Adam T. Sutton

Copywriting: How to improve headlines on landing pages and blog posts

Headlines are tricky little devils. Whether you’re writing them for an article or a PPC landing page, they can carry your campaign to glory or bury it forever.

We gathered some theory on writing great headlines from our sister company, MarketingExperiments, and capped it off with five tips from our editors and a useful process for improving results.

Before we get to all that, keep this in mind:

  • The goal of a headline is to seize readers’ attention and convince them to continue

 

Headline Theory

There is no arguing it — people are busy. You need to write a headline that convinces them to ignore distractions and pay attention. When people see a headline, their minds want to know:

“Why should I read this instead of doing one of the other 50 tasks on my list?”

The key question is “what do I get?” A good headline answers this in one word, “value.”

 

4 attributes of value

Picture your ideal customer deciding where to spend his time and energy. He wants something good for his investment. A headline that emphasizes something “valuable” to him gets his attention. He’ll invest a click and continue reading.

Your headline is “selling” your next paragraph and you need to make a good offer (also known as a proposition). Researchers at MECLABS, our parent company, evaluate the power of a value proposition through four attributes. You can use these same attributes to create and evaluate headlines.

  1. Appeal – How attractive is the headline to your ideal customer?

You emphasize the appeal of what you have to offer by showing the benefit it provides, not by listing a product name or summarizing the article.

For example, you might sell something as mundane as wart remover, but even that can be appealing. It can help your ideal customer to “regain confidence” and “stop worrying,” which has more appeal than “remove warts today.”

Relevance is part of appeal. Your headline has to convey information that is relevant to the person reading it. For example, a headline emphasizing a dress shoe would not appeal to a person shopping for basketball shoes.

 

  1. Credibility – How believable is the headline?

If your headline makes an outlandish claim like “Earn $10,000,000 in Your Spare Time,” then people will put their guard up. They will not click the email, continue reading the page, or respond to your offer. They will leave.

Even if you’re making a legitimate claim, if it seems too good to be true, then you should tone it down or support it with a nearby credibility indicator, such as a subhead, seal, or other form of support. If people feel like they can’t trust you (even if they really can), they’ll never convert.

 

  1. Exclusivity – Can anyone else claim to have what is offered in the headline?

Great products and great content offer something unique and valuable. Your headline should show people that you want to give them something that only you can provide.

Here are some words that show exclusivity:

  • Largest, smallest, most efficient

  • Highest-rated, best-rated

  • Safest, strongest

  • Newest, latest, first-ever

If you have something your ideal customer wants, and only you have it, be sure to mention that in the headline. It will get people’s attention and get them interested. Just make sure you can back it up in the rest of your copy, or you’ll run into a problem with point #2 – credibility.

 

  1. Clarity – How easily can the reader understand the headline?

Headlines should not use obscure jargon or be difficult to understand. The topic and the value should jump off the screen.

 

Attention-grabbing Headlines: 5 tips

This is a random grab bag of useful stuff. Some of it is based on rigorous, scientific research from MECLABS. Some if it is based on the experience of our editors. They’re not the Laws of the Universe, just helpful ideas.

 

#1. Front-load

Your headline will have one word or phrase that conveys more value than the others. Try to put this phrase in the beginning. If you can’t, try putting it at the end.

The worst approach, says Dr. Flint McGlaughlin, CEO and Managing Director, MECLABS, is to bury the phrase in the middle. Readers will invest in the first few words. If they don’t find something valuable, then you’ve lost them.

  • Here’s a front-loaded headline:

“Get Paid to Take Online Surveys”

  • Here’s a back-loaded headline:

“Take Online Surveys from Home and Win Cash & Prizes”

  • Here is a buried, point-middle headline:

“We Can Help You Get Paid to Take Online Surveys”

 

#2. Google keyword tool

Google provides a free tool that will accept your keyword and return a list of related words and their search volumes. This can act as a living thesaurus, giving you ideas for different terms, and can reveal the terms people most often use when searching on the topic.

While this can be helpful, it can also be used and abused. Use this only to spark ideas. While SEO is important, you want to write headlines for people, not spiders.

 

#3. Other things to include

  • Recognizable brand names
  • Numbers – such as 10 Reasons, 94% higher return, etc.
  • Power words such as “free” and “how to”

 

#4. Write headlines last

Part of a headline’s job is to summarize the most important information that someone is about to receive. Since it’s hard to summarize something that doesn’t exist, it is often easier to write a headline after you’ve written a draft.

 

­­#5. Remember: you are clever

If you’ve written a blog post or landing page, then welcome aboard, you’re a writer. You are creative and gutsy, which means you have strange ideas and the gall to try them. If a witty turn of phrase just “feels right,” then test it. Just make sure you don’t sacrifice clarity and appeal for showboating.

 

When you’re stuck …

Paul Cheney, Editorial Analyst, MECLABS, wrote a great two-part series on how to evaluate and improve headlines. If you find yourself stuck with a handful of duds, try walking through these steps (check Paul’s blog posts for the details).

 

Identify the problem

  • Step 1. Write a few headlines
  • Step 2. Underline the nouns (they typically convey the value you’re offering)
  • Step 3. Evaluate the value conveyed by each noun. Remember the four attributes:

i. Appeal

ii. Credibility

iii. Exclusivity

iv. Clarity

 

Adjust and improve

  • Step 4. Replace the original nouns
  • Step 5. Evaluate the force of the entire headline
  • Step 6. Consider starting from scratch if you’re not satisfied

 

Related Resources:

Headlines on Deadlines (Part 1): How to consistently write effective headlines without working late

Headlines on Deadlines (Part 2): How to consistently write effective headlines without working late

Headline Optimization: How testing 10 headlines revealed a 3-letter word that improved conversion more than major changes

Optimizing Copy: The 7 most common copywriting mistakes we see marketers make

Copywriting: How your peers write effective copy on short deadlines

Headline Optimization: 2 common headline mistakes and how to make them work

Improve Your Copywriting with Help from Social Media: 7 Tactics from David Meerman Scott 

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Copywriting



  1. April 5th, 2012 at 08:11 | #1

    Thanks for the roundup, Adam. I printed it out posted it on my wall as a cheat sheet. I’ll think of you every time I cheat. ;)

  2. April 5th, 2012 at 11:09 | #2

    Great — I hope you find it helpful. Considering that I stole some of your content for this post, I think we’re setting an excellent moral standard.

  3. April 6th, 2012 at 00:39 | #3

    Excellent post – extrememly detailed and as written above, very useful.

  4. April 6th, 2012 at 12:20 | #4

    Excellent information…it is clear, concise, and easy to follow. Thank you for the outline, I agree with Paul, it is a valuable cheat sheet! Stevie G. Co-Founder/CEO WhoYa

  5. April 15th, 2012 at 15:45 | #5

    Adam, I appreciate this post. As a new blogger, I’ve been learning fast and witnessed the explosive power that can come with good titles. Thanks!

  6. April 16th, 2012 at 01:56 | #6

    Thanks Adam. Really helpful! :)

  7. April 16th, 2012 at 10:17 | #7

    Adam…thanks so much!!!! Like others…I printed it too…very valuable information especially for starters like me.
    Mayra

  8. April 16th, 2012 at 11:03 | #8

    Thanks guys — I hope the piece helps you boost results.

  9. April 16th, 2012 at 14:02 | #9

    This is an excellent post Adam, and I am sharing with a lot of my clients and students.

    You rock.

  10. April 16th, 2012 at 14:30 | #10

    This is very helpful. I’ll be sending copies to my clients who struggle with this issue.

    Thanks so much.

  11. April 17th, 2012 at 02:44 | #11

    Excellent tips to write Killer Headlines. I’ll certainly share this with my peeps :) I especially love your Killer Headline Checklist: appeal, credibility, exclusivity and clarity.

  12. March 13th, 2013 at 03:11 | #12

    I had a good laugh. Thanks for sharing.

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