How to Write Headlines That Work

Copywriting 101

Your headline is the first, and perhaps only, impression you make on a prospective reader. Without a headline or post title that turns a browser into a reader, the rest of your words may as well not even exist.

But a headline can do more than simply grab attention. A great headline can also communicate a full message to its intended audience, and it absolutely must lure the reader into your body text.

At its essence, a compelling headline must promise some kind of benefit or reward for the reader, in trade for the valuable time it takes to read more.

In The Copywriter’s Handbook, copywriter Bob Bly sets forth eight time-tested headline categories that compel action and rake in sales:

  • Direct Headlines go straight to the heart of the matter, without any attempt at cleverness. Bly gives the example of Pure Silk Blouses – 30 Percent Off as a headline that states the selling proposition directly. A direct blog post title might read Free SEO E-book.
  • An Indirect Headline takes a more subtle approach. It uses curiosity to raise a question in the reader’s mind, which the body copy answers. Often a double meaning is utilized, which is useful online. An article might have the headline Fresh Bait Works Best and yet have nothing to do with fishing, because it’s actually about writing timely content that acts as link bait.
  • A News Headline is pretty self-explanatory, as long as the news itself is actually, well… news. A product announcement, an improved version, or even a content scoop can be the basis of a compelling news headline. Think Introducing Flickr 2.0 or My Exclusive Interview With Steve Jobs.
  • The How to Headline is everywhere, online and off, for one reason only – it works like a charm. Bly says that “Many advertising writers claim if you begin with the words how to, you can’t write a bad headline.” An example would be, umm… oh yes… the title of this post.
  • A Question Headline must do more than simply ask a question, it must be a question that, according to Bly, the reader can empathize with or would like to see answered. He gives this example from Psychology Today: Do You Close the Bathroom Door Even When You’re the Only One Home? Another example used way too much in Internet marketing guru-ville is Who Else Wants to Get Rich Online?
  • The Command Headline boldly tells the prospect what he needs to do, such as Exxon’s old Put a Tiger in Your Tank campaign. Bly indicates that the first word should be a strong verb demanding action, such as Subscribe to Copyblogger Today!
  • Another effective technique is called the Reason Why Headline. Your body text consists of a numbered list of product features or tips, which you then incorporate into the headline, such as Two Hundred Reasons Why Open Source Software Beats Microsoft. It’s not even necessary to include the words “reasons why.” This technique is actually the underlying strategy behind the ubiquitous blogger “list” posts, such as 8 Ways to Build Blog Traffic.
  • Finally, we have the Testimonial Headline, which is highly effective because it presents outside proof that you offer great value. This entails taking what someone else has said about you, your product or service, and using their actual words in your headline. Quotation marks let the reader know that they are reading a testimonial, which will continue in the body copy. An example might be “I Read Copyblogger First Thing Each Morning,” admits Angelina Jolie.

Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

Go back to the Copywriting 101 series.

For more on writing great headlines, check out the Magnetic Headlines series on Copyblogger.

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger, CEO of Copyblogger Media, and Editor-in-Chief of Entreproducer. Get more from Brian on Google+.

Print Friendly

Smarter is Better Solutions for Smarter Content Marketing

Here’s what we’ve got for you:

  • 15 high-impact ebooks on content marketing, SEO, email marketing, landing pages, keyword research, and more.
  • A 20-part Internet marketing course that lays out a comprehensive path for your own online strategy.
  • An organized reference guide to the “best of the best” of Copyblogger.com, and how it all profitably fits together.
Free Registration

Take The Conversation Further ...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Meet us over on Google+ or Twitter to join the conversation right now!

Comments

  1. There’s an SEO/AdSense component to this, too, because your post title becomes the single page title, and titles are of the utmost importance in search. They’re important for AdSense, too, but AdSense also pays attention to your meta tags.

  2. Great advice; you can never underestimate the importance of a good headline.

    It’s unfortunate that headlines that work best for direct marketing or link baiting often are not the ones that work best for search engines. With search, you generally want to target a keyphrase, then have it appear early in your headline, phrased exactly as you would expect someone to search for it. Tends not to create the catchiest headlines.

    Just another case of SEO running headlong into good copy. It can be a bit of a balancing act to get them to work together, but (especially when blogging) it’s generally best to go with the title that will bring you the most readers and links, and perhaps sacrifice that keyword-optimized title.

    • This is completely true. It’s odd that Google is trying to determine good content with a headline and then look for a keyword or phrase when this can be very difficult to get in a title that would actually attract a reader. But I guess as time goes on Google’s search engine will get better and the two will mesh more.

  3. The funny thing is, I get lots of search traffic to this very post, because people search for “how to write headlines,” and a nice bunch of links have me high in Google for that phrase.

    Often things just work out if you write for people first.

  4. Brian,

    I’m enjoying this Copywriting 101 series.

    The advice you’re giving about headlines reminds me of what I read years ago. Unfortunately, much of it has leached out of my tired old brain in the meantime.

    I look forward to following this series and learning some new skills.

    All the best,

    JD

  5. […] How To Write Headlines That Work […]

  6. This is awesome stuff. I forget how I found your site, but I’m sure glad I did.

    I never knew that headlines meant so much. Definitely a great resource for a newbie blogger like me. :-)

    Congrats and keep up the good work!!

  7. This is really good stuff, thanks!
    I believe I found another catchy category of headline:
    The offensive or strange statement.
    I remember how I jumped at the headline:
    “HTML Considered Harmful”. I was really curious and a bit offended by this statement, and immediately read the article.
    The original seems to be a statement about programming “Goto Considered Harmful” by Edsger W Dijkstra.

  8. I am searching for 2 hours now and this is the best resource I found about headlines.

    Great Website :)

  9. I just found your blog, I really like it (and I’ve subscribed to the RSS feed). The reference to Seth Godin (whom I follow almost religiously) was awesome!

  10. great tips!

  11. Brian-
    I thoroughly enjoyed you installment of 10 blogs for Copywriting 101. You provide a lot of great content as well as another opinion for my readers to gain knowledge from. Thanks again!!

  12. Great post. I have really had a hard time drawing in readers and I am going to try titling my posts more adequately to grab some fresh readers.

  13. Really nice and very useful I will be back.

  14. I keep meaning to get that book… =)

    John Carlton says something like, “The best headlines are the ones where the skinny guy wins a fight over the big guy, the one legged golfer can drive a ball further than a two-legged golfer, the dork gets the girl.” I found that to be insightful…

    I also liked your last post about speaking simply and clearly. I think it’s something we need to do more often. Eugene Schwartz calls it “Speaking to the chimpanzee brain.”

  15. Great site! It’s much helpful to me. Thanks!

  16. Thanks for the excellent post!

    I have always been a fan of the How To & 7 Reasons Why headlines. Those are my personal favorites.

    Cheers!

  17. What a great post! Headlines are the key to everything pretty much, getting and grabbing the readers attention. Headlines are very important as well when coming down to Google Adwords and creating the customers interest to click and read more.

    Definitely a great blog on copywriting. Will definitely stop by again and let people know where to get some great advice on it and how to write effective headlines.

    Great work!

    Sincerely,

    Jamie Boyle
    Internet Marketer

  18. Excellent points from Bob Bly about the 8 categories of headlines. The Copywriter’s Handbook is one of those classics I consult all the time.

    I agree totally with your point about the importance of headlines. Victor Schwab put it like this in “How to Write a Good Advertisement” (published in 1962):
    “The headline of an advertisement is like a flag being held up by a flagman alongside a railroad track. He is using it to try to get the immediate attention of the engineer of an approaching train–so that he can give him some kind of message. In the case of advertising, on that flag is printed the headline of an advertisement.”

    -John

  19. The headline is like the gate keeper

  20. I just wanted to say thanks for all of your excellent advice. I actually took the advice in this post and used it for a few projects. I can say my titles received a huge amount of traffic in internet forums. HUGE – which in return I got more sales.

    I am by far no expert but there are many lessons to learn here.

    Thanks again.

  21. A catchy heading will always win ! great article with some excellent tips thankyou.

  22. how should that help me win a headline making contest?…… -_-

  23. Hot tips! Being creative can be easy as using a Thesaurus.

  24. You forgot teaser headlines!
    That’s what I was looking for.

  25. These tips are absolutely timeless. The guy I bought the book from bought it a long time ago. I think it’s absolutely amazing how helpful it was when I read it and I think that you hit the nail on the head with this post.

  26. Headlines hurt my head, but you make it seem so much easier. I’m definately going to put these tips to work. Thanks.

  27. Going through the headlines is always increase traffic but in my view its good to updating the contents and post in regural interval, thanks any way for the info

  28. Headlines can catch the reader into its well(Content)

  29. Definitely the headline is one of, if not the most, important aspect of your blog posts. I’ve written about that, but I’ll just say it again here that the title is key, because that’s what people see first.

    With all the blogs out there now, if you have headlines that don’t interest people or catch their attention, chances are good that you’re not going to do very well.

    Your tips definitely help a lot, it all depends on your content and your personality which title you choose. Thanks!

  30. I read your blogs on a daily basis and it helps with all the ads I write thanks! Keep up the good work.

  31. This type of information is invaluable as more marketers understand the new role of content. I recently wrote my blog on How Bad Headlines Can Kill Good Content and found a great deal of inspiration from your blog. I think headline is equally important as the content that you’re trying to market to your audience. Without a great headline to capture the audience, there is a great chance that readers can bypass reading the entire material. This is true for blogs, whitepapers, ebooks, newsletters, podcasts, webcasts, etc. Marketers are in the business of publishing content and without the support of a good headline, you can kiss that content goodbye.

  32. Another effective technique is called the Reason Why Headline. Your body text consists of a numbered list of product features or tips, which you then incorporate into the headline, such as Two Hundred Reasons Why Open Source Software Beats Microsoft. It’s not even necessary to include the words “reasons why.” This technique is actually the underlying strategy behind the ubiquitous blogger “list” posts. I like this!

  33. All great ideas. I am bookmarking this page, surely I will get writers block. I like using the “Reason Why Headline”, it draws the reader in nicely by giving them a reason to read the list, and I also like the “Question Headline” example: Do You Close the Bathroom Door Even When You’re the Only One Home? That catches people as well. I think the hardest aspect for me is to shift from corporate writing style to blog writing style, although I realize writing in blog style actually is more natural than the way we are trained to write in the corporate world as presented by our universities.

  34. you have taught me a great deal about copywriting, i have tried several headlines for my gym marketing. the best one i have found yet is one that tells everything we are and makes them curious enough to go to my website or come into the gym, it is “24 hour fully automated gym with FREE 24 hour automated Tanning included with every membership at Temple Gym”,

    I also have great success with funny headlines for my gym, like “do you look like you shoved 20 lbs. apples into a 3lb. bag?” or “when you get onto the weight scale, does it say please one at a time?”

    My wife says i may offend someone, but no one has come forward yet, EXCEPT to sign up!

    I even started teaching my own gym marketing copywriting how to at my website at fitnessmarketing.tv thanks to you getting me interested in copywriting. thanks.

  35. I really like the Reason Why Headline. It’s always made sense to me to start any pitch, email or blog posts(if applicable) like that. Somehow, it’s easier to just write down the features and justifications than it is to do a classic sales pitch.

    Great one!

    Cheers,

    Joe

  36. Great tips on writing a headline. I’m trying to come up with a few headlines for a banner on my site to recruit guest post bloggers so I found this site searching for headline ideas.

    All of these headlines sound great so how does a guy know which one to use??? I wish there was a resource that explained when and why you would use a certain type of headline.

    Travis

  37. I think its a great part of your series. Coming up with headlines can always be a challenge, and breaking it down like you did is incredibly helpful. Thanks!

  38. Good post, Brian… You could have the best email content in the world, but if no one opens the email, it doesn’t matter. Same holds true for a blog post people find on Google search.

    Using these headline insights is guaranteed to give you higher open rates ;)

  39. Really enjoyed this article… although I’d advise people shy away from question style headlines, because if the answer might be “no” to the question in the headline, you would be elimination a substantial portion of the prospects visiting your sales page.

    When the question-headline is “Would an additional $347,822 in passive income make a difference in your life?” then at least it’s a fair assumption that most people, no matter how wealthy, would answer yes. but in many cases question headlines are killers…..

  40. Thanks for the excellent post!

    I have always been a fan of the How To & 7 Reasons Why headlines. Those are my personal favorites.

    Cheers!

  41. Thanks so much for the great tips! Still, if I see one more “Want to Get Rich Quick?” headline, I will barf.

  42. If there is one blog I love reading every day, it’s this one.
    Thanks a million for your inspiring articles.

  43. Thanks, Brian!!!
    This article is great resource for a newbie blogger like me.
    Your blog is my inspiration.

  44. Brian,

    Thanks for all of the positive advise you provide to me and other Bloggers, it really pays to listen and learn!

  45. Actually i use usually the direct headline and the “how to” headline. You post makes me think also about using the other techniques more often. I think it always depends on the topic of blog or website you have what headlines i use.

  46. I’m so happy I found copy blogger. I first found about CB from Pat Flynn on his smart passive income site. I started listening to the podcasts because my day was so hectic I didn’t always have time to read the posts. It’s addictive because every time I listened or read an article I found new things to help me write. Thanks!

  47. Brian,
    As a journalist I’ve always found writing feature article headlines fairly easy but for some reason scoring the “right” headline that grabs the targeted audience while copywriting has presented a challenge. Many thanks for your insight. Very helpful. I’ll be checking out David Ogilvy’s book too.

  48. I have built a fairly successful blog by following the techniques laid out here on this site. In fact, 80% of my income comes from my blog. The best part about it all … it doesn’t cost a thing. The information you’ll find on this site is just as good, if not better, than anything you’ll find in a those make money online ebooks.

    Thanks Copyblogger -

    Brian Connole
    HCG Diet 411

  49. I agree with you that the headline is very important to attract visitor to read the article. There are many tips to write a good headline.e.g headline should be consist of keyword and also begin with that keyword. Is that right ?
    Thank you

  50. I totally laughed when i read the bit about angelina jolie ;)

  51. Hi Brian,

    I just finished the Magnetic Headlines webinar with Jeff Sexton (I just bought Premise 2.0) and have a question:

    Is there a problem if you make your META title different from your actual post title?

    Using those fascination and relevance triggers won’t always work well as META titles, so I’m thinking about making my META titles SEO friendly and my post titles human friendly – would that cause any problems?

    Thanks!

    Martin.

    • Martin, that’s what we do. Just remember that the title information is also visible to users, so don’t make it incomprehensible for human readers. But as a rule of thumb, the title tag is for the search engine bots and the headline is for humans.

      • That’s great, Sonia, Many thanks!

        • Actually, Sonia that’s not quite 100% accurate.

          If the concern is SEO then there should be relevance and consistency between article title (most likely wrapped in tags), meta title, URL, image file names for the article, and then keywords in the article.

          Can display title / headline and meta title not match? Yes, that’s doable. However, they should still be close, at least in terms of keywords. Also keep in mind that (for example) WordPress will take the display title / headline and automatically create the post’s URL “slug”. You can change the slug, provided you don’t forget.

  52. I think it’s worth mentioning that no matter what you write, the content should live up to the promise (read: expectation created) of the headline. You’re only doing your readers and your brand a disservice if the info-consumer finishs your article and believes they didn’t get what they expected.

    For example, “How to Write Headlines That Work.” With all due respect, this article/post isn’t as much about how but about what. Perhaps it’s just me but there’s more words devoted to defining the various types of headlines than there are devoted to the promise. That is, how to.

    • We 100% agree with your first paragraph.

      We’ve tried hard to keep this resource incredibly useful and to, in fact, keep the promise of our own headline. Sorry this one didn’t work for you.

      • Thanks Sonia. Understood.

        None the less, it’s still true that the article is 25% How to and 75% definitions. Regardless of intent and/or wishful thinking the headline of this page stands to be much more accurate.

  53. Hi,
    Copyblogger is such an amazing place for amazing content!!! I forget to go here. Everytime I´m in here I think to myself “this is all you need”………and then I get overwhelmed by other things and forget………
    I get stuck in the headlines often. How do I write a good headline that also is SEO optimized? I always feel limited by my wanting to write freely, but need to think strategically as well……….My restraint!
    Thanks again for inspiration!
    Swedish greetings,
    Sanna

  54. Thanks for great guide on write headlines that works, it’s really useful for me on blogging journey.

  55. In my opinion, even two word headlines may take attention of readers if they are interested on topic. I always try to use headlines less that 40 characters and so far it works.