How To Write A Killer Headline

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  • Updated: Jun 05, 2015
Headline Writing Guide

According to CopyBlogger, 8 out of 10 people will read your headline. After that, only 2 out of the 10 will actually read the rest of your copy.

For such a simple statistic, it really captures why a killer headline is absolutely crucial to the readability and success of your written projects. The major copywriters say that each piece of copy has only one real job: to move the prospect through to the next stage. The goal is to get the reader to keep going, to read your next sentence.

While this is true of your headline, the stakes are also higher. The reader will evaluate whether to even try to dive into your piece based on the headline. So, without further ado, let’s make a study of what the greatest copywriters from Gary Bencivenga and Gary Halbert to Yanik Silver and John Carlton say about headlines.

We’ll also give you insights and strategies you can use to improve your headlines today.

Start with the headline

One of the key recommendations you’ll see time and again is to start with your headline first. When you sit down to write that report or draft your next blog post, you’ll have a general idea of what you want to write about. For example, if you’re a copywriter for hire and you want to show the power of a professional sales letter in improving sales for a specific market like dry cleaners, you’ll have an idea of the copy that you want to cover.

But what do you need to convey in the report? The important part is to show the benefit to the dry cleaner of reading the piece. Therefore, if you start with the benefit in mind, you’re not only likely to capture their attention but you’re also likely to write a great, value-filled piece.

Include a benefit

If you start with the benefits in mind, sometimes the benefit itself can make a great headline. For example, Learn How to Use Craigslist to Effortlessly Attract Three New Customers a Day to Your Dry Cleaning Business. The promise in this headline is clear. Not only do I know as the reader what I’m going to learn, but I immediately have a sense of the benefits: easier and more customer acquisitions. Another way to look at benefits is to be very explicit about what problem you’re solving and position the headline around the solution to that problem. Is your prospect’s most pressing problem an embarrassing health issue like a wart? A headline that says very simply New Product Has You Wart Free in 24 Hours will capture the person’s attention right away.

Look for an enticing hook

Copywriter John Carlton is best known for his slightly unorthodox style. They don’t call him the marketing rebel for nothing. There’s a classic story about how he wrote one of the most successful sales letters in golf history with a headline that said:

Amazing Secret Discovered By One-Legged Golfer Adds 50 Yards To Your Drives, Eliminates Hooks and Slices… And Can Slash Up To 10 Strokes From Your Game Almost Overnight!

The reason that this headline is so captivating is that it found the hook. It took an unusual aspect or something that was likely to stand out from the crowd and put it front and center in the piece. Which leads us to the next thing.

Find the story

List Type Headlines

This is actually a key piece of knowledge to share in copywriting in general.

In order to be successful, you need to find the story. The key piece of information that makes it interesting, that puts a human face on the situation, that makes it stand out from the competition. Sometimes, it’s something that was totally overlooked by others in the industry. The Schlitz beer example is a familiar tale about how the brand describes its hygiene measures (which were actually mandated by law and used by every brewery) to rocket to a top brand in a competitive market.

So find the story in your product, and that may provide you with the basis for your headline.

Appeal to self-interest

Copywriting is simply 24 hour written salesmanship. A successful salesman rarely leads with something like “I am excited to inform you that your commission on my overpriced product is paying for my trip to Aruba.” Instead, the mattress salesman leads with how life changes after you get a good night’s sleep, your back pain goes away, and your well-rested partner is now feeling frisky. The car saleswoman gets you to buy the overpriced SUV because it takes care of the daily logistics issues of hauling around your dogs and kids, but its sexy enough to make you the envy of your neighbors. And, oh by the way, your husband will love your frugality once he sees the excellent gas mileage. Figure out what motivates your prospect and appeal directly to their self-interest in your headline.

Find the emotional note

Research has shown consistently that people buy from an emotional trigger, not an intellectual one.

People’s emotional motivations aren’t that complex; they correlate roughly to the seven deadly sins. Do they want to work less, but make more money? Be attractive to the opposite sex? Be the envy of their friends and family? Any of these can be incorporated as a “big idea” in the headline in order to capture people’s attention and start their emotional association with your product or service.

…And back it up with great facts

Neil Patel's headlines

Once the right emotional note has been hit, we start to look intellectually for data to either back up or refute our assumed objections. Most people read skeptically; “it’s too good to be true” is part of our internal soundtrack. So trotting out great statistics on success, a case study, or why this is an excellent deal is critical. Doing this as early as your headline can help you capture someone’s attention. Here are a couple of examples:

Double your car’s gas mileage and cut your bill in half – find out how this HumVee owner went from 9 to 18 Gallons Per Mile in 3 Simple Steps.

Become every woman’s ideal man – learn the conversational trick that Harvard researchers say will make a woman accept a date with you 7 times out of 10.

You get the point.

So now that you understand the core principles of headline writing, where can you begin?

Our Swipe File

Writing Good Headlines

The following is intended to be a mini-swipe file of some of the best headline ideas that I’ve read or seen in the hundreds of hours of copywriting courses that I’ve taken in the last couple of years.

The Carlton How

  • How a one-legged golfer……
  • How an Overweight Housewife Lost 30 Pounds in 20 Days….
  • How a Grandfather Made a Million Dollars in One Year on the Stock Market in a Bad Economy….


The “Warning:” alerts people to some potential future state or a fact that they may not be aware of.

  • Warning: Smokers are 2 to 3 times as likely to be afflicted with gout.
  • Warning: Husbands who travel 3 weeks a month are 3 times as likely to be divorced within 2 years.

How to

Simple but effective.

  • How to overcome shyness and be the funniest guy in the room.
  • How to get your dog to effortlessly obey your every command.
  • How to negotiate great deals on cars, rent, and other big expenses.

How X Did Y

  • How this simple internet formula made me a million dollars.
  • How one change to my pick-up line landed me 28 dates within one month.
  • How a visit to Russia landed me my big break in the movie industry.

The key here is to tell a personal story.

Are you…..?

  • Are you concerned about what’s hiding under your carpets?
  • Are you waiting for the tax man to figure out you’ve been hiding money?
  • Are you planning a big divorce and need to make sure that you’re financially protected?

The question works well, especially when the question itself is a bold one.

Exclusive invitation

Who can resist an exclusive invitation? This can be interchanged with subjects like VIP, Secret, and For Members Only. Anything that signals scarcity and exclusivity and plays to the recipient’s ego is bound to be on the right track.

Announce big news

  • Harvard researchers have discovered the cure for athlete’s foot.
  • New FDA approved drug will double your cup size in 14 days.
  • Toyota is currently offering $5000 cash back on all their cars.

The key here is to find something that’s big enough and noteworthy enough to carry the excitement of this headline.

Issue an authoritative command

  • Lose the baby weight in 90 days. S
  • top wasting time and get more done.
  • Build a blog that matters in one hour a day.
  • Quit complaining about your job and finally make the career change.

Just say it

  • The ultimate copywriting swipe file.
  • The best resource on hydroponic gardening on the market.
  • Everything you need to know to relocate to Wyoming and start a buffalo farm.

To people who….

  • To People who want to finally write that screenplay.
  • To people who need help navigating the disability system.
  • To web designers looking for the ultimate vector collection.

And many, many more.

The above is not exhaustive. If you research successful advertisements, sales letters, and blog posts in your industry you’ll find hundreds of variations and as many formulas as you do ads. It’s also worthwhile to find copywriters you like and get their materials to see how they construct a headline.

Bottom Line: So what should you do when you sit down to write a headline?

When you sit down to write your headline, take into account all the various components above. What are you selling? To whom? How do you want them to feel when they buy your product? What’s the story behind the product? What’s the main benefit? What information would surprise me? Would anything urge me to take action now? Make an unorganized, bulleted list that captures all of these points and then begin to brainstorm.

It’s a healthy practice to aim to create a minimum number of headlines. If you’re a copyphobe, shoot for 10. If this is fun and you really are interested in pushing the envelope of your skills and what your copy can accomplish, aim at 50. Once you have the list, narrow them down to your best options.

Look at them dispassionately.

How can they be improved? Can the ideas be strengthened? Can the writing be tighter? Is there a better order? Look at each individual work. Are there generic nouns that can be made more specific? Are there weak verbs that can be swapped out for a power word? Spending time on these tweaks may not be exciting but it can definitely help yield tremendous results.

A/B Test Your Headlines!

One final thought: before you settle on a headline for a big mailing, test test test. If it’s a website, conduct some A/B testing for a small sample and then feature the best headline. If the headline will be used for a physical mailing, conduct a survey online and see which one people prefer. Services like Google AdWords will quickly show you which headlines invite the most clicks. The key thing here is not to leave it to chance, or to follow your intuition. Let users that are representative of your best target demographic give you the data to make effective, reality based decisions.

So here’s the bottom line. The art of crafting a headline seems like it should be easy and straightforward? After all, how hard can it be to write between 5 – 9 words?

The challenge is that these may be the most important 5 – 9 words that you write in an entire project. It’s well worth investing the time to understand the dynamics that make headlines effective, brainstorming your best options, and testing to see which ones are effective. This will increase your conversion rates, improve sales, and ensure that your campaign is a success.

Do you have questions about a headline? Do you want feedback on your latest headline? Leave them in the comments below and we’ll give you our feedback.

Article by Jerry Low

Geek dad, SEO data junkie, investor, and founder of Web Hosting Secret Revealed. Jerry has been building Internet assets and making money online since 2004. He loves mindless doodling and trying new food.

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