I covered headlines many times already. You can find posts about headlines here. But here are some additional tips.
There are two huge mistakes people make when they write headlines. Either they are too bland and don't say enough (such as when they attempt to simply summarize), or they say too much to cover all the bases.
In both cases, you will lose readers.
1. The True Purpose of The Headline
The headline is more than a mere summary of the sales copy. Unlike the title of a book, for instance, it's not meant to summarize, encapsulate, or introduce the story. And most headlines I've seen seem to list all the of the greatest benefits from the copy.
No. A headline is meant to generate readership and pull people into the copy.
It's the first thing that people see. Just like front-page headlines of a newspaper are meant to sell the paper, the copy's headline is meant to sell people on the copy.
If a headline does not instantly give an indication — i.e., an idea or hint, not the entire story — of not only what the page is all about but also the reasons why people should read further the moment they read it, it will actually deter prospects.
In fact, headlines that do not communicate any benefit in reading the next paragraph, diving into the content, or navigating further into the website will dissuade readers from reading more and, of course, taking action on whatever the copy is asking them to do.
So the true purpose of a headline is not to summarize or advertise the website, the salesletter, or the business behind it. It's simply to get people to read further. That's it.
In advertising parlance, a headline is the “ad for the ad.” For instance, a resume is not meant to land a job but to land an interview. A headline is, in the same way, meant to land the reader's attention and arouse their curiosity — not the sale.
If a headline does not achieve this quickly, efficiently, and effectively, people will simply click away, throw away the salesletter, or skim over it without giving it much thought.
You may have heard of the famous “AIDA Formula,” which stands for, in order: Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. Ads must follow this formula in order to be successful.
They must first capture the reader's attention, then arouse their interest, then increase their desire, and finally lead them to take some kind of action. In that order.
Other than “grabbers” like photos, pictures, graphics, pop-ups, liftnotes, and multimedia, the first part of the formula often refers to the headline.
(Look at direct mail marketing, where liftnotes, envelope copy, and “lumpy mail,” where advertisers and mailers add trinkets to grab people's attention and get them curious.)
But online or off, grabbers provide eye gravity. They are meant to draw the eyes to that most important element: the headline. If the headline does not command enough attention both effectively and, above all, rapidly, then the rest of the formula will fail…
… No matter how great your copy is.
Ultimately, the headline is not meant to do anything other than to create readership. To “grab people by the eyeballs” and pull them into the copy. Period. Enough said.
2. The Gapper
Usually, there is a gap between the prospect's problem and its solution — or a gap between where a person happens to be at the moment and the future enjoyment of a product's benefits. In sales, you've probably heard it being called “gap analysis.”
It works because many prospects either do not know there is in fact a gap or, because it is one, try to ignore it as a result. Therefore, a headline that either communicates the presence of such a gap or implies it can cause people to want to close the gap.
And the obvious way to do this is to read further.
Using a headline that immediately conveys either a problem or a potential benefit not only makes the reader aware that there is a gap but also reinforces it in the mind.
(And this doesn't mean writing all the benefits in the headline to cover all the bases, as in the case of long, needlessly wordy headlines. Those long headlines often backfire.)
Some headlines are newsy, others are sensational. Some make claims, others make statements. Some arouse curiosity, others provoke controversy. Some are intriguing, others are inspiring. Either way, it doesn't matter.
All that matters is that the headline gets the reader to start reading. And if you created, communicated, or, better yet, widened the gap mentioned earlier, then after reading the headline readers will want to know, by browsing further, how they can close that gap.
Widening the gap will not only appeal to those who can immediately relate to it but also cause those people to want to close the gap even more.
Famous sales trainer Zig Ziglar said that people buy on emotional logic. They buy on emotion first but justify their decision with logic. So emotionally-charged headlines help to widen gaps. The wider the gap is, the greater the desire to close it will be.
For instance, rather than saying “Lose 40 Pounds In Just 6 Weeks,” you can say, “Shed 40 Pounds Of Stubborn, Ugly Fat In Just 6 Weeks.” Or, if you prefer a health-conscious angle, say “killer fat,” “unhealthy fat,” “disease-causing fat,” or “life-shortening fat.”
3. The Pain-Pleasure Principle
While your copy should focus on the solution rather than the problem, adding a negative (or a potentially negative) situation to the headline is often more effective because it appeals to stronger, deeper, more dominant emotions and motives.
Granted, this might seem somewhat unusual or contrary to what you have learned in the past. So in order to understand this, let's take a look at how human emotions work.
In the late 1960s, psychologist Abraham Maslow developed the hierarchical theory of human needs. In essence, Maslow stated that the foundation of all human needs is our need to survive. The next one in that hierarchy is our need for safety and security.
After that, it's the need for affection, to be loved, to feel a sense of belonging. Then, the need for attention, or to feel valuable or respected, is next. And finally is our need to outdo ourselves, to get to the next level, to achieve, to be all that we can be, etc.
The important thing is to look at this hierarchy from the bottom up and pay closer attention to the more fundamental human needs, which are survival and safety needs.
Now, another principle is called the “pain-pleasure principle.” It states that people want to either avoid pain or gain pleasure. In anything we do, we want to either move away from pain (i.e., solve a problem) or strive towards pleasure (i.e., gain an advantage).
But when given the choice between the two, which one is stronger? Naturally, the avoidance of pain is the stronger motive, because our need to survive and be safe takes over. The emotions attached to pain are far superior than those attached to pleasure.
So a headline that communicates a problem (i.e., a painful situation they feel right now, or a potentially painful one that could arise without the benefits you offer or without at least reading the copy) will have more emotional impact than a pleasurable one.
It also instantly communicates to those who associate to its message and qualifies them on the spot. Thus, it isolates the serious prospect from the curious visitor.
For example, when I work with plastic surgeons, rather than saying “Do you have wrinkles?” I tell them to use as a headline, “Suffering from wrinkles?” Prospective patients who can instantly relate to the headline will more than likely read the ad further.
They do so for two reasons.
First, the headline appeals to those who have wrinkles. But not all people are bothered by them. That's why the headline also appeals to those who hate wrinkles (i.e., people who have them and also want to do something about them).
Therefore, think of a negative situation that is now present, or one that will occur without your product or service. Even better, one that will happen if they don't read your copy.
Now, sometimes this pain can be implied. The implication can often be a lot stronger than the one specified, because readers can draw up their own negative scenarios in their heads. As a mentor once told me, “Implication is more powerful than specification.”
For example, in a recent headline split-test for a salesletter I wrote that promoted a marriage counseling information product, the headline “Save My Marriage!” won over “Stop My Divorce!” In fact, it won by a huge margin. The conclusion?
My guess is, “Stop My Divorce” is a negative, but it's specific. And the implication is that the product may only stop the divorce but may not necessarily get the relationship back on track and stop the marriage from disintegrating — which is the true problem.
“Save My Marriage!” implies so many things. And the positive benefit is also implied — the marriage (i.e., the love, passion, relationship, happiness, etc) can also be saved. Because not saving those, too, can be labor-intense, painful, and too difficult to bear.
(Another reason may be that in “Stop My Divorce!” the message might indicate that the divorce is imminent. If this was the case, people would probably be more interested in how to win in a divorce rather than stopping it. But I digress.)
4. The Director
Incidentally, the last headline uses another readership-enhancing technique: it starts with a verb. Verbs direct visitors and take them by the hand. Some examples include “claim,” “discover,” “find,” “get,” “read,” “see,” “earn,” “visit,” “surf,” “join,” “sign up,” etc.
But go a step beyond that. Instead of plain verbs, use action words that paint vivid pictures in the mind. The more vivid the picture is, the more compelling the headline will be. (For example, “zoom past the confusion” is better than “get more clarity.”)
Ultimately, don't let visitors guess what they must do or what they will get from reading further. You can also tell them in the headline. Also, you don't need to be direct. You can, in this case as well, imply what they must do.
Say you're selling an accounting software. Rather than “Poor fiscal management leads to financial woes,” say, “Don't let poor fiscal management suck money right from your bottom-line.” People can picture the action of “sucking” more than they do “leading.”
Headlines that communicate something worth reading will cause people to read further. But the important thing to remember is, you only have a few seconds — if not a fraction of one — to connect with you reader. That's why being pithy is vitally important.
Think of an “elevator speech.”
Like with a potential client you've just met in an elevator, you only have a few seconds during that short elevator ride to get their attention, introduce yourself, and make a memorable impact until you or the other person leaves the elevator.
So your elevator speech must be good enough and concise enough to capture, in just a few short moments, the attention and interest of that person. Headlines are no different.
Sometimes, headlines need a little push. Just making a bland statement is not going to get you anywhere. For example, forget those hackneyed introductions, like “Hi, my name is Michel Fortin, and I'm a copywriter. Do you need one?” Boring. Bland. Busted.
Don't just tell them who you are and what you do. Tell them what you can do for them.
But even that may not be enough. You need to compel your readers. You need to not only capture their attention but also keep it. You may need to shock, surprise, be intriguing, pique their curiosity, even be sensational, and not just introduce or inform.
For example, think of the types of headlines you see in tabloid-style newspapers or grocery-line magazines, like The National Enquirer, The Globe, Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, Men's Health, and more. And the reason is simple.
Just like the short elevator ride, the brief wait in the grocery checkout line is all these magazines have to work with to get your attention and get you to buy their publication.
Some of the highest paid writers in the world are front-page headline copyeditors!
For example, which headline is better: “Ancient Mediterranean Diet Boosts Metabolism”? Or a headline, riding on the buzz created by the recent movie “300,” that says “2,000-Year Old Weightloss Diet Used By Ancient Greek Warriors Finally Unearthed”?
5. The Ziegarnik Effect
In 1927, Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist's assistant and one of the early contributors to Gestalt Psychology, discovered something peculiar. Almost by accident. She found that people remember unfinished tasks better than they do finished ones.
After observing waiters who seemed to remember orders and forget them once the food was served, she realized the incomplete task created a certain tension, discomfort, or uneasiness that caused the brain to “hook” onto the unfinished task until it was done.
You see, we have an intrinsic need for closure.
We get a certain feeling of disconcertedness when something is left unfinished. Often called the “Zeigarnik Effect,” we not only remember interrupted tasks best but also the tension tends to create curiosity to an almost excruciating level.
Achieving closure is part relief and part release. When something is left unanswered, unopened, or incomplete, we either passionately attempt to complete or close it, or feel a certain discomfort until it is and often go to great lengths to get it done.
In copywriting particularly, this tension can be created in a headline.
For example, to the headline “How to lose 30 pounds in 6 weeks,” you add “with these 7 tips,” it will push people to read further to find out what the heck those “7 tips” are.
(That's why the headline of one of the world's most lucrative ads, “Do You Makes These Mistakes In English?” worked so well. People wanted to know, “What mistakes?”)
With a headline like “Inside Britney Spears' Divorce Settlement With Kevin Federline,” it doesn't really open up anything. But with “Uncover The Shocking Reason Behind Britney Spears' Divorce,” people want to know, “what secret” or “what's so shocking about it?”
In fact, making some kind of sensational, controversial, or intriguing statement, even though it doesn't open anything up in a direct sense, creates tension because people want to know what it is. (The “gap” mentioned earlier, in this particular case, is implied.)
Take, for instance, some of these other, well-known headlines: “Lies, Lies, Lies.” “The Ugly Truth About Low-Carb Dieting.” Or, “What Doctors Don't Want You To Know.”
(Here's a little test: take a look at these 100 of the most successful headlines, and see how many use the Zeigarnik effect. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.)
6. The Window Shopper
Erroneously, many people often look at their prospects reading their salesletters for the first time as qualified patrons. And they tend to do so by considering their visitors as being “physically” inside the store once they read the front page…
… Particularly with headlines that begin with that familiar word: “welcome.”
(While they may or may not be targeted, they're still not qualified. They may be pre-qualified if they're targeted. But they're only window shoppers at this point.)
Have you ever walked by a retail store whose sign in the main window said “welcome to [store name]”? Not likely. But you've probably seen such a sign upon entering a store.
And there's the problem: In both cases, you had to walk inside the store first before you were greeted or welcomed, and asked to browse further or if you needed any help.
When people read your headline, they're not “inside the store,” yet. They're still outside, window shopping, thinking about whether to go in or not. So there must be something that gets them interested in walking into the store to browse or inquire further.
It could be a variety of things.
It could be the display in the window, an outdoor sign touting some special, a banner announcing a special event, a sales flyer received in the mail, or a friend heralding the benefits from a product she bought at — or some deal she received from — the store.
Salesletters are no different. A headline is like the store's front window or entrance — people are not inside yet. And this is especially true in the case of online salesletters.
Look at the web as one, colossal shopping mall.
When people surf the Internet, they're browsing the mall, so to speak. When they hit your front page, they are only seeing the “outside” of your store. Your store's window.
Think of the people reading your headline as merely “window shopping.” So your headline must be effective and efficient enough to instantly capture their attention, and compel them to enter your store and browse further.
Understandably, a salesperson's ability to instantly capture the attention of her busy and incredibly preoccupied prospect is easier in the physical realm.
Most of all, her enthusiasm for, and belief in, her product are easy to convey in person. Her ability to instill confidence and create trust, as well as her unique set of sales and people skills, product knowledge, personality and expertise, are equally advantageous.
A salesletter is your salesperson in print.
And like a salesperson, a headline must grab the reader's attention and qualify the reader, and it must do so by communicating those ideas (e.g., credibility, intrigue, proof, etc) and emotions that empower people to at least enter the store.
The responsibility therefore rests almost entirely on the words you choose. And words should appeal directly or indirectly to specific motives — whether it's looking for specific products, deals, benefits, events, relief, help, cures, or solutions.
Just like what you'd put in a store's window to draw traffic inside your store.
7. The Specific
One last tip. Vagueness, unless it is intended to create curiosity and readership by pulling people into the copy, will only confuse people. Avoid it like the plague.
So try to be as specific as possible. Use very specific, quantifiable descriptions. For instance, use odd, non-rounded numbers instead of generalizations. Odd, non-rounded numbers are more credible and have pulled more than even or rounded numbers.
That's why, for example, Ivory soap was marketed as being 99 and 44/100% pure. If Ivory said 100%, it would not have been as believable. “Amazing new system helped me earn $3,956.75 in 29 days!” is much more credible than “$4,000 in 1 month!”
This tip may sound simple, but it is indeed very powerful. In fact, I have found that the best claims, benefits, or headlines, are those that have any one of three components:
- They are quantifiable
- They are measurable
- They are time-bound
Any one of these three is better than none at all. But if you can have two or even all three components in your headline, the stronger and more credible the impact will be.
I've covered “quantifiable.” But being measurable means to add a baseline against which the quantity can be compared or contrasted. And being time-bound means there is a specific timeframe within which the quantity (or benefit, problem, or idea) was achieved.
For instance, if I can show you how to make “$784.22,” it may mean nothing. But if I tell you, “How I generated $784.22 in just 5 minutes,” that would be a lot more interesting.
In conclusion, ask yourself: does the opening statement beg for attention? Does it arouse curiosity? Is the language easy to understand by that market? And does it genuinely reflect and cater to the needs, motives, and dominant emotions of my market?
Remember, your headline is your magnet. It can pull people in or push them away.
Michel Fortin is a strategic marketing consultant and certified digital marketing expert who specializes in helping professionals, experts, and skill-based entrepreneurs build their practices or businesses. With his unique combination of copywriting, SEO, and CRO, he can help improve traffic, leads, and revenue for his clients. For the better part of 30 years, he's produced countless wins, generating in excess of $300 million in sales and results that have broken many industry records. He's the author of two top-selling books and often speaks at industry events.