How to Write Subject Lines Like Upworthy – They Work

“This cute video will blow your mind.”

There’s no doubt you’ve seen one of viral media site Upworthy’s headlines, which are typically presumptuous teasers kinda like the one above, come across your screen within the past year or so.

Annoying as they can be, they work.

The site saw a massive traffic spike when they started paying closer attention to headlines and testing them.


The data obviously shows that their traffic has recently taken a hit, but interesting enough this is in line with the rise in popularity of competition like Distractify – who still gets markedly less traffic.

Let’s take a look at why these headline’s work and what you can learn from them for your subject line strategy.

We Hate Them But We Still Click: Social Status and Curiosity

Social Status

Guardian writer Dean Burnett wrote up an interesting analysis of these click-bait headlines, ultimately trying to figure out exactly why we hate them and yet why they are still effective. Here’s what he found:

Upworthy headlines adopt a higher-status compared to that of the reader. They presume to know what your reaction to the content will be. (“This video will shock you!” “When you see this it will BLOW YOUR MIND!”) We humans care a lot about social status, so when someone adopts a higher status to you without justification, we resist. For example, you’ve probably heard someone complain about a co-worker who was promoted because of being a suck up rather than because of actual skills. Most interesting, studies suggest that it’s actually the lowest-status people who react most negatively to someone adopting a higher-status. If you are comfortable with your social status you can brush off attempts to reduce it and won’t feel inferior. But those who already do feel inferior get upset. So, in a way, sharing this content is a way of showing how comfortable you are with your social status.


Psychologists are still…curious…about curiosity. But psychologists have some theories, including George Loewenstein at Carnegie Mellon. What we know so far is that like other human needs, its onset is acutely aversive and its relief, like eating, is satisfying. Loewenstein’s research also outlines five curiosity triggers that alert people to what’s known as the “curiosity gap” – or entices them to find out more.

  • Questions or riddles
  • Unknown resolutions
  • Violated expectations
  • Access to information known by others
  • Reminders of something forgotten

If you look at Upworthy headlines, you’ll notice that each one of them lines up with one of these triggers. You can see why you just can’t help but click!

How They Do It

I did a little bit of digging into their process and here’s what I found.

They write 25 headlines.

Upworthy writes 25 headlines for each piece of content. They do this because thinking of so many variations forces you think outside of the box and come up with strange ideas. This Quora thread includes some key strategies from their process:

  • Tell a story in your headline, but don’t give it all away.
  • If you’ve got some heroes and villains, play them off each other.
  • Keep it clean enough that moms would want to share it. Moms are the fastest growing demographic on social media, so you want to keep them engaged.
  • Talk like a human. People like human conversation.
  • Don’t oversell. (According to them they are trying to tone it down.)
  • Don’t be shrill, judgy, or hostile.

They test 2 different headlines.

Upworthy has a propriety system for doing this, but they actually run an A/B test for two separate headlines at the same time for the first 15 minutes that the content is published and promoted to Facebook. When a winner is discovered, they redirect the “loser” URL to the winner.

What This Means for Your Subject Lines

My one big takeaway is that this boils down to deciding what is a priority for your company and what your company is going to be the best in the world at. Upworthy made headlines a priority because they need clicks on those headlines to generate pageviews and ad revenue. If you are committed to a business model driven by revenue through email, it’s in your interest to view your email subject lines with a similar sense of priority. The time investment is at least worth a shot, as your emails could be be driving more email revenue if it was something you gave more thought to. So with that in mind, it could be worth trying these things:

  • Brainstorm a lot of different versions of your subject lines. Think of ways to spark curiosity in your subscribers without overselling of offending.
  • Test multiple versions of your headlines. Run a subject line test for each email campaign that you send.

These are simple tips, it’s just about taking the time to do them for each campaign.

What do you think of Upworthy’s headlines? Let us know in the comments.


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1 comment

  • I hate upworthy’s annoying bullshit. I don’t click on it – it doesn’t work on me and I also unfriend and hide all of their idiotic content.

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