I Hated This Headline … So Why Did it Work?

Image of a 'Headlines That Work' logo

This Copyblogger post missed the boat (I thought).

The bitter wording of its headline blemished the Copyblogger brand and should have been replaced. Chances are you wouldn’t have run it. Brian Clark did.

There are four people at Copyblogger whose job it is to inspect headlines at each stage of editing. (One Copyblogger post is published daily; there are more inspectors than posts.)

Headlines have been rejected for miscalculations of word choice barely visible to the eye.

We pluck the lemons, you get the plums …

Which means that I apparently need more practice plucking, because Ramsay Taplin’s headline professing hate for the very site it was published on turned out to be a plum.

But how?

For the answer, let’s turn back the hands of time and study one of the greatest contradictory headlines of all time.

Lemon.

On page 73 of his book Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy (the man once called the “most sought-after wizard” in advertising) discusses short versus long headlines, citing research he commissioned:

Starch reports that headlines with more than ten words get less readership than short headlines. On the other hand, a study of retail advertisements found that headlines of ten words sell more merchandise than short headlines. Conclusion: if you need a long headline, go ahead and write one; and if you want a short headline, that’s all right too.

Remember that. We’ll come back to it later.

In the next sentence, Ogilvy goes on to cite one of the most famous and successful short headlines in history: Volkswagen’s Lemon ad, which “contributed a lot to the success of Volkswagen in the United States.”

Let’s take a look at that ad and see what it can teach us about why the headline “Why I Hate Copyblogger” works on Copyblogger.

(Click the image to enlarge it in a new window.)
volkswagen_lemon

The Lemon ad works for two simple reasons, neither of which has anything to do with the length of its headline.

First, upon initial glance at the ad, it appears to be conveying a negative message. What could be a worse word to juxtapose with an image of a car than “lemon”?

The mind races with possibilities.

  • Is this an attack ad from a Volkswagen competitor? (Everybody likes a fight, so that would be intriguing.)
  • Is it some kind of egregious copywriting error or joke-gone-wrong by Volskwagen? (Everybody likes seeing supposed smarty-pantses mess up, so that too would be intriguing.)
  • Is it — could it really be? — Volkswagen purposefully calling their own car a lemon? (Everybody likes to make sense of what at first seems to be completely contradictory, so that would also be intriguing.)

Bottom line: the headline is intriguing, no matter how you read it initially. It makes you want to know more.

And the #1 goal of a headline is to get the first sentence of your copy read. So … Lemon wins.

The second reason the headline works is because the copy is brilliant. (It’s so brilliant that, you may have noticed, I made my intro to this post a blatant homage to it.)

Read the copy of the ad and you realize that, yes, the headline is referring to a Volkswagen, but it’s referring to a Volkswagen that will never, ever see the light of a showroom, let alone your garage.

Volkswagen’s quality control is that good. Which is the point: They are committed to outstanding quality control, and they are more than competent at it.

They pluck the lemons; you get the plums.

Misdirection for the win

Let’s summarize here, because it’s essential to where we go next:

By offsetting your expectations with a negative and self-referential headline, Lemon gets you to the read the ad. Then your expectations are flipped again when the brilliant copy serves to espouse a great virtue of Volkswagen.

Interestingly, the copy does not directly contradict the headline. Volkswagen does produce lemons. They admit it. They just won’t let the lemon ever get to you, the consumer. (That’s the benefit. Their quality control is the feature.)

What the copy does is provide context for the headline that you never imagined when all those initial possibilities were racing through your mind after reading it. And that is why you keep reading.

The result is that you come away impressed.

And it all started with a simple, short, strange headline.

Just like Ramsay Taplin’s “hateful” post from a month ago.

So … why does Ramsay’s headline work?

Ramsay’s headline works by following the formula of Lemon.

The headline is negative and self-referential, and it uses that misdirection to create the intrigue necessary to get the first line of copy read. Mission accomplished.

Yet failure is still possible, because the copy has to be good. If it’s not, people look back to the headline, feel duped or unfulfilled, and Ramsay looks like a fool. (And so do we, for running it.)

But Ramsay delivers.

He provides context for the headline and makes useful, relevant points. He fulfills his promise and delivers value.

Plus, it’s short

Ramsay smartly chose a short headline with punch as opposed to a long one.

This is the right choice because — remember the Ogilvy quote from above? — Ramsay is not trying to sell anything with his post other than his ideas. He wants attention, not sales.

Short headlines draw attention; long headlines sell.

This is why Lemon works as well.

Yes, there is a product being advertised, but there is no call to action to buy. The immediate goal is to sell an idea, not a car. It’s a brand-builder. So short works.

But one thing still scares me …

Ramsay’s post has over 100 comments. It has also been shared an amount commensurate to other posts published on Copyblogger on the same day of the week.

So the data backs up that the headline works.

Many of the comments laud the headline specifically, like this one from Amandah:

I saw your Copyblogger post sitting in my inbox; I did a double take when I read the headline. You better believe I had to click on the post. I think your headline is one of the best I’ve read. Simple, yet effective. Thanks for a great headline writing lesson.

But another comment from the post, by Jackson Anderson, hints at an initial misgiving I had about the headline that has not completely gone away.

Firstly the headline grabbed from a retweet so I actually had no idea where this has been published and all I could think is “but it’s such a good site with amazing content, have I missed something to hate?” haha

So … what if Jackson had not clicked over? Might a seed have been planted in his head that he should hate Copyblogger too — without understanding Ramsay’s context?

The post was tweeted multiple times to Brian Clark’s 155,000+ followers, shared nearly 1,000 times over all social channels, as was sent out via email to our 190,000 subscribers. There are plenty of other people out there who saw the headline but, unlike Jackson, never clicked back over. Some of those people know the post ran on Copyblogger (thus lessening the potential for a negative impact), but many others did not.

Is this an issue?

We can’t ever really know for certain as such a sentiment would not show up in the comment section, and there is no way to measure it. But it remains a potential unintended consequence of the headline, something to consider.

I’m curious what you think. So leave a comment below.

But first, get free headline help

Make sure you download our free ebook How to Write Magnetic Headlines.

I never write a headline without consulting the tips and templates in this ebook first (seriously, every … single … time), and you too can have that same headline-writing knowledge available anytime you need it.

Thanks for your attention. I’ll see you soon with another edition of Headlines That Work.

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?

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. Jerod, let me take you on a small journey …

    I tuck into my salad at the desk (coincidentally seasoned with lemon).

    I type ‘c’ into Google and click the Copyblogger suggestion (I always get to the site this way, just prefer it). Then I enter the blog.

    I read your headline. Intrigued, I assume the title you’re referring to must be one of your own. Click.

    I read your first line, click the link to Ramsay’s post and think you’ve waged war on the Tyrant.

    You got me to read the first line. The first line made me click to Ramsay’s post (which I may have then read if I hadn’t already). Then I switched back to yours and drank in every word.

    If I didn’t already have How to Write Magnetic Headlines printed on my desk, I would now. Your CTA is sound.

    If you’re still with me, here’s a very different journey …

    I see a Tweet:

    ‘Everything you read on Copyblogger is sh*t’

    I click the link. I read the first angry paragraphs and scroll down to the comments, read a few, see that Brian’s even commented, then resume tucking into my salad.

    True story. I’d provide a link but the blog isn’t really worth it.

    There’s a balance between an attention-grabber and a big load of noise. You nailed it with your point on the copy actually needing to be good.

    Ramsay delivers. And that’s what gives him the right to even submit a title like that.

    You got to have the chops.

    I’ll get there one day.

    Thanks for another worldie of a post.

    • Rob, thanks for the comment! Clearly lemons are the theme of the day … that, and the perpetual importance of good copy. Glad to know that Ramsay’s post, and this one, worked for you. Also glad you did not provide the link. Doesn’t sound worth it. ;-)

      • Can we do a series on awesome comments cos Rob just nailed it! :-)

        Thanks to the both of you.

        I’m really glad the post was mainly well received. I’m not normally one for controversy but CopyBlogger seemed like a safe place to try this one out.

        Bloggers come here to learn and heal. It’s like Oprah.

        Ramsay.

  2. Great post Jerod and also what a fantastic piece of simple, attention grabbing marketing that Vauxhall ad was.

    With regards to Ramsay’s post…

    I read copyblogger most days, but I don’t normally react to the email straight away when it pops into my inbox. Ramsay’s headline made me do that.

    Funnily enough when today’s email came in it made me do the same, but the first link I clicked on was actually the one to Ramsay’s post not this one!

    What was clever there (I think) was not actually telling us in the snippet which post you were referring to… it got me interested!

    Good stuff.

    • Thanks David! That’s interesting that you say that. Usually I write and rewrite headlines 50-60 times before finally settling on one. With this post, the headline actually came quickly. But I must have rewritten the opening line at least 40 times, mostly oscillating on that very topic: to reveal or not to reveal. So I’m glad it ended up working as published.

      • It completely worked, intrigue is always a good plan!

        When I saw the subject, I thought the title was going to be completely self referential (i.e. you were talking about the title of this actual post and preemptively stating that it would work!).

        When I realised you were talking about an old post, I just had to know which title you were talking about… in fact I had to stop what I was doing to find out!

  3. I loved the first (hated the headline as much) blog, loved this one. Yet, there is another element that is vital in this discussion, I think.

    They dared to do it.

    How often are people/businesses backing off when suggesting an unconventional, or even hateful, approach? They shy away from confrontation.

    In this case, not only did someone have the guts to write ‘I hate Copyblogger’, Copyblogger had the NERVE to post it (kudo’s for that, I love that!!!). The writer dared. Copyblogger dared. I even dared reading it.

    Yes, it worked for all reasons mentioned, but what drew me in was the thought ‘who in his right mind would write such a thing???’

    • Great, great point Dorien. Kudos to Brian Clark and Sonia Simone there. This headline would not have run without their endorsement, which was not begrudging. They were fully committed from the start, and they were right.

    • Big shout out to Sonia here. She was the one that leaked it to the rest of the CopyBlogger team on my behalf. She’s now living in Russia in exile.

  4. I’d love to take a look at your rejected headline pile.

    • Kevin, for this post just think of every “clever” way the word lemon could be included.

      For example: “I Thought This Headline Was a Lemon … But It Was Actually a Plum”

      Or I considered just going with “Lemon.” … but that wouldn’t have worked for many reasons.

      This is usually what I have to do when writing headlines: get all the wordplay out of my system until I finally settle on a simpler, more direct, and ultimately more successful final version. It’s been the biggest single copywriting lesson I’ve learned since joining Copyblogger.

  5. Hi Jerod,

    Thanks for the mention!

    I love David Ogilvy and keep his book, “Confessions of an Advertising Man” close by when I’m writing.

    I stand by what I wrote: Why I Hate Copyblogger is one of the best headlines I read. Even if I didn’t read Copyblogger, I would have clicked on the link if I saw it on Twitter or Facebook. Why? Because of the word “hate.” It’s a power word. When I see a strong word in a headline, I have to click on a link to check out the article, image or video. I can’t help myself and know some people will feel the same way. :)

    Thanks again for another great headline lesson.

  6. I think it got me to make my first comment, or possibly second on Copyblogger (after reading it for several years) and when I tweeted it, I added this rider: “Fun post and no I don’t hate —> Why I Hate Copyblogger” to my tweet. I hoped more of my followers would read it, because it was a great post. And if they aren’t reading CB, they should be.

  7. Okay guys, don’t take this the wrong way–I didn’t read the I hate Copyblogger post. I guess it had an opposite impact on me. I try to stay away from negative stuff, so when I got it I thought to myself: “self, this guy hates Copyblogger. But, I don’t. So, he can take his hate and shove it.”

    So, now I feel like a dumb ass (can I say dumb ass?). I guess I have to head over to that page and read up on it.

    On a different note, thanks for the Ogilvy quote up there. That guy truly inspires me, and I’ve been trying to get re-acquainted with him and some of the other greats as I look to revamp my writing style a bit.

    So, thanks.

    Josh

  8. I think the headline works with your target audience, because your target audience recognizes and appreciates Copyblogger’s humorous and somewhat sardonic tone.

    Also, negativity tends to be more interesting and motivating than positivity, so more likely to get attention – guess we’re all just a bunch of grumps!

    There are my two cents….

  9. I’ve been questioning the wisdom of the short headline advice for the web.

    I think in print, short headlines visually stand out, like the Lemon. example you give. However, if you take a look at a site like Upworthy, their longer headlines are perfect as standalone tweets and stand out in Facebook shares. It’s one of the things that has led them to be the most viral site on the internet.

    • Very good point. I think it brings back the idea of not saturating your readers with any one thing. If we did short headlines all the time they’d lose impact.

  10. I’m going to go back to what Dorien said, because that’s exactly what I thought of when I saw Ramsay’s post.

    At first when I saw his headline, I thought I was mistaken. “They wouldn’t really publish that… would they?” I asked myself. Then the part of me that does hate Copyblogger for many of the reasons Ramsay stated whispered, “Go on… read it. You know you want to.”

    So I did. As did many others.

    Not only was the headline convincing, but Ramsay dared address the elephant in the room that everyone was grumbling about behind Brian and Sonia’s backs.

    Well played, and well done.

  11. So who signed-off on yesterday’s headline, that’s my question?

    • Me. Want to make something of it? ;)

      • Oh, I think it’s clever and all, and people might get excited, but then they scroll down and see it’s another promo post for Authority and go ‘oh, well I guess I’ll come back tomorrow when the site’s providing me with value again.’

        • Luckily, based on sales this week, there were lots of people who are interested in attending Authority Intensive, and appreciated a deadline reminder that wasn’t the “same ol’ same ol’.” Generally, people who read this site are also interested in the products and services we sell, and are not put off by a simple reminder — because they are professional writers and marketers who invest in their careers and businesses. Finally, this is a business we run here, not a charitable institution, despite all the free content we give away. Hope this helps clarify.

          • Personally I think you guys have gotten extremely lazy over the past month or so. Take a look at my site to see how you can introduce products while actually giving your users value.

            The thing is, each time you guys push something, that’s all you’re doing, you’re pushing products, not providing value with them. I think the comments, or lack thereof when you actually manage to quash your fears and allow them on these types of posts, show that.

            Hey, what do I know, but if users want to see how their site can lose relevance, then I think they don’t need to look any further than right here at Copyblogger at least 2 days a week now.

            It’s really sad, too, because you have some great writers here, but instead of unleashing them, you collar them with this promo stuff. Plenty of sites with one writer are surpassing you – you’ve lost your vigilance. What happened?

          • What data do you have to support your opinions, Greg? Which sites are more successful than we are, and based on what?

          • Greg, I truly say this with respect: I don’t think you’re there yet.

          • You’re exactly right, Sonia, I’m far from there – not even close to you guys. But I’ve worked for several “too-big-to-fail” companies in China that were there and then dropped the ball by focusing too much on getting new customers, so much so that the paid programs they had in place suffered. The policies and procedures they focused on to expand were exactly the things that were causing them to fall back, and which allowed for hungrier companies to fill the void they themselves were creating.

            I’m not sure what’s worse: not getting there at all, or getting there and then losing it through incompetence.

            If you guys don’t think you have a problem, that you’re doing everything right, then continue. But if there’s even a doubt in your mind then I urge you to stop and think about the road map you have in place.

            For my part I think I’ll take a break from this site for a week or so as I think it’d be good for everyone.

        • Carolin Geissler :

          And yet, the post itself is a perfect example you could study.

          This is them, your teachers, actually trying to sell something. So, even if you’re not the target audience for this post, you could still crosscheck it with all the points you’ve learned from the courses you took or articles you read that are free and see how they’ve practiced what they preach.

          I’d still consider that to be pretty valuable, to be honest.

    • Everyone. :-)

  12. I love the quote you gave, which cuts through an unknowable amount of content devoted to blog headline best practices (some of which, I admit, is mine…): “If you need a long headline, go ahead and write one; and if you want a short headline, that’s all right too.” Kind of makes you sit back in your seat and re-evaluate the time we’re all spending on blog titles.

    There’s definitely something to be said for the lemon idea, but I’m not convinced it would work every time. For instance, I’ve heard a few sources over the past few years argue for the ‘controversial’ blog article – in which people argue with the general consensus simply to get attention. As you mentioned, is the attention received by a title like ‘Why A/B Testing your Landing Page will Get you Fired’ worth the cost?

    You’re right, it depends on the quality of the article. But if every article you wrote, even if they were awesome, was focused on being controversial or shocking I wonder how successful you’d be in the long run.

    Definitely a thought-provoking article. Cheers!

    • Excellent point James. It wouldn’t work every time. You want variety, and you want the tone of the headline to fit the overall goal of the piece, as well as the over-arching editorial goal of the site. You have to pick your spots wisely.

    • Definitely, an unending supply of “controversial” headlines (or content) gets very tedious. It’s good as a spice, not the main ingredient. :)

  13. If there was a hall of fame for blog post topics (maybe an idea for a new blog? lol), I think Ramsay’s post would fit right in it. The post caught my attention fast and I’m the type that usually realizes that people are trying to be eye catching with their headings – but that one was different. It is one of my favorite posts on this blog and I even shared it a few times. I’m not saying that to be nice, either. Glad to see a followup post about Ramsay’s article. :)

  14. Jerod,

    I can appreciate where your paranoid mind went on this one over the should or shouldn’t use of that headline.

    Great break down in this post.

    Best,

    Brian

  15. Someone might say, What’s in a headline? But surely if you try 50 times before settling in one then it means there is a lot in a headline. People use headlines to decide if an article or post is worth reading. Choose the wrong headline and you wont get reads!

  16. I wasn’t interested in Ramsay’s “Hate” post, when it first came out, because I hate “Hate”.
    I was immediately attracted to “I Hated This Headline … So Why Did it Work?” because I love what works – why I love to hang out at Copyblogger in the first place.

    Turns out that reading all three together this morning – the “Hate” post, the “Why It Works” post, and all the comments (from insightful to awesome) – make for one heck of a headline writing lesson! Fabulous stuff. Just another way of saying I’m grateful to everyone involved – Ramsay, Jerod, Copyblogger and those who commented before me.

    My take-aways:

    Great reminder of “short headlines draw attention; long headlines sell” – Know Your Purpose or Goal.

    We all have our antennas tuned in ways that are ultimately mysterious – even to ourselves. (If you don’t believe in the mysterious, you’re not a realist :-) “Hate” is a turn-on to some, a turn-off to others. But so is “Love” – so don’t be fooled by the prospect – any prospect – of making it right for everyone.

    Great content can totally excuse for a headline that turned you off, and then the impact is powerful. I now not only love Ramsay’s post, but his blog, too.

    A headline WITH a benefit (“It Works”) works better for me than a headline without.

    To join and comment on a popular blog post late – certainly not one of the great marketing strategies of all time – can have its advantages :-]

    I heard it said we’re all unique, just like everybody else. A great headline talks to both – to our uniqueness and to our like-everbody-elseness.

    • Great comment Beat. We appreciate the value you added here. And yes, knowing the purpose or goal for a piece — as well as its audience — is always of the utmost importance.

  17. Hi,
    Very good points you have mentioned in the post. Yes, if we have promised something in the headline. This is our responsibility to keep that promise in our article. This the way to keep our readers happy and they will return to our blog. Thank You very much for sharing wonderful post. Great job!

  18. I have to admit, I just found this site and just registered as a member and am looking forward to reading all the good stuff here.

    This was the first post on this site that I read, mainly because the headline drew my attention – which is the whole purpose. I’m just getting started on a blog of my own and am always looking for ways to improve it and headlines, as you say, will make or break you.

    I hadn’t really heard the difference between headlines that draw attention and headlines that sell – short vs. long – but now I’m anxious to try some out, keeping this in mind, and see what kind of results I get.

    Thanks Jerod for this post and I look forward to reading many more.

  19. So is this a blog post to shed some light on the doubtful minds, which refrained themselves from visiting the “Why I Hate Copyblogger” post ;-) ?

  20. I think you need to dare to do it first. You also have to make the want to know. We know that it is hard to make people do what you want. So why not make them want what you want’em to. They will come out of interest to your idea or product.

  21. Carolin Geissler :

    Great post, Jerod and it says exactly what I was thinking. I had been wondering how that post had done and I appreciate you picked that up again.

  22. It’s a breathe of fresh air to read an article about the efficacy of unconventional headlines. There seems to be such an emphasis on formulaic titles in the content marketing industry (1 Weird Trick…/X Ways to…) that I often find myself relying on overused and hackneyed title structures. This post made me realize that there’s nothing wrong with an unconventional title – and sometimes, going for the purely compelling and intriguing headline is going to be more effective at attracting attention and interaction.

    My inner copywriter feels a bit more liberated after reading this!

  23. Hey Jerod!

    Great example from the Father of Advertising. It is too bad that he passed before Internet advertising really took off. I would love to see his ebook on writing PPC ads!

    I think the Lemon headline works great for its media type, but I know that this headline will be a total fail in the world of PPC where a single word cant be combined with a powerful image. It is 100% text.

    Even with the lead in sentence, I don’t see this ad copy being effective in Adwords.

    I know the audience here is mostly bloggers and that this technique is great for blog post headlines. I just thought it was interesting…and kind of ironic that the Father of Advertising’s headline would probably fail in todays internet advertising and is being used in a clinic for blog headlines.

    The lesson here is certainly effective and timeless, and I hope my comment doesn’t take away from that. Mastering short headlines is a critical aspect of PPC. But the “intrigue” aspect doesn’t work there. I’ve tried.

    • Darren, your comment highlights an ultra-important point: audience and medium must be the first two elements taken into account when writing a headline. Who is it targeting? Where will they see it? Your headline must me appropriate for both to work.