7 psychological triggers used in Viral Nova headlines

What I learned had me in the fetal position… crying. 

Yes, that headline was a bit OTT (over the top), but then, so aren’t many Viral Nova headlines? Don’t get me wrong I enjoy reading their headlines, but I’m sure you’d agree many of them are a bit… excessive. Excessive or not (they are), there are some important copywriting tactics they use which are valuable and worth considering when writing your own sales copy headlines.ViralNova1

If you haven’t heard of Viral Nova it’s a news curation site which scours the web for amazing, interesting, weird, inspiring, and fear-inducing stories for their readers each day. You may have noticed friends on Facebook who have liked and shared weird stories from Viral Nova (or similar sites like BuzzFeed or Upworthy).

Viral Nova has received a lot of media attention recently for being one of the top sites for traffic which is run by just the founder, Scott DeLong, and a few contractors. The following he has built for Viral Nova, and the income he generates from the site, are both very impressive. While many have been quick to judge Viral Nova, I think it’s useful to take a look at the site and see what the rest of us can learn from it from a copywriting perspective.

In The AdWeek Copywriting Handbook Joseph Sugarman talks about psychological triggers which can be effective to use in your sales copy. I remember reading that section of his book and realizing I had seen many of those psychological triggers used on Viral Nova.

For our collective learning opportunity, I’ve summarized 7 psychological triggers which are consistently used in Viral Nova’s headlines…

1) Fear

Fear can be an amazing motive for action. Fear can drive us to act in ways we never imagined, both good and bad. It wasn’t difficult to find fear-based headlines on Viral Nova:

This Guy Has Terrorizing Sleep Paralysis. What He Did About That Is Deeply Haunting.

2) Human Relationships

News stories focusing on human relationships resonate with us because we can relate to them in some way, we can imagine those feelings, and it’s easy to feel empathy for the people involved. Viral Nova knows many people are touched by stories about children:

It Took A 6 Year Old Boy To Remind Me What True Friendship Is. This Is Amazing.

3) Curiosity

Arguably every headline that Viral Nova uses arouses curiosity in their readers, and is the driving force behind the viral nature of their stories. Most of their headlines are so well written to stir curiosity that you feel compelled to read on. Also great are the little hooks at the end of their headlines – ‘you may think one thing… but really it’s the opposite…’. Here’s a great example:

Here Are 20 Unbelievable Places You Would Swear Aren’t Real… But They Are.

4) Exclusivity, Rarity or Uniqueness

Human psychology has shown that the more exclusive, rare or unique something is, the more we want it. Exclusivity, rarity and uniqueness can apply to many things – including information. Here’s an example which draws in readers with a headline promising to share unique information:

It Might Look Like A Leaf But It’s Not… It Happens To Be Ridiculously Adorable. Aww.

5) Hope

Hope enables us to forego the instant gratification of a solution delivered immediately. Viral Nova will sometimes start a headline suggesting the information to be shared will be negative, but then provide hope that there will be a happy ending to the story.

This Father Was Given 5 Years To Live. What He Did For His Young Daughter Is Beyond Words.

 6)  Guilt

When we feel our actions have had a direct or indirect impact on a negative situation it can lead to feelings of guilt. For example, you may feel that no matter how much you do to help the environment, you still feel guilt knowing you could do more. Here’s a story that tapped into that very feeling of guilt:

What Was Found In The Stomach Of These Dead Baby Birds Made Me Feel Ashamed. Terrible.

7) Storytelling

We can relate to the feelings communicated through stories, easily imagining being in the shoes of the story’s characters. Stories draw us in, capture our interest and help us bond with the storyteller. If you’ve ever loved (and I’m sure you all have!) you could certainly imagine how a story like this would make you feel:

This Series Of Facebook Statuses Brought Tears To My Eyes. It’s An Unforgettably Tragic Love Story.

Final thoughts

There you have it, 7 psychological triggers commonly used in Viral Nova headlines. So, what can we learn from all this? Are Viral Nova’s headlines relevant for people learning to write sales copy? Absolutely. Viral Nova sells (figuratively speaking) its headlines and ultimately its stories to a curious audience of readers, who in turn buy (again, figuratively speaking) stories if it interests them in some way. Examining how Viral Nova writes compelling headlines which draw you provides a great opportunity to learn from a site which demonstrates the power of good copywriting.

Now over to you – feel free to leave a comment below. I’d love to hear what you think – does Viral Nova provide good examples of copywriting for us to learn from?

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About The Author

Eric Moeller

Eric Moeller is the Managing Director of Copy Dojo, an agency which helps startups improve their sales copywriting to rapidly grow their business. He has two decades of experience in high tech marketing and product management. Eric has an MBA in marketing, and completed Seth Godin's altMBA in the summer of 2015.

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