Warning: Use These 5 Headline Formulas at Your Own Risk

Magnetic Headline Formulas

There’s no doubt that my previous two posts on headline formulas have been extremely popular. But they’ve also caused me to take a lot of flak.

First off, you still have the doubters who wonder if 80-year-old headline structures can possibly work in the modern social media environment. Truth is, I used one such structure for a post this summer that received over 1,600 Diggs, while also making an appearance on just about every social media news site around and bringing in over 70,000 unique visitors.

And I never had a doubt that it would work. Why?

Because Do You Make These Mistakes When You Write? and the original Do You Make These Mistakes in English? are literally about the same thing—grammar. It was an absolute no brainer, because Maxwell Sackheim did the work for me over 80 years ago, and his ad ran successfully for 40 years. But keep in mind that I and plenty of others have successfully used the “these mistakes” template in many other contexts as well, because the specific promise contained in the headline makes it irresistible if used properly.

That brings me to the other complaint I’m hearing—too many people are using the same formulas over and over, badly. This is likely because people did not heed the warning about headline templates that you’ll hear from any copywriter, which is to understand why they work before trying to use them.

When you understand why the original headlines worked, you’ll be able to select an appropriate structure, and you’ll be a better headline writer in general. If you don’t, you might not only write a bad headline, you might come off looking bad in general.

So, here are 5 more headline templates that work, but use them at your own risk. If you don’t match up an appropriate headline structure with your content, you might crash and burn worse than if you just came up with a headline off the top of your head.

1. Warning: [blank].

If you’ve read this far, I guess it still works. Starting a headline with the word warning will almost always catch attention, but it’s what you say next that will determine how well it works for your particular content.

  • Warning: If You Depend on Google for Both Traffic and Advertising, You Pretty Much Work for Google
  • Warning: Two Out of Every Three People in Your Industry Will be Out of Work in 5 Years—Will You Be One of Them?
  • Warning: Do You Recognize These 7 Early Warning Signs of Blogger Burnout?

2. How [blank] Made Me [blank].

Use this structure when relating a personal story. The key to the most effective use of this template is for the two blanks to dramatically contrast, so that the curiosity factor goes way up and people feel compelled to read more.

  • How a “Fool Stunt” Made Me a Star Salesman
  • How an Obvious Idea Made Me $3.5 Million
  • How Moving to Iowa Improved My Sex Life

3. Are You [blank]?

A nice use of the question headline, designed to catch attention with curiosity or a challenge to the reader. Don’t be afraid to be bold with this one.

4. [Blank] Ways to [blank].

One of the best list structures, because it’s really a “how to” headline enhanced by specificity that either impresses the prospective reader with how many tips you’ve got, or at minimum let’s them know exactly what to expect.

  • 101 Ways to Cope With Stress
  • 21 Ways to Live a Better Life With Less
  • 5 Ways to Write Killer Headlines

5. If You’re [blank], You Can [blank].

Another great use of specificity, this headline addresses a particular type of person with the first blank, and the beneficial promise to that person in the content or body copy with the second.

  • If You’re a Non-Smoker, You Can Save 33% on Life Insurance.
  • If You’re an Accountant, Our Frequent Flyer Program Really Adds Up
  • If You Love Scuba, You Can Dive Belize This Week Only for a Song!

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger and CEO of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Brian on Google+.

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Reader Comments (127)

  1. says

    Thank you very much. My new favourites in the bunch are # 3 and #5. And I guess it´s time to reread the old headline-posts so I don´t misuse your suggestions too much.

  2. says

    Hi Henrik. I can’t really claim any of these as “my suggestions” really, since you’ll find all of these in most copywriting swipe files. But I try to pick those that can be used in both sales and content contexts.

  3. says

    Warning about Warnings: 5 Things to Avoid…


    I am not a fan of warnings as they create an artificial incentive for readers.

    Kinda like yelling fire in a crowded theater.

    It works, but I don’t like it.

  4. says

    Thank you for this advise. I will refer to it often.
    You need to help whomever writes this at the bottom of your RSS:

    Sponsored By: LinkWorth Buy and Sell Ads with LinkWorth!

  5. says

    You have prompted my memory, because once upon a time…
    “They Laughed at Me When I Sat Down at the Keyboard” 😉

  6. says

    I work in the direct marketing and advertising industry and I’d like to confirm that the tried and true headlines do in fact work. Unfortunately, in the 60s, the ad industry went through a so-called creative revolution and the business types gave way to the creative types. That’s why you see all kinds of dumb headlines that are clever but don’t capture people’s interest.

    That’s the key: to be interesting, not entertaining.

    And yes a thousand times to understanding WHY things work. I write a column for DM News, which is the top newspaper in the direct marketing field, and I’ve been preaching that idea for years. If you don’t understand it, you can’t master it.

  7. says

    Dean, good point on mastering the thinking behind these techniques- it’s not just the “use” of them- it’s understanding the multiple reasons why or, more importantly, when you should not, use different headline forms.

    I guess a good headline- you must feel it in your gut- I always think that someone else probably can think of reasons why my headline is not good enough but it gets them to read the deck copy and first and second sentences than it has done it’s work, agreed?

  8. Aliona says

    I really like №2 an 3.
    Warnings are great to attract attention, but the e-mail notification about this post was trapped into spam filter just because of the “warning”. We use such headlines at our own risk :)

  9. says

    Hi Brian!
    Thanks for the reminder. As it happens I read while i’m working on something that needs to be refocused, one of your headlines made me realize exactly what was wrong. I appreciate it. :)

  10. says

    I love it. This goes on the required reading list for my work blog team.

    It’s true that simply understanding the meaning behind structues is vital. How many times have I clicked on a post with an awesome headline but clicked away when I realized I wasn’t going to get what it promised.

  11. says

    Why are people always so surprised when stuff like this still works? For all the changes, such as social media, the analog part is still people. Every “younger generation” since time began has loved the notion of being radically different from those before them, but at the end of the day it’s still about people

  12. says

    Miki – you’ve nailed it. If more people focused on the human-engineering of online scams and less on the technology, they’d fear the right things and not shut themselves off from the world.

    The recent spam-storm of e-mails pretending to be YouTube links of me in compromising positions (“Dude, where did they put that camera? You’re all over the net!“) come to mind.

  13. Johnson says

    Notice none of them starts with ‘BREAKING’. No, that’s for retards only trying to bolster their sense of worth.

  14. says

    Your sample in warning is so good, I want to know the 7 signs! :-)

    “Warning: Do You Recognize These 7 Early Warning Signs of Blogger Burnout?”

    so who is going to write it?

  15. says

    Thank you for such great tips! When I last implemented something I learned here, my visitor hits really started going through the roof: and it was from creating “list posts”.

    I’m gonna give some of these headlines a try and see how they work!

    Thanks again!!!

  16. says

    I need some clarification…

    i recently had to do an ad on foreclosures and went for more of solution aspect to peoples problems with the headline

    “Are You Worried Sick About Foreclosure?”

    I used solutions and stated their problem.

    But do you think scaring the reader works just as well? It seems to me that that technique would be a major turn-off.


  17. says

    These headlines are great but without strong content beneath them, you jeopardize your credibility. Use cautiously and be genuine. If the “warning” is truly a concern you have and you have a solution that will really work, THEN this headline will work brilliantly.

    Thanks for a great article!

  18. says

    Funny you should mention this as I’ve always got a tremendous kick out of those catchy little headlines. They do work, just take a look at diggs from page during the week and I’m sure you’ll see all those lovelies in there. Heck, I even came up with an anti-breaking news list as well!

  19. says

    Good point about understanding the WHY of these. But I must be getting dense in my old age- I didn’t see anywhere that you explained why these work. We have to figure it out ourselves?

    For instance, what is it about the Warning- that captures the attention and gets people to read on? Is it curiosity? Fear? Both?

  20. says

    Hi Isabelle. I provide brief reasons why each works (specificity, curiosity, etc.), but I will say that the more you think about for yourself, the better off you’ll be.

  21. says

    It’s funny that these headlines really do work. At least I know I often fall prey to these very same headlines. It’s surprising how calculated human response can be. Sometimes I wonder if we’re much more intelligent than the lab rats. (: Keep up the good work!

  22. says

    yeah…I’m a little surprised. Almost to the point I feel dirty. The headlines work, and it really doesn’t take much away from the posts. I always went for the “fallout boy method” (I coined that!!!) of post titling, where the title is basically a post in itself, clever, witty, verbose, and sometimes unrelated. FORGIVE ME FATHER, FOR I HAVE SINNED!

  23. Pam says

    I had no idea there were formulas for headlines! I am TERRIBLE with headlines. Truly terrible, and often write the stupidest things – and I even know they are stupid, but I don’t know what else to do. Turns out, there’s easy help for me. I’ll be using these immediately and tracking to see if they make any difference.

    Just goes to show, what’s obvious to one person may be an unbelievable revelation to another. The information age rules!

  24. says

    Great advice! Many people use headline templates. I know I use them but also try to be creative at the same time.

    I’ve read that some people are curbing the use of the “top 10 and “how to” headline. I guess they are becoming stale because everyone uses them. When I write my headlines, I think of marketing and advertising; it’s about “hooking” the customer and making the “sale.” In this case, it’s about “hooking the reader” and building readership loyalty.

  25. says

    Very helpfull information. Thank you! I have been looking at how best to present my material and thoughts and this seriese helped a lot. I think I need to work on my content and make a bunch of changes. I don’t know how I found your blog but I did and this is great info. The other stuff seemed to promote their own thing – not that you are not :) – but the information is usefull and that is what makes your content valueable and I have learnt alot from it.

    I have registered for your feeds!

  26. says

    Very useful information about headlines.. I knew headlines can make all the difference but didn’t notice the current trend of headlines. Depending on the headline trend the number of interested readers will vary.

  27. says

    I just wanted to seriously thank you all for the headline series. One of my biggest problems on my website are the headlines. I’ve used all of your series of articles to put together a good list of template headlines. I’m going to start using them and customizing them for me. Appreciate all the help this site has given me. Copywriting, in my opinion, makes the website — as you already know. If you can’t write, you can’t sell and you won’t get return visitors. And that has been my problem. I WILL fix the problem.

  28. says

    Thank you for the wonderful article!
    If the “Warning” is really a concern to you and you have a solution that will really work, then this title will work fine.

  29. says

    The headline articles have been really helpful for me. I didn’t even realize that I wasn’t optimizing them until I read this! I just used the “Warning” headline idea today, and I hope to use more in the future. Thanks!

  30. says

    I love this list because it has worked wonders for me when writing in general. I have even used these headline types to anchor readers back into a long post and have it read from start to finish. They work great for keep readers interested.

  31. says

    This post was short and to the point. I was so excited to find some good sample headlines that I could use and reword to my particular niche, that I decided to bookmark this page! I plan on reviewing this website religiously!!!

  32. says

    My go to headline that crushes it is… How To [blank] In [blank] Or Less

    I usually use some variation of that – even if I don’t put in the ‘how to’ part or I put the time portion at the start… try it out you will be happy you did

  33. says

    Now I’m in conflict… I’ve got the Scribe Optimizer insisting my title be based on keywords and the concurrent requirement of a catchy title that will grab some eyeballs.

    I’ve now resorted to keyword-driven titles with a more catchy subhead.

  34. says

    Great Article, number 2 is my favorite, how I made $20k in 2 weeks always makes people click on it and they know this is probably a scam but the headline is great, Jen

  35. says

    I have used “WARNING:…” in the subject line of my email broadcasts and the opening rate was excellent. But you can only use this one very occasionally otherwise, as you can image, you get a few ‘unsubscribes’ from subscribers that are annoyed with being put on mental alert once too often.

  36. says

    BASICS, BASICS and more BASICS ! I love it ! Thanks for sharing Brian.

    Another good one that has become VERY popular since this post is

    TOP “X” Reasons why you should “XXXX”

  37. Omo Naija says

    i always wondered why anyone who knew how to “make a fortune in the stock market” would waste his time and effort to try to convince me that he cant teach me how to do the same if i only give him a few bucks per month. But even as i ponder these legitimate questions, i still find myself forking over my hard earned bucks from time to time. Well i still haven’t made a fortune in the stock market, or in forex, or as an internet marketing guru, maybe i will have better luck blogging. But wait, i just read an article by same guy telling me i cant make money blogging. So what do i do now ?

  38. says

    I have seen these headlines a ton of times before as I’m subscribed to several rockstar guru lists.

    How I can take a real advantage out of this is by transforming it into Spanish and make my own twists… this is absolutely pure gold for me.

    Thanks a lot for taking the time to put all this great information together, I’ll share it with my 4 readers 😉

  39. says

    One thing those clickbank ‘guru’ affiliates are good at is making their email subject lines irresistible. I know there is going to be a crappy product behind the button but I still have to click.

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