Jerking your prospect away from their busy life and into reading your copy is no easy task. To add to the challenge, you only have a few seconds to do it.
And, that’s your headline’s most important job.
The most effective headlines resonate on a level well beyond merely gaining attention or sparking interest or curiosity. The best headlines find and connect with an “emotional core” in the reader to initiate a desire to find out more.
Your headline is, in effect, a CTA (call-to-action) that must not only flag down readers by peaking their interest but it must also draw them into the copy, inducing them to read on. In this way, the headline becomes the first ad and the first sale you need to make in your sales copy or web writing.
It’s a gate that must be opened for your great work to ever be seen.
Clayton Makepeace, copywriter extraordinaire, says this, “Of all the things you do to produce a sale, nothing equals your headline when it comes to pushing response through the roof.”
In this article, you’ll find 7 Rules for Headlines. The focus here is on formulas and science, breaking headline writing down into actionable steps you can use to consistently deliver better results.
A more extensive headline study entails drilling down to the emotional core and looking deeper at techniques for producing compelling headlines. But for now, work on these Lucky 7 to master the important framework to hold up any headline you may need to write.
Seeing this rule in action is easy. Just look around … you’ll notice it everywhere … on most websites, on landing pages and blogs, on magazine covers and tabloids, books, e-books … everywhere … because it works.
Notice the use of digits like 100 and not one hundred.
Digits are big-time popular with people, scoring nearly 4x higher in audience preference to the long-known and much-used technique of asking a question. (Source: 1/19/15 Jacob McMillen “5 Proven Headline Techniques to Skyrocket your Conversion Rate”) This chart shows the data:
Here’s what McMillen says to wrap up the discussion on using numbers:
It’s such a guaranteed win, you can utilize it with these 3 simple steps: take a headline, throw some numbers in, watch your conversion rate increase. As ridiculous as that sounds, it’s fairly close to the truth.”
According to “The Ideal Length of Everything Online, Backed by Research,” by Kevan Lee, the optimal number of words in a headline is 6. Well … that title is a rule breaker!
It’s no wonder that short and sweet in headlines currently reigns King. Everyone’s time is at a premium, and scanning articles, for some, is the new reading.
Bnonn Tennant, conversion consultant writing for KISSmetrics, cites usability research showing that people not only scan body copy but also headlines and as such, he says, “tend to absorb only the first three words and the last three words of a headline.” No pressure here, but concentrating on that fact, may prove useful for devising successful headlines.
In truth, there are hugely successful headlines of every possible length, but short, to-the-point seems to do it best. The words used, how they are strung together, and how your audience reacts to them, is the key to results and conversions.
Instead of counting words, Bnonn Tennant suggests, “Worry about making every word count.” Good thinking.
Experiment. Remember, sometimes the difference between a winner and loser can be a change in just one word. Don’t be afraid to write 100 versions until you get it just right.
Check out Kevan Lee infographic of the “backed by research” article if you want the varied data for different media for more hints.
Never end a headline with a period for punctuation. It indicates a stop … and you want the reader to read on … and on …
I like using “dot, dot, dot’ (…) to carry the interest and reader along the path I want him to go but sometimes you want to … build excitement! (everyone loves an exclamation here or there) and what about those highly acclaimed question asking headlines?
A good way to go is to use punctuation sparingly in headlines but when needed, make sure intent is well thought out and your reader will benefit in some way.
One more thing. In “87 Marketing Secrets of the Written Word,” Ted Nicholas states this: “studies show” the use of quotes (“ “) around headlines increases headline read by 27%, signaling a feeling in the reader, he says, “that something important is being said.”
I haven’t noticed the use of this theory much, but for a 27% possible increase, maybe it merits some consideration or experimenting.
P.S. Also using “quotes” which actually are quotes can be impactful in headlines.
Because why wouldn’t you do this step to improve your work before it’s even presented?
In fact, if you are writing for SEO, you already may have keywords or keyword phrases that you know are particular to your audience. They help get you noticed in search engines and so, often, are perfect for use in writing headlines and titles, and can even help to boost response.
In addition, these tools are very useful for trying out, testing, and refining headlines prior to unveiling or presenting your headline wording live.
Headline Wizard is one tool to help with developing best headlines. They state in their first sentence that headlines account for 75% of an ad’s effectiveness.
CoSchedule offers a Headline Analyzer if you want to try it out. It uses an algorithm they developed to score factors like word balance using these four categories: common vs. uncommon vs. emotional vs. powerful and, also; by type of headline and word/character length for an overall score. Here’s how they look at word balance:
Common words make up the basic structure of readable headlines. Great headlines are usually made up of 20-30 common words.
Uncommon words occur less frequently than common words but give your headline substance. Great headlines are usually made up of 10-20% uncommon words.
Emotional words frequently stir an emotional response in the reader. They have been proven to drive clicks and shares. Great headlines are usually made up of 10-15% emotional words.
Power words or phrases indicate intense trigger words that frequently command a reader’s attention and action. Great headlines contain at least 1 power phrase or word.
The Advanced Marketing Institute measures headlines by EMV or Emotional Marketing Value.
They do a couple things a little differently with their algorithm and first ask you to categorize your headline in an effort to offer a more targeted analysis and then they categorize your message by the emotional value using: intellectual, spiritual or empathetic, which are further explained as:
Research supports not only fewer words in a headline but also that fewer superlatives (only 1 or none) scored much higher, suggesting that readers prefer direct and to-the-point headlines. (See headline data chart above.)
Additionally, the letter case is a consideration. Using upper and lower case letters in combination (called Sentence Case) is the current wisdom, as used in this piece, and as shown below:
Action wording like “How to” and big benefit trip words like “Free” are among the top producing words but sources vary as do results depending on the overall message. Jaw-dropping is a “power word” according to one list of words that convert, while this power word source for writers shows a variety of words that work and ones that don’t, as well.
In truth, there are lots of different perspectives on word use and strength of words as you probably have noticed when looking at the headline analyzer tools that weigh everything word-wise. Try things. See what works.
“One of the things really cool about testing is that you start to learn how your audience responds to different pieces of copy. They may respond well to words like “free” or “special” or “powerful.” Neil Patel, digital marketing king
Opinions and results vary on which words add power to a headline and which words weaken it. I’ve seen the same exact words on Taboo Words lists and on Must Use lists as well, so that’s why the above quote rings so true…and leads us to the next topic in the Lucky 7.
“… each time you conduct an A/B test, whether it’s a headline test, a Facebook ad, or a Google ad, you learn something new about your business and how people respond to different wording or different offers.” Neil Patel
According to an e-book by Neil Patel and Joseph Putnam @ quicksprout.com, the usefulness of A/B testing is unlimited and provides an opportunity to continually and improve your writing, content marketing, and sales efforts.
They contend that the opportunities are endless and the benefits, huge. Instead of just debating and thinking what works best, A/B Tests will tell you.
Here’s a quote from the closing of their work:
…we’d like to mention that we understand resources are limited. Sometimes people talk about testing, but they don’t have the time or the resources to carry it out. Other times you’re limited in the number of tests you can conduct. We understand, and this is totally part of any businesses operation. But what you need to realize is that testing can unleash revenue and profit potentials you never realized were possible. If changing one word in an e-mail subject line can lead to 17,000 more clicks, just think what that will do for your bottom line.”
The good news is there are tools to help and for the value they bring, they are worth trying.
Optimizely, Visual Website Analyzer (both shown above), and Google Analytics Content Experiments are well-known comparison and A/B test tool sites.
Also available, MailChimp offers A/B Testing for email applications.
The Daily Egg offers a step-by-step guide by Christina Gillick called: “Start A/B Testing Today with 5 Simple Steps” that will walk you to test mode.
Testing isn’t the final step. Document your work through the process:
Use a chart or spreadsheet to organize information/findings. Tweaks, changes, and an ongoing testing plan will help hone your message to higher the bar and drive results.
I saved the most important rule for last.
A fierce focus will make any headline stronger … you may not need any luck at all. Everything else stands on the focus. It’s the anchor or base for developing your headline!
Make sure you know with razor sharpness:
Getting acquainted with the science of headlines will be a great advantage until you are ready to drill down deeper the emotional core of prospects and dig further into the headline.*
The point is this: “Learning to write great headlines is more important than mastering every other copywriting trick combined.” Bnonn Tennant, Kissmetrics
Last updated: January, 2018
by: Sue-Ann Bubacz
all rights reserved ©2018
I usually write from a "working headline" but, any final selection comes a long time after in the publishing process. Also, it's not unusual for me to brainstorm 25 or more iterations to test and analyze before deciding on a winning choice.
SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is a factor to writing effective headlines but, isn't the main focus for reaching an audience or target reader in most cases. Everything you do, headlines included, are best when audience or user-focused.
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