How to Write Headlines That Work


Learning how to write headlines is critical. Your headline is the first, and perhaps only, impression you make on a prospective reader.

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Without a headline or post title that turns a browser into a reader, the rest of your words may as well not even exist. But a headline can do more than simply grab attention.

A great headline can also communicate a full message to its intended audience, and it absolutely must lure the reader into your persuasive writing.

This epic guide to headline writing will show you the way …

How do you write headlines?

At its essence, a compelling headline must promise some kind of benefit or reward for the reader, in trade for the valuable time it takes to read more.

In The Copywriter’s Handbook, copywriter Bob Bly sets forth eight time-tested headline categories that compel action and rake in sales.

Let’s take a look at each.

1. Direct headlines

Direct headlines go straight to the heart of the matter, without any attempt at cleverness. Bly gives the example of Pure Silk Blouses – 30 Percent Off as a headline that states the selling proposition directly. A direct blog post title might read Free Ebook: SEO Simplified.

2. Indirect headlines

An Indirect headline takes a more subtle approach when you’re learning how to write headlines. It uses curiosity to raise a question in the reader’s mind, which the body copy answers. Often a double meaning is utilized, which is useful online.

An article might have the headline Fresh Bait Works Best and yet have nothing to do with fishing, because it’s actually about writing timely content that acts as link bait.

3. News headlines

A News headline is pretty self-explanatory, as long as the news itself is actually, well … news. A product announcement, an improved version, or even a content scoop can be the basis of a compelling news headline. Think Introducing Digital Copywriter.

4. How to headlines

The How to headline is everywhere, online and off, for one reason only — it works like a charm. Bly says that “Many advertising writers claim if you begin with the words how to, you can’t write a bad headline.” An example would be, umm … oh yes … the title of this post.

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5. Question headlines

A Question headline must do more than simply ask a question. It must be a question that, according to Bly, the reader can empathize with or would like to see answered. He gives this example from Psychology Today: Do You Close the Bathroom Door Even When You’re the Only One Home? 

6. Command headlines

The Command headline boldly tells the prospect what he needs to do, such as Exxon’s old Put a Tiger in Your Tank campaign. Bly indicates that the first word should be a strong verb demanding action, such as Subscribe to Copyblogger Today!

7. Reasons why headlines

Another effective technique when you’re learning how to write headlines is the Reason why model. Your body text consists of a numbered list of product features or tips, which you then incorporate into the headline. For example, 100 Reasons Why WordPress Beats Squarespace.

It’s not even necessary to include the words “reasons why.” This technique is actually the underlying strategy behind the ubiquitous blogger “list” posts, such as 8 Ways to Build Blog Traffic.

8. Testimonial headlines

Finally, we have the Testimonial headline, which is highly effective because it presents outside proof that you offer great value. This entails taking what someone else has said about you, your product or service, and using their actual words in your headline.

Quotation marks let the reader know that they are reading a testimonial, which will continue in the body copy. A testimonial example from Digital Copywriter: “Ease that lonely feeling, that fear of making a mistake.”

Why you should always write your headline first

If you want to learn how to write headlines and even better content, start with the headline first.

You’ll of course have a basic idea for the subject matter of your blog post or sales copy.

Then, simply take that basic idea and craft a killer headline before you write a single word of the body content. Why?

Your headline is a promise to readers. Its job is to clearly communicate the benefit you’ll deliver to the reader in exchange for their valuable time.

Promises tend to be made before being fulfilled

Writing your content first puts you in the position of having to reverse-engineer your promise. Turn it around the other way and you have the benefit of expressly fulfilling the compelling promise you made with the headline.

This ultimately helps keep your content crisp and well-structured.

Trying to fulfill a promise you haven’t made yet is tough, and often leads to a marginal headline. And a poorly-crafted headline allows good deeds (you know, like your content) to go unnoticed.

Headline writing that gets results

Despite the fact that every copywriter and every journalist knows the power of headlines, many still underestimate their importance.

So, here are some anecdotes, facts, and guidelines.

They’ll help you write even better headlines (and also let you know how much you should focus on them).

The 50/50 rule of headlines

According to some of the best copywriters of all time, you should spend half of the entire time it takes to write a piece of persuasive content on the headline.

So if you have a blog post that is really important to you or your business, one that you really want people to read, you should downright obsess over your post title.

Advertising legend David Ogilvy knew the power of headlines, and how the headline literally determined whether the advertisement would get read. He rewrote this famous headline for an automobile advertisement 104 times:

“At 60 miles an hour, the only thing you hear in the new Rolls Royce is the ticking of the dashboard clock …”

Master copywriter Gene Schwartz often spent an entire week on the first 50 words of a sales piece — the headline and the opening paragraph. Those 50 words are the most important part of any persuasive writing, and writing them well takes time.

Even for the masters.

The 80/20 rule of headlines

Here are some interesting statistics.

On average, 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest. This is the secret to the power of the headline, and why it so highly determines the effectiveness of the entire piece.

The better the headline, the better your odds of beating the averages and getting what you’ve written read by a larger percentage of people.

Writing a great headline doesn’t guarantee the success of your writing. The benefit conveyed in the headline still needs to be properly satisfied in the body copy, either with your content or your offer.

But great body content with a bad or even marginal headline is doomed to go largely unread.

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How to write a headline

Ready for a lesson on how to write headlines?

We looked at the different categories of headlines that work above, and now we’ll look at analytical techniques for producing great headlines.

The copywriting trainers at American Writers & Artists teach The Four U’s approach to writing headlines:

Headlines, subheads, and bullets should:

  1. Be USEFUL to the reader,
  2. Provide him with a sense of URGENCY,
  3. Convey the idea that the main benefit is somehow UNIQUE; and
  4. Do all of the above in an ULTRA-SPECIFIC way.

In a classic issue of Early to Rise, Clayton Makepeace says to ask yourself six questions before you start to write your headline:

  1. Does your headline offer the reader a reward for reading?
  2. What specifics could you add to make your headline more intriguing and believable?
  3. Does your headline trigger a strong, actionable emotion the reader already has about the subject at hand?
  4. Does your headline present a proposition that will instantly get your prospect nodding his or her head?
  5. Could your headline benefit from the inclusion of a proposed transaction?
  6. Could you add an element of intrigue to drive the prospect into your opening copy?

Makepeace’s six questions combined with the basic structure of The Four U’s provide an excellent framework for writing spectacular headlines. And you’ll note that just about any headline that satisfies the framework will fall into one of the eight categories you learned above.

It takes work and focus to learn how to write headlines, but the effort will make you a more effective writer and a more profitable businessperson.

What’s in a killer “how to” article that gets attention?

It’s no secret that “how to” articles and blog posts are some of the most popular content online. People want useful information, and they’ll reward you by promoting it to others when you provide it.

The biggest battle is getting enough people to read in the first place. And that battle is won or lost at the headline.

What’s more, writing a killer “how to” headline will help you write even better “how to” content when you fulfill the headline promise you made to get people to read in the first place.

It’s all about benefits

The crazy thing about the popularity of “how to” content is the fact that people don’t really want to learn how to do anything else.

They’ve got plenty to do already, thank you.

But it’s exactly due to the crazy busy lives we lead that prompts us to seek out tips, tricks, and methods to make things better, easier, and ultimately happier for ourselves. Focusing on the “better, easier, and happier” is the key. It’s crucial to keep it in mind while mastering how to write headlines.

It’s not that people aren’t smart enough to understand the implied benefits of learning how to do something. It’s quite the opposite, actually. It’s just that implied benefits don’t prompt action like express benefits do.

Get through scanning filters

People smartly employ aggressive attention filters when scanning headlines, and you’ll get through the filters of a lot more people if you spell out the benefits rather than relying on implication.

Plus, body content that focuses on benefits as well as procedures is more emotionally engaging, which leaves the reader feeling better satisfied at the conclusion of the piece.

It’s been said that it’s almost impossible to write a bad “how to” headline. That may be true, but what comes after those two magical words can make all the difference in the amount of attention and readership your writing gets.

Let’s take a look at the structure of a few famous “how to” headlines, and see if we can’t figure out why they work. Then, we’ll adapt them to new situations and content.

Double the benefits, double the power

This may be the most famous “how to” headline ever:

How to Win Friends and Influence People

Before Dale Carnegie’s classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People was conventionally published, he sold it by mail order with that same title as the headline of the sales letter. Certainly Carnegie’s content was compelling, but that headline is brilliant all by itself.

The headline structure is powerful. You’ve got benefit number one right after “How to,” with another benefit following the word “and.” Simple, right?

Deceptively so, as copywriter David Garfinkel has pointed out. There is a subtle relationship between the first benefit and the second that suggests if you can achieve the first, you can automatically achieve the second.

In this case, that implication doesn’t make sense — lots of people have friends and yet are completely lacking in influence. But that cause-and-effect relationship still likely helped Carnegie achieve greatness with his home-study course, and later with the ubiquitous book.

It’s much smarter from a credibility standpoint to use this structure when benefit one and benefit two are actually related. Here are a few examples that Garfinkel gives in his book.

  • How to Save Time and Get Things Done (Time Management Coach)
  • How to Get a Better Job and Make More Money (Recruiter)
  • How to Save Money and Retire Rich (Financial Planner)

The dual benefit “how to” structure will always work if you logically link the two together and deliver relevant and substantive tips with your content. Give it a try.

How to [Mundane Task] That [Rewarding Benefit]

This one look familiar? 😉

It’s often harder than you might think to extract the true benefits of learning how to do something. Often, you can simply take a normal “how to” title and make it better simply by using the transition word “that” immediately following the subject matter of the tutorial.

Once you add “that,” just ask yourself what the top benefit of your tutorial is. Then figure out the best way to say it (which usually means being as specific as possible).

  • How to Get a Mortgage That Saves You Money
  • How to Get a Mortgage That Cuts your Monthly Payment in Half
  • How to Get a Mortgage That Gets You in Your Dream Home While Saving You $937 a Month

Leaving out the “to” works, too

Want to increase the curiosity factor of your headline, while just about guaranteeing that you’ll nail the primary benefit of your tutorial?

Start with “How” but leave out the “to.” You’ll still be making a beneficial promise to your reader that will be fulfilled in the content, but the intrigue factor will be higher and your results perhaps even better.

Let’s look at these famous headlines:

  • How I Improved My Memory in One Evening
  • How I Made a Fortune With a “Fool Idea”
  • How a New Kind of Clay Improved My Complexion in 30 Minutes

Those are pretty intriguing headlines, right?

The more you focus on the benefits to the reader when you’re learning how to write headlines, the more readers you’ll have. And by touching on the beneficial aspects while laying out the procedural content, you’ll have more happy readers at the conclusion of the article.

The cheater’s guide to writing headlines

Imagine the creative life of someone who’s learned how to become a freelance writer … a solitary figure staring intently at a computer screen (or out the window), flexing those mental muscles to create a killer headline out of thin air that will result in millions of dollars in sales.

Well, maybe not.

A more likely scenario has the copywriter looking for inspiration in her collection of winning space ads and sales letters. She’ll also consult books that consist of nothing more than collections of headlines proven to work.

Enter: swipe files

These compilations are called swipe files, and they’re worth their weight in gold when it comes to crafting great headlines.

Why?

Because great headlines are constructed in certain time and money-tested ways that can be adapted into different contexts and re-used over and over.

Anytime a promotion rakes in big bucks, you can bet copywriters and direct marketers will be studying, and saving, that headline for future reference.

In fact, swipe files can’t even really be considered cheating or a violation of marketing ethics. It’s just the way it’s done if you want to write effective copy, especially when starting out.

Only once a copywriter has a true understanding of what works can they take a completely original approach. Even then it’s pretty rare to come up with a gangbuster headline that is 100% unique.

You need to understand why certain headlines work

Unfortunately, you’ll still find people selling headline swipe files and even software programs that promise a “fill-in-the-blank” solution based on the “greatest headlines” ever written.

Don’t get suckered by this.

The problem with that approach should be obvious. If you don’t understand why a particular headline works, you’ll never be any good at writing them. Plus, without real understanding, you’ll likely choose the wrong “formula” for any given situation, which can cause even a well-written headline to fail.

But starting with these tested headline formulas can improve your content titles immediately, which in turn should translate into more readership and traffic.

Next we’ll examine keywords and why they’re important in a headline. The answer may not be what you think.

Do keywords in headlines really matter?

The search engine optimization camp says keywords are the most important aspect of a blog post title.

How else will you rank high in the results and get more traffic, they say, if the right keywords are missing from the title?

On the other hand, you’ve got the purist “write for humans” camp, who collectively scoff at the notion of keyword research for headline writing.

What’s the point of search optimized post titles if no one reads (and links) in the first place?

Well, here’s the verdict.

Keywords matter

But not necessarily for the reasons some SEO folks think.

Doing keyword research is a magical thing. It’s a window into the mind of your target audience.

Before search engines, there was no way to know the exact words that a large group of people would use when thinking about a certain topic.

Oh sure, you could ask a small group of people, but anyone who has ever done focus groups will tell you that what people say in front of others is not the same as what they will really do.

So if you’re learning how to write headlines, you should be doing search engine keyword research. Because any great headline should speak in the language of the audience, while wrapped up in a time-tested structure that catches attention and offers value.

But it gets better

Any SEO pro worth listening to will tell you that you don’t go after the most popular keywords. You target the niche phrases. They may result in less traffic individually, but there’s a lot more of them, and less competition.

This is perfect for writing headlines for humans. The niche phrases are much more specific, and specificity makes for a much better headline. Further, better headlines lead to writing better content.

Google and other search engines really do want to reflect what’s important to people. That’s why links and anchor text are primary determinations of relevancy.

Keywords matter for sensible SEO, because when you speak the language of the audience, you attract more readers, more links, and yes … more relevant search traffic. Both camps are right, for different reasons.

Why some people almost always write great headlines

What are some of the characteristics of people who crank out content titles that work really well most of the time? Is it something anyone can learn?

Yes, and except in very rare cases, writing great blog post titles and other headlines can likely only be learned.

Rather than relying on natural talent, people who know how to write headlines have learned to do three basic things:

1. They understand that all compelling headlines make an intriguing promise that makes it almost irresistible to its target audience. Understanding the intended audience is key — a really great headline generally won’t appeal to everyone, and watering it down for mass appeal will only hurt you.

2. They study headlines that have been proven to work, and that usually means direct response advertising headlines. In that context, “proven to work” means people responded to that particular headline by pulling out their wallets and making a purchase. You can also learn by studying some of the top magazine headline writers, and even the tabloids you see at the supermarket checkout lane.

3. Most importantly, rather than simply mimicking great headlines, professional writers understand why the headline works. Therefore they can make an educated decision as to which type of headline structure is most appropriate, and how to tweak it within a certain context.

So, what about this subheading of the post you’re reading right now?

1. Starting any heading with “why” at the beginning of a declarative statement (instead of a question) is one easy way to focus in on the benefit of reading your article. That’s one of the reasons why this method works, but the words that follow the “why” are what’s most important.

You can do the same by starting with “here’s why,” “what,” “when,” or “how.” Or you can simply make a strong statement that clearly demonstrates that the elaborated answer will be provided in the body content. And of course a carefully worded question can magnetically draw in your intended readers as well.

2. This subheading is modeled after this famous advertising headline:

Why Some People Almost Always Make Money in the Stock Market

Within the context of what I wanted to convey with this section, the basic structure of this classic headline works perfectly. Why?

3. Credibility. The use of the word “some,” and having “almost” modify “always,” make the headline much more plausible. Not even the highest paid copywriters in the world always nail a headline that works. And some people never write great post titles, because they don’t take the time to learn how.

Many people feel that a great headline is bombastic and full of hyperbole, but that’s usually not the case. If people don’t believe you can deliver on your promise, they won’t bother reading further, and your over-the-top headline fails.

You’ll gain an advantage over your competition by becoming a true student of great headline writing.

Understanding what type of headline is appropriate to a specific context is the real key to learning how to write headlines that get your content embraced and shared.

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