Imagine you opened your preferred social media platform and saw these headlines: 

  • What This Airline Did for Its Passengers Will Make You Tear Up - So Heartwarming
  • Only 1 In 50 People Can Identify These 16 Grammar Mistakes
  • 17 Things Only Moms of Twins Understand

What would be your first reaction? Many non-Boomers' immediate response would probably be to check if your least internet-savvy aunt had gone on a sharing spree lately. There's something about these headlines that just feels out of date. 

Intuition says these headlines are stale, but apparently so does a bucketload of data. BuzzSumo's annual analysis of the year in headlines digs into some 100 million articles to identify top trends in what garners attention online, and what gets ignored. And the headline takeaway in 2021 validates the collective intuition of the very online: The kind of headlines that attract tons of clicks have changed utterly since 2017. 

Emotions, quizzes, and tribal identity are out. 

Before I dig into the findings, it's worth pausing to note that this deep dive into headline trends isn't just of interest to writers like me. BuzzSumo is a content marketing platform, not a communications journal. Its findings apply to anyone looking to attract eyeballs online with punchy copy, be they small business owners writing Facebook ads, YouTube creators titling videos, or writers hoping to stand out from the online noise. 

So if you're looking to get people to click in 2021 (or 2022), what approach should you use? Certainly not any of the most popular tricks from 2017, according to BuzzSumo.  

"Back in 2017, we found that emotional words in headlines drove the most engagement on Facebook" -- including phrases like "tears of joy" and "can't stop laughing" -- but "these kinds of explicitly emotional or sensational headlines were few and far between in our 2019/20 analysis." Quizzes and tribal headlines that played on group identity (like the "moms of twins" example above) were hot in 2017 but are also almost completely absent from the most recent list of best-performing headlines. 

"When you read these headlines now, it feels like a blast from the past," remarks BuzzSumo. "The best headlines have changed almost entirely since 2017. On Facebook, there is 100 percent difference between the top 20 headline phrases in 2017 vs 2019/20."

What changed 

So what changed between then and now to alter what headlines work online so completely? The preferences of both social media algorithms and readers have evolved. 

As of May 2017 Facebook began demoting clickbait-style content like "you won't believe what happened next" headlines and quizzes, with further adjustments to its algorithm in 2018 and 2020. These changes heavily discouraged this kind of clickbait headline, but this wasn't the only factor in their disappearance. 

At the same time millions of people were clicking on these stories and being disappointed by what they found within. Social media algorithms were learning these stories were usually empty and manipulative. But so were humans. Hopefully, marketers have followed suit, but if any are still in doubt about the death of these classic clickbait formulations, BuzzSumo's analysis should underline their ineffectiveness. 

What works now

The almost complete disappearance of 2017's greatest clickbait hits, raises an obvious question. People consume even more content online these days, making marketers and creators desperate to stand out. So what headlines are winning the war for attention now? The rest of the BuzzSumo report answers that question in detail, but here are a few key takeaways (that also, by the way, line up with what other creators have observed): 

  • Successful headlines across platforms have gotten shorter 

  • Numbers in headlines are still highly successful 

  • Certain three-word phrases like "need to know" and "the first time" pack an outsized punch 

  • Rankings, newness, surprise, and actionable insights spur engagement 

  • Love it or hate it, hyperbole still works 

  • Time centric elements in headlines ("this year," "in X seconds") were highly effective 

Looking for more on these trends, as well as nitty-gritty details on the differences in headline performance across particular platforms? Check out BuzzSumo's massive report