No matter what you are writing—whether an email, a landing page, a blog post, a social media update, or anything else—the headline is arguably the most important element.
Because it’s the thing that gets seen first. And that means no matter how good the rest of your copy is if the headline is not compelling, no one will read it.
You must get people to read past the headline. No amount of persuasive copy will work if the headline does not capture interest.
A good headline can power your social shares, boost your conversions, engage more blog readers … essentially, it can make all the difference to your marketing materials.
So how do you go about writing a good one? Here’s a guide to help you out.
The Simple Formula to Start Your Headline
Copywriters agonize over headlines. They sometimes spend more time on the headline than the rest of the ad, email, or landing page together.
But there is a very simple formula to get started.
Simply think about the major benefit that you are providing. That will be different depending on the type of copy you are writing.
For an ad, it will be the major benefit of the product or service. For a blog post, the major benefit provided by the information within.
Now write: “How to …” and write in your benefit afterward.
e.g. “How to … Make a Living in 1 Hour a Week” or “How to … Win More Clients in 10 Simple Steps.”
Yes, it’s the classic “how-to” headline.
You may not want a how-to headline. That’s fine. But what you’ll find is that it makes a great starting point.
Sometimes, you may find that this is the best headline you can come up with. If so, that’s the job done.
But most of the time, you can use this as your “getting started” headline. This is usually the best option because you’ll often find that your best headline is the twentieth one you write.
The reason we focus on a benefit to start with is because you want to appeal to the self-interest of your readers. That’s what people care about: Themselves. In fact, if you can get a killer benefit into your headline in some form, you’re most of the way there.
The other element I would recommend is curiosity. Get some curiosity into the headline, something that intrigues the reader to continue reading, and you are really onto something.
So there you have it: A benefit and curiosity. Keep those in mind, and you can’t go too far wrong.
But this is just the start. Headlines are so difficult in some respects because there are so many possibilities for how to craft the perfect one.
Let’s look at a few of the major types of headlines to give you some inspiration.
11 Effective Headline Types
This list is by no means definitive, but you can go a long way by using one of these types of headlines. (I wouldn’t say they are formulas, more just models you can use to base your own headline on.)
1. The How-To Headline
We’ve already looked at this classic headline, so let’s get it out the way first. This headline is popular because it works. You are promising useful information, and everyone wants to know how to do something that will help them improve their lives in some way. As long as you really are providing readers with that information, this is a great choice.
2. The Question
Asking a question—especially a provocative question—is a great way to use curiosity to get more interest in your copy. By asking a question and implying that the answer lies within, you can encourage people to read further. They get an itch that they have to scratch.
3. The Problem
If you highlight a problem that people have, you can once again imply that the solution lies within. This could literally be something as simple as “Tired?” to advertise a new solution to increasing your energy levels. Define the problem succinctly, and people with that problem are hooked.
4. The List
You see these every day (“10 Ways to Write a Headline”), and they work. People like lists. A list promises succinct and easy-to-absorb information that will help in some way. We just love being able to condense things down into a simple list format, so if you can nail this, it can work well.
5. The Successful Outcome
If you can promise a successful outcome in your head, you’re well on your way to a great headline. Think of the format “Now you can get …” or “You really can have …” They’ve been used countless times, but they work.
People love news. Just think how much time we spend browsing news websites when we are supposed to be working! Start your headline with “New,” “Announcing,” “Introducing,” or anything else that implies something newsworthy, and you’ve got the makings of a good headline.
7. Something for Free
Free things still get attention because everyone loves a freebie. If you have something for free, highlight this right in your headline. It could be a special offer or a free report, especially in a landing page or an ad. Let people know that there is no cost to them, and suddenly there is no risk in them looking a bit further.
8. The Insider Secret
Everyone loves getting access to insider knowledge, so if you can convey this in your headline, you could be onto a winner.
“The secret to getting …” or “Little known ways …” work well because people want to know inside knowledge. It also implies that other people know about this already, which is powerful social proof.
9. The Testimonial
Speaking of social proof, you could go ahead and simply use a testimonial as your headline. If you can find the perfect testimonial, there may be no way to beat it in your own words.
10. The Current Event
When writing content, connecting it with a current event can be a great way to get more attention. It won’t be evergreen content, but it could take advantage of a trending topic to get more views for the next few weeks or months.
11. The Famous Person or Thing
Linking your headline to a famous person or thing is a technique that can work well, especially when you link two seemingly unrelated things.
You know the sort of thing: “10 Things Star Wars Teaches Us About Great Headlines.”
This immediately stands out and makes the target curious. How the hell can they be related? Better read on to find out …
General Rules for Better Headlines
Those are some ideas to get you started with your headline. However, whichever type of headline format you choose, there are some guidelines to stick to. Here are some of the most important:
- Be as specific as you can. We see these ads all the time (e.g. “How 1,735 People Got Rich in One Week”), and they use specific figures to make them more believable. A rounded-up number is vague and doesn’t stand out, but if you use a specific number, you instantly become more credible.
- Qualify your targets. This is useful for things like AdWords ads where you don’t want the wrong people clicking your ads and costing you money. For example, “Web design for $2,000” instantly deters people looking for a $50 site.
- Hint at saving time where it fits in. Time is a precious commodity for us all, so if you can fit in that your solution is quick, easy, hassle-free, etc, this can be a powerful draw.
- Use a command. State something like “Try this today” and tell the target what to do. People like being given clear, direct instructions to follow.
- Keep it simple and direct. Don’t try and be cryptic or smart. Avoid gimmicks. Just get to the point and capture attention immediately.
- Focus on the benefit. I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s so important. If you can turn your main benefit into a headline, this will instantly qualify the target and generate interest.
A Quick Word About Landing Pages
A landing page is not a single sales tool but part of a sales funnel. Visitors will usually be directed to the page from a PPC ad or an email, and continuity is important.
Make sure the headline of the landing page is either the same or very similar to the headline of the ad or email CTA. This message match provides a sense of continuity and lets the target know that they are in the right place.
What About Keywords?
Keywords matter in your headlines, especially for blogs and social media content. Ideally, you want to get your keyword into your headline—the best position is right at the front.
However … that doesn’t mean it should always go in. If it weakens the headline, it doesn’t belong there. If it will prevent people clicking on the article, it doesn’t belong there.
If the keyword is crucial to the headline, keep it in mind right from the start rather than trying to cram it in at the end. If it’s not crucial, you could just leave it out.
Great Resources for Headlines
There are lots of great resources for headlines that will provide you with more ideas and inspiration than you could ever rightly need.
Firstly, bookmark the Copyhackers guide to headline formulas. This is an absolutely awesome resource that contains quite possibly every headline formula ever written along with examples. Download it, keep it, and use it as a reference.
You can also find plenty of copywriting books with detailed sections on headlines. “The Copywriter’s Handbook” by Robert Bly is a classic, “Tested Advertising Methods” by John Caples is another great book, but it’s more focused on advertising, and “Cashvertising” by Drew Eric Whitman has some good headline ideas.
And of course, there are lots and lots of blogs and information articles online that will provide you with some great ideas. Check out:
- Headline Writing 101: How to Write Attention Grabbing Headlines that Convert
- How to Write Better Headlines [Infographic]
- 55 Easy Ways To Write A Headline That Will Reach Your Readers
- 10 tips for writing effective headlines for the web
The best thing you can do is get into the habit of collecting great headlines that you come across. Whenever you see one that stands out to you, make a note of it. Clip it to a notebook on Evernote and create your own swipe file that you can refer to over and over again.
Headlines are tough, and they can be tricky things to get right. But a good headline can make all the difference to your copy, making them well worth the effort.