How to Write a Magnetic Headline (in Under 15 Minutes)

The most important element for getting a blog post read is the headline.

But you can’t just use any headline. You need a magnetic headline — one that makes an irresistible promise to readers.

In the first episode The Lede, Copyblogger’s new regular podcast, Demian Farnworth and I deliver a series of actionable tips and advice that you can implement immediately to become a better headline writer … right now.

And you may be surprised that what we discuss is far more science than art.

In this episode, the first in our series on the 11 essential ingredients of a blog post, we discuss:

  • Why making a promise in your headline is so important … and how to do it.
  • How to incorporate the 4 U’s into your headline
  • David Ogilvy’s immortal advice on what headlines work best
  • Why specific is better than vague (and what that looks like)
  • Best practices for actually writing headlines
  • Why you must understand your audience and your product
  • Eugene Schwartz’s five stages of market sophistication
  • Our disciplined individual processes for headline writing
  • How to use templates to write better headlines

Listen to The Lede …

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The Show Notes

The Transcript

Please note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.

The Lede Podcast: Learn How to Write a Magnetic Headline (in Under 15 Minutes)

Jerod Morris: Hey everybody and welcome to The Lede, a podcast about content marketing brought to you by Copyblogger Media. I’m Jerod Morris, the Director of Content for Copyblogger Media, and here is what you can expect from this show:

  • We’re going to be posting new episodes every other Friday.
  • You can listen at copyblogger.com, you can download the MP3, or you can go to copyblogger.com/lede and subscribe via iTunes.
  • And episodes will be posted in easily digestible 10-15 minute chunks, always including specific tips, tricks, and hacks that you can take and implement immediately.

Basically if you want to get a content marketing education during your drive to work, while you’re working out, or while you’re walking your dog, this podcast is the way to do it.

To begin, we’re going to discuss copywriting. And here to help with that today is my co-host Demian Farnworth, Copyblogger’s Chief Copywriter. Now before we jump right into today’s topic, make sure you go check out the infographic that we published on January 2nd, designed by Copyblogger’s über-talented Lead Designer Rafal Tomal. Go to copyblogger.com/ingredients to view it now. The infographic shows the 11 essential elements that every blog post needs.

In our first series here on The Lede, Demian and I are going to break down each one of these elements one by one. We’ll start today discussing how to craft magnetic headlines.

So Demian, let me turn it over to you now. What do you think is the most essential element for a magnetic headline?

Demian Farnworth: I think the most essential element of a magnetic headline is, of course, making a promise of some kind of benefit. And whenever we talk about copywriting, I usually talk about formulas that are used.

One of the formulas that I like a lot in creating content, particularly sales letters and blog posts, is the Four P’s. The Four P’s are Promise, Paint the picture, Proof, and then Push. But it’s that first part, that promise part, that we’re talking about right now when we talk about a headline. So you want to make a promise or some kind of benefit in the headline.

And, of course, you have to know who your audience is in order to make an appropriate promise for that particular reader to capture their attention. That’s what you’re trying to do is capture someone’s attention, so you do that with a promise that relates to them.

Speaking of formulas for writing headlines, one of my favorite and probably best used is what they call the Four U’s. That amounts to a headline that is Ultra-specific, that is Unique, that is Urgent, and one that is Useful.

So, for example, say we want to write an article about how to wash dishes. So you’re a making a promise, and the promise is you’re going to show someone how to wash dishes. But you’re not making a very unique, ultra-specific, or urgent headline. So you could change that by saying “How to Wash Dishes with Vinegar.” You’ve added an element of uniqueness. That’s not something that’s possibly as well known.

But you want to take it a step forward and make it urgent. You can say “How to Wash Dishes Using Vinegar Before You Get Cholera.” Now you’ve put some urgency on there, with the threat of death or threat of major illness.

And then finally, if you wanted to make it ultra-specific so it’s useful, you would say “4 Ways to Wash Dishes with Vinegar Before You Get Cholera.” So now you have an ultra-specific, unique, urgent, and useful headline.

The goal is to get as many of those U’s into your headline as possible. It’s not always possible to get all four, like sometimes you might not be able to squeeze an urgent in there, but if you can get three of them in there, that’s great.

One common question that I always get when I talk about the Four U’s, and particularly about urgency, is “How do you make something urgent?” There are two ways that you can do that. One is to put a deadline on it, so as if say, “Hey, order this dishwashing guide, limited quantities,” that sort of thing. “Before we run out of copies, before the deadline ends.” That sort of thing is urgent. And the other piece of urgency is the idea that something bad is going to happen to you if you don’t act now, or you’re going to miss out on something good. So that’s the Four U’s.

Jerod: Yeah and I think your advice really echoes the advice of one of the more renowned and respected voices on headlines which is David Ogilvy, someone that we’ve written about a lot on Copyblogger. And his quote in the book Ogilvy on Advertising is “The headlines which work best are those that promise the reader a benefit.” It’s one of the more easy things to remember about headlines, and it’s one of the most oft-overlooked because you see headlines a lot of times that try to be cute or that try to involve clever wordplay or try to be purposefully vague, thinking that they might draw more clicks. But what draws the most clicks and gets the most conversions are headlines that promise a benefit.

And again, to echo what you said, specific is better than vague. I thought a great example of this was a headline that Sonia had on her post at the end of 2013 which was “The New Year’s Writing Resolution You Can Actually Keep”. There are so many reasons why I like this headline.

For one, it’s specific. She doesn’t just say the “New Year’s resolution you can keep,” it’s the writing resolution. Who is our audience? Our audience is writers, and so she’s got that in there, the writing resolution, to help separate it from all the other resolutions you’re going to see.

And then, of course, the promise. We always think about resolutions, and of course we always think about “Oh, people don’t keep their resolutions” and that’s a big theme around the end of the year. Well, this is the resolution you can actually keep, so there’s a specific promise and a specific benefit that you know when you come to this post that you’re going to get.

So, we’ve talked now about some of the elements that a headline needs to have. What are some of your tips or best practices for actually writing the headline?

Demian: Yes that’s a good question. The process begins with understanding who your reader is, and understanding who your audience, is and understanding the market in which you are writing that headline because it helps you if you’re familiar with all the other headlines that are being written out there. If you’re not familiar with the other products, with the other blog posts, you’re more than likely going to write something that’s been written before. You’re going to write something that’s not going to stand out. So first you have to have a firm understanding of who your reader is, you have to have a firm understanding of your product, and you have to have a firm understanding of your market.

Eugene Schwartz, he talks about this in his book Breakthrough Advertising, that there are five stages of market sophistication. The first stage is where there is zero market saturation, so it’s a new product, it’s fresh. So you’ll be able to write fresh. You could write a headline like “Build Muscles Anywhere” and you could get away with that. But clearly we can’t do that in this market because we’re over-saturated with that stuff, so you have to move to the second stage, which says to take your promise to the next level. This involves being specific, so you would say “Build Muscles on Almost Every Inch of Your Body.”

That particular market is still over-saturated, so you’d go to a third stage, which says you’d lead with the mechanism and then make the promise second because with those first two, we’re making the promise prominent. Now we’re going to make the promise secondary and talk more about the mechanism. So sticking with our muscle metaphor, we would say, “This 15-Minute Chair Routine Builds Muscle on Almost Every Inch of Your Body.” As you can tell, they’re getting more inflated in the promises that they’re making. There’s more words there. They’re being way more specific.

But still yet, you have two more stages to go to, which you take the mechanism to, like now you’re hitting the ceiling of believability. And you’d say, “Now I’ll build muscle tone in less than seven minutes a day.” And so you’re really kind of bumping up against the ceiling of credibility in order to get people’s attention.

So the final stage is where the market has been saturated, it’s been glutted with all these ideas and people are sick and tired of hearing about all your different new-fangled exercise programs. So then you just kind of cut to the chase, and you would identify specifically with the consumer and say something like, “Why Some Men are So Skinny.” And so you’ve not really been talking about fitness, you’re not even really talking about how to build muscle, you’re just talking about the inherent problem. So you’re not making a promise, but you’ve gone all the way to just talking about the problem.

I like to work through those five stages when I’m thinking about a headline and thinking about the market that I’m in and try to create something, figure out what stage I’m in. Because most content that we talk about, we’re at stages between probably two and five for most things. There are very few markets that are fresh and that are new, so you have to begin in at least stage two if not three.

Jerod: And very rarely are you going to work through all five of those stages just in your head and come up with that perfect headline the first time.

Probably the biggest lesson that I’ve learned about headline writing, and if I can impart one lesson for everybody to take away it is that writing headlines is as much about effort and sweat as it is about inspiration and Eureka! moments.

My process for writing headlines is that I love to take our PDF, How To Write Magnetic Headlines, which has template after template after template that are proven to have worked, and I look at those for inspiration and then literally spend 15-20 minutes, minimum, with a scratch piece of paper or just an open Microsoft Word document writing out headlines. I can’t remember the last time that the first headline that I came up with was the one I used … because I’m pretty sure it’s never happened.

That’s just like the ball of clay, where all you do is you get your keywords in there, you kind of figure out what your benefit is going to be, what the promise is. And then it’s about “Okay what’s the best way to word that?” … “What’s the best way to structure it?” What are some of these other proven ways that people have done this? And how do I take a proven way, match it up with the audience, and get it to sound the best? And that’s not just going to happen in your head, so don’t be intimidated.

I guess I always thought that these great headlines, people just conjured them up and they’re just brilliant. Probably what’s more the case is they’re just putting in more effort, more work, getting more iterations of it, and having more to choose from. And that helps you to find the best one.

So with that said, Demian, if you have any final thoughts, we’ll get ready to close up here with the first episode.

Demian: Well I’ll just add a piggyback on what you said about the magnetic headlines PDF. Going through something like that, where you have formulas or templates that you use, will help you, will force you, because I found, at least in my experience and found out with a lot of people that I’ve mentored, that when they sit down to write like say 20 headlines, they have an idea of the headline they want to write, then they’ll just write 20 variations of that headline.

And so they’re not straying very far away from the path … where what you need to do in order to land upon that killer headline is think wildly differently from each headline that you’re writing. It’s okay to make two or three variations of one, but go at a completely different direction. That’s what those templates help you do: they help you think about different areas.

I use John Caples’ book, Tested Advertising Methods, and he’s got 39 templates in the chapter in there. And invariably, I always come upon a better one. Like you said, it will never be the first idea that I had, but I’ll come across one that just is a fit. This is the way I need to talk about this particular one, and that’s the one that will work. So using those templates forces you to think further than you would if you just did it by yourself.

Jerod: Yep. And, of course, don’t forget to A/B test. If you have a couple that you like, use Twitter to test them out. Put them out there, see which ones get more clicks. You can use Google+ for the same thing.

We will put the link in the show notes to the magnetic headlines PDF that we have at Copyblogger. It’s such a great resource with template after template that you can use.

Everybody, thank you very much for listening. Again, this is Jerod Morris here with Demian Farnworth. We will be back with more useful content marketing advice on the next episode of The Lede.

*Credits: Both the intro (“Bridge to Nowhere” by Sam Roberts Band) and outro songs (“Down in the Valley” by The Head and the Heart) are graciously provided by express written consent from the rights owners.

About the author

Jerod Morris


Jerod Morris is the VP of Marketing for Copyblogger Media. Get more from him on Twitter or . Have you gotten your wristband yet?

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Comments

  1. Stitcher, please! I promise you, it’s very popular on Android!

    Huge thanks for asking me to put it on stitcher. They ended up featuring me on the home page, app & an email in the “what’s new” section. I’m so stoked. – Sean Malarkey

  2. I’d like to emphasize that the key is to a great headline is to make a “real” promise. (Let’s get real folks!)

    When I read a headline that’s over promising (and tacky) I don’t even bother reading on…

  3. Over promising in title cannot work with regular readers

  4. Ogilvy’s headline tips definitely are immortal! One of the tips I remember was that the best headlines were between 9-13 words.

    I agree in some respects, but if I see a good promise in it, I usually never mind its length.

  5. You guys put out one of my favorite podcasts. So glad you are back at it.

  6. I never realized how much “behind the scenes” stuff went into writing great copy. Love the podcast format. Looking forward to the next episode.

  7. Jerod,

    Being specific adds clarity to your mind. Clear think readers are likely to click through.

    Number themed posts do well because if you hit the numbers in your post – listing 5 tips, etc – you were clear and you delivered.

    Power share as always. Thanks Jerod!

  8. Demian,

    I like your take on the 4 Ps. Very interesting approach : Promise, Paint a picture, Proof and then Push.

    :-)

    I am busy studying Jon Morrow’s headline hacks to help master the art.

    My two cents : I find that actionable headlines are fantastic in creating a sense of agency … which tend to create a sense of urgency in the mind of the reader and galvanise them into action. A headline that gets a reader to take action is the one that comes alive and builds on the know, like and trust pillars of online relationships.

    :-)

  9. This article is almost unreadable without examples. Well…not unreadable (I was being dramatic) but some of your points are confounded withindustry lingo and tend to get lost without illustrative examples of headlines.

  10. It is so true. Even on the inbox of an email, people see the subject line before clicking to view the inner content of that mail. If the subject line is not interesting to the viewer, it is no point of having a great content or advertisement inside the email, as the viewer might not be clicking on that particular mail.

  11. Headlines rock. Good ones, anyway. Until I read this, I did not realize you published a headline guide too. I know what’s gong to be next on my list of required readings.

    I have been recently introduced to the Copyblogger world online and I have to say, you guys make it easy to like you. Great stuff upfront, talented writers everywhere and real world results. Thank you for sharing all this.

    • Thank you for the kind words Stephen! We are here to help, educate, and hopefully inspire. :-) (And to learn from you too, which we do every day.)

      • Absolutely, Jerod. Frankly, the idea of sharing all the good stuff upfront and enticing people to want even more is a most excellent one. Kind of like Costco demos in the food aisles, a taste here and there delicious and excellent quality and pretty soon your cart is full. And you are making your way through the checkout as a well satisfied paying customer.

        • That is the idea. It is the philosophy we teach to our readers, and we try to teach by doing. ;-) The satisfaction is the most important part. You’ve got to solve real problems for people.

  12. Should i worry about the heading length and search engine perspective as well while making a striking headline… please guide.

  13. Akash Agarwal :

    Wow it’s really fantastic. Headline is the most important thing of an article. It’s help to attract visitor. Thanks for sharing such nice article.

  14. Yes a headline is most important for customer 1st impression. So you can’t ignore this. A magnetic headline can be change your CTR very impressively