The Emotion-Bait Headline Formula That Generates Millions of Web Visitors

Clickbait is dead. Long live Emotion bait.

That's right. If you want to get traction on social media and supercharge your blog posts and sales pages, nothing beats tapping into raw emotion.

And in this copywriting example, we are going to do a deep dive on emotion-bait.

You will learn what it is, how to use it and the emotion-bait headline formula behind million-dollar blogs.

Ready. Let's dive in.

What is Emotion-bait?

Clickbait was one of the most powerful tools on social media.

You know the type of content "7 Disgusting Things Celebs Do To Lose Weight (you will be in shock at number 5)" or this image below is a great example.

This type of headline was crushing it a few years ago on social media until they virtually banned it.

Yes, the mighty book of faces and other platforms decided to reduce/ kill the organic reach of clickbait content.

The result was that those online publishers needed to switch up a gear.

And Emotion-bait was born.

Emotion bait is content which has a headline that changes the emotional change in the reader.

But don't worry, we will break it down even further next.

Stories Change Us

I am not going to turn this into a science lesson, but we all know the power of stories.

And scientists have proven that stories change our brain chemistry. So, it makes sense that social media should be a place where stories are in abundance.

From your friends cute baby pictures to the latest article on politicians abusing their power.

Content that triggers our emotions and tells a story tends to get more likes, comments and shares.

Take this article by the website 'Tiny Buddha'.

According to Ahrefs, it gained over 757,000 Facebook engagements.

And for a good reason. It picks a subject that people argue about all the time, the overuse of phones.

So, anyone that has just told their partner or child off for always being on their phone has now got some social currency to validate their views.

OK, so let's break down some great uses of emotion-bait and see what we can learn.

The Powerful Headlines And Openings That Fuel Emotional Copy

When I first started to study emotion-bait, I realised that it was not only dangerous but also highly addictive.

Dangerous, because it can change views and mental states.

Addictive, because social media will serve up more of what you engage with.

So, please use what you will learn in this article responsibly.

OK, now that is out of the way.

Great emotion bait delivers on 3 key areas.

step 1
  • A great headline that hints at a subject that will engage your emotions.
  • step 2
  • A great opening that reinforces the headline.
  • step 3
  • Content that actually delivers that change of emotion and drives a chemical change in your body.
  • Let's take this headline from the website 'Little Things'.

    With over 1.4 Million Facebook engagements, the article is mostly a few words and a video that either the site just embedded or got the rights to.

    So, let's break it down.


    The headline uses a couple of cool mechanisms.

    "Couple Is Finding Unwanted Dogs Loving Homes And The Emotional Adoptions Make It All Worth It".

    Firstly it identifies who the story is about by using the words 'Couple'.

    Next up it tells you what they are doing "Finding unwanted dogs loving homes''.

    While this in itself is super powerful, they add even more reason for you to click with the payoff "The emotional adoptions make it all worth it".

    So you can break that format down as:

    Subject + Action + Payoff

    With the click gained, you need to make sure people stay on the page and read on.

    To do this, they use a great opening line:

    This sentence hypes up the drama with what could be an old fashioned clickbait headline itself. 

    They tell you that you might need to grab some tissues.

    And they hit a home run with the next line:

    "In 2011, Tracy Whyatt followed her passion for saving the lives of unloved dogs."

    The crucial part of that sentence is 'saving the lives of unloved dogs'. 

    Why? Because any dog owner is going to want to watch unloved dogs become happy again. 

    And that is what this is really all about, the content has to match up with the promise of the headline.

    I examined over 1000 of the headlines by Little Things, and I discovered something very interesting.

    For search engines, they tend to use this shorter headline formula:

    Subject + Action

    So, for example, this article uses the shortened headline formula:

    Yet the actual article uses the full formula of Subject + Action + Payoff.

    This shortened formula is for Google and the more extended method for social media. This is all to do with character length.

    A Word About Payoffs

    Almost all great articles have a payoff, and we have an upcoming article entirely based on this subject.

    A pay off is a reward or takeaway from the content.

    With emotion-bait, when people put a payoff in the headline, it isn't directly giving you something to takeaway. It eludes to the fact that there is a payoff coming.

    Take this example:

    The subjects are Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. The action he is taking is addressing rumours they are dating.

    The payoff here is that they could be dating again, 14 years after breaking up.

    This opens up a curiosity loop that the reader needs to close.

    'Are they back together?'. 'What is Brad going to say?'

    The reader needs these questions answering.

    And you can apply this to all kinds of content, like this:

    "10 Facts About Baby Owls You Never Knew Before"

    This simple title has the subject (baby owls). The action taken is that someone has collected 10 facts about these lovely creatures.

    And the pay off is learning something that you never knew before (and others are likely not to know).

    Does Every Big Website Use Emotion-bait?

    The answer to that is no.

    Not every site needs to use emotion bait to gain clicks.

    Many have substantial social media audiences, organic traffic via SEO and massive email lists.

    And news organisations use a range of other headline formulas.

    But many websites and media outlets use the headline formula I have described above to gain traffic and social shares from social media.

    Take this article by Goalcast (a website that does over 500,000 visits a month via organic traffic alone).

    This article also uses the emotion bait headline I have shown you.

    • The subject: Two friends.
    • Action taken: they save an old man form a deadly fire.
    • Payoff: You will get to see them climb a building and rescue him.

    Or take this example from BuzzFeed.

    • The Subject: Millenials.
    • Action taken: They grew up.
    • Payoff: You are going to take a trip down memory lane.


    So, there you have it.

    The emotion-bait headline formula that drives millions of views, clicks and comments.

    But remember the content matters the most, no one is going to share a disappointing article or video that fails to live up the hype.

    Did you enjoy this post? 

    Comment below to let me know.

    And if you enjoyed this content, please give it a share and join our thunder buddies email list where you can receive more examples like this each week.

    Thanks for reading. 



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  • Hi Andrew, I’ve written my book finally, self published it and although I’m very happy with it I think it needs a few tweaks, title and blurb etc.
    I’ve published it as two books in one but I’m also considering a complete re-write to incorporate both books as one manuscript.
    I think its an important book because it changes a globally accepted understanding of a specific subject ie speed cameras. I think it could change how governments view and deal with road safety, not just in the UK but dare I say it, globally which is why forcme thatcits essential to get it right.
    I’m now increasingly looking more towards marketing and I could use your expert advice.
    Interesting article which has which just shows how up to date you have to be and emphasises how much there is about marketing to understand.

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