Creating Useful and Persuasive Headlines

When creating content for the web, many copywriters tend to underestimate the importance of creating outstanding headlines. Even seasoned writers have the habit of focusing too much on what needs to be written in the body of the article that they sometimes forget just how powerful a brilliant headline can be.

Indeed, great headlines compel your audiences to engage with your content. It encourages them to read the first sentences of your article, and if your first words are as compelling as your headline, then your readers may just be persuaded to read your article in its entirety.

This idea is encapsulated in Robert W. Bly’s book The Copywriter’s Handbook, in which he enumerates the four main functions of a headline. According to Bly, every headline should do the following: win the readers’ attention, target their main audience, deliver a complete message, and finally, attract the reader into reading the article body.

All of these are simply iterations of concepts that have already been articulated in the past by the forefathers of advertising and public relations. For instance, in his seminal article How to Create Advertising That Sells, celebrated copywriter David Ogilvy said that “five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.”

david-ogilvy

It follows that, if you have a hundred dollars of advertising money and you don’t sell the product or service in your headline, you have already wasted 80 dollars of that advertising money.

Another renowned copywriter, Eugene Schwartz, is said to have routinely obsessed about the words he used to open his sales advertisements with. Copyblogger author Brian Clark noted, “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 first words are very important, and it pays to take note that even master writers turn the dial up to eleven when writing them just to make sure that they are excellent.

However, this whole idea about headlines and the opening sentences of an article being important is not just a random, nebulous suggestion of advertising pioneers. Over the years, various studies have provided comprehensive empirical proof of the power of headlines. One of our favorites is this eyetracking study conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group, which provides noteworthy insights regarding the behavior of people reading web content, as well as how important the first words of an article are.

nng-study

The image above shows heatmap visualizations of the eyetracking studies conducted on three webpages, namely an “about us” section of a corporate website (left), a product page of an e-commerce site (center), and a search engine results page (right).

These samples from the scan patterns of more than 200 people reveal that the dominant reading pattern among users of web-content resembles an “F” shape. The implications of this findings are clear and show the significance of creating headlines and opening sentences that are well-written, compelling, and information rich.

The researchers discovered that the headline and the first two paragraphs are the most read portions of a webpage. They stressed the importance of including information-carrying words in subheads, paragraphs, and bullet points. This is because users don’t always read the text thoroughly, especially if they are still performing an initial research about the products to choose from or service providers to go to.

The elements of a compelling headline

So how do you take advantage of web readers’ natural affinity with headlines? Entrepreneur and business coach Michael Masterson developed a formula for writing compelling headlines and articles, something which writers can use as an invaluable tool when creating copy that is intended to persuade or sell a product or a service. This formula is used widely in the copywriting and publishing industries and recognized by respected organizations like the American Writers and Artists Inc.

According to Masterson, headlines should have the following qualities in order to be compelling:

  • Usefulness – Headlines should provide readers with something of value.
  • Urgency – Headlines should make the reader desire the product or service’s benefits right now, not later.
  • Uniqueness – Headlines should make the readers feel that something about the product or service is different. Their distinctive qualities should be highlighted.
  • Ultraspecificity – In general, headlines should not be vague. They should be as precise as possible.

Crafting headlines that work

In this section, we enumerate several tips you can follow to create useful and convincing headlines.

1. Keep everything simple – Don’t burden your headline with fancy or highfalutin words and phrases that not a lot of people will understand. People are not going to stop and take a step back to decipher the words they don’t get.

In the words of Ogilvy, “Your headline should telegraph what you want to say – in simple language.” William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, writing in their influential classic writer’s bible The Elements of Style, also implore readers to “omit needless words.” In other words, make your headline conversational, and watch your readers nod their heads in agreement.

Compare:

  • “Five Score Years Later, the War-Ravaged Metropolis Rises Once More”
  • “100 Years Later, the War-Ravaged Metropolis Rises Once More”

2. Be specific – A clear, specific headline is an unencumbered headline. If you are tempted to create a headline that is vague, just think about all those clickbait articles with intentionally ambiguous and sensationalist headlines. To say the least, they are inaccurate and annoying. On the other hand, specific headlines with concrete facts are interesting because they help people create accurate pictures in their mind.

Compare:

  • “You’ll Never Believe What Happened Next”
  • “This Girl Used Dove Soap for 10 Days. You’ll Never Believe What Happened Next.”

An exception to the rule favoring specificity is when you want an indirect headline to be a teaser of some sort. Such creative executions more or less warrant the use of less-than-clear headlines.  This brings us to the next point.

3. Both the direct and the indirect approach work – Indirect headlines are clever in that they appeal to the curiosity of the readers, and we all know how powerful a motivator curiosity can be. Such headlines pose questions in people’s minds, compelling them to read the text body in order to have those questions answered.

On the other hand, direct headlines attempt to discuss the subject matter in a straightforward manner.

best-foods

The advertisement above features an indirect headline. It compares the wholesome ingredients of Best Foods sandwich spread to the nourishing words of a love letter. As such, eating the sandwich becomes akin to reading a love note. Better, perhaps, than simply and directly saying that Best Foods sandwich spread is delicious.

4. Introduce a benefit – It can help if you introduce in your headline what the product or service promises to make. You can mention the benefit and juxtapose it with the problem that you want to address.

Example:

  • “How to Enjoy a Gourmet Meal at Half the Cost of a Dinner in a Posh Resto”

In the preceding example, the problem (being able to eat a gourmet meal that is usually costly) is presented with the benefit (being able to enjoy that gourmet meal at half the cost of an expensive restaurant meal). By beginning the headline with “how to,” you send a signal to your readers that you intend to address their problem. This brings us to the next point.

5. Provide useful information – Quoting Robert W. Bly, Brian Clark wrote in Copyblogger: “Many advertising writers claim if you begin with the words ‘how to,’ you can’t write a bad headline.” Of course, it still boils down to how excellently you can solve the issue which is in the mind of your readers — the problem for which they came to your website to address.

In general, however, the “how to” type of headlines work like a charm because they promise to provide important and useful information. Articles “showing the way” and the “reason why” are in the same vein. Typically, they consist of a numbered list of tips or they enumerate the qualities of a product or service, which the author highlights in the article headline.

Examples:

  • “How to Create a Star Wars-themed Party for Your Child”
  • “10 Reasons Why Breaking Bad Rocks”
  • “5 Awesome Ways to Hold a Game-of-Thrones Weekend”

6. Ask a question – Writing headlines as questions is a great way to engage your readers because you have an opportunity to pose a query with which they can empathize. You can hope that your readers will be compelled enough to want to know the answer, so much so that they’ll read the whole text as a result.

de-beers

The above example, an advertisement by De Beers jewelers, is targeted to men, who are asked a question that prompts them to equate the feeling of receiving a big boys’ toys (a construction tool) to how a woman will feel when she receives a diamond ring. Giving gifts to a loved one is such a universal gesture that many men can surely empathize with the question.

7. Evoke newsworthiness – According to David Ogilvy, “The consumer is always on the lookout for new products or new improvements in an old product, or new ways to use an old product.” In other words, your headline must have news value, even if it is just informative advertising. Your headline must suggest to your readers that the product or service they are reading about is something they haven’t seen before.

rolls-royce

The advertisement above is arguably Rolls Royce’s most well-known and most enduring print ad ever. Penned by Ogilvy himself, the copy skillfully combines practicality and romanticism, putting the brand at the top of people’s minds when they think of top-quality, smooth-driving, and luxuriously silent vehicles.

8. Create a sense of urgency – You probably know from your own experience that if you don’t feel like reading an article now, you’re not going to be reading it later either. How many times have you bookmarked pages or saved them to a reading list only to decide later on that it’s too much of a bother to go back to your ever-growing list of must-reads. Many of those saved articles will probably never see daylight again. That said, your headline should be really interesting that your readers cannot help but read your article right now, not later.

Now, creating a sense of urgency is probably much easier for topics that trigger a strong emotional response among people — subjects relating to family, health, and career are just some of these. Nevertheless, there are plenty of ways you can tickle the curiosity of your readers. For instance, adding an element that implies risk or reward can serve as a motivation for readers to continue reading beyond the headline.

Example:

  • “Is Your Home Harboring a Silent Killer?”

9. Localize, localize, localize – This can’t be stressed strongly enough, especially if it is content written for the web. Localizing your headlines by including the name of the city or location where most of your target market is based will make those headlines more optimized for web searches.

One more way to localize your headlines is by writing them in such a way that they will appeal to the indigenous interests of your readers. At the very least, you should be using words that are appropriately contextualized.

In David Ogilvy’s words: “When you advertise your product which is consumed by a special group, it pays to flag that group in your headline — mothers, bedwetters, or going to Europe?” You name it.

Examples:

  • “Now on Blu-ray: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  • “Now on Blu-ray: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

In the examples above, the movie title that makes a reference to the “Sorcerer’s Stone” is something you would write for American audiences, while the one with “Philosopher’s Stone” in it is for British readers. The fantasy film was released in the U.S. and the U.K. with those titles respectively.

10. Short and long headlines both work – The answer to oft-asked question of whether one should choose a short or a long headline is not really set in stone. Depending on the context and the desired effect, both can actually work.

Typically, shorter headlines (8 to 10 words) are desirable if you aim for your headline to have better recall value. On the other hand, longer headlines (10 or more words) are better if your copy is for retail purposes and is aimed at selling something. “The more you tell, the more you sell” is a motto you can rely on for sales copies.

levis

The advertisement above from jeans manufacturer Levi’s Go Forth campaign features a brief, easily remembered tagline/headline that pays homage to the original builders of the American nation: not men in suits but low-paid workers who labored in denim pants.

11. Create headlines that command – Don’t be afraid to create commanding headlines that boldy tell your readers what they should do.

esso

In the 1960s, Esso/ExxonMobil’s “Put a Tiger in Your Tank” campaign successfully engaged with its target market by telling them exactly what they should do. The cute tiger mascot helped, of course.

12. Include a testimonial – Testimonials are highly effective because they present external validation of the value of your product or service. It simply entails incorporating something good that people have said about your product, service, or brand into your headline.

peta

The above advertisement featuring Paul McCartney’s support for vegetarianism is seen by many as a more effective means for communicating PETA’s ideals, as opposed to the organization’s more controversial campaigns.

13. Incorporate humor – Lastly, including a bit of good-natured humor into your headline can’t do any harm. Remember, the internet can be a boring, humdrum place, so it is your job to find ways to add more pizazz to your copy in order to make it stand out from the rest of the competition.

new-york-post

This headline from the New York Post shows how witty headlines can sometimes turn into a timeless classics.

References:
  • Copyblogger.com’s Copywriting 101 by Brian Clark
  • How to Create Advertising That Sells by David Ogilvy
  • The Copywriter’s Handbook by Robert W. Bly
  • F-Shaped Pattern for Reading Web Content by The Nielsen Norman Group
  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White