlines.

Brad Smith

Founder of Codeless. Frequent contributor to Kissmetrics, Unbounce, HubSpot, Moz, Search Engine Journal, BounceX, WordStream, AdEspresso, and more.