Can You Write an (Almost)
Unbelievable Headline?

That's Unbelievable!

Want to become an unbelievable headline writer?

Well, taken literally, that’s not a good thing.

If your headline is completely unbelievable, it’s not credible by definition. In which case, your response rate goes down, not up, no matter how fantastic a promise your headline makes.

See, making outlandish claims with your headline in order to attract attention is a sucker’s game. Even if you manage to score the click, you’re history when the reader discovers you can’t deliver on your promise, or you’ve pulled some lame bait and switch.

What you want to do is write a headline that’s almost unbelievable.

For example, take a look at this headline:

How to Get 100,000 Blog Subscribers Overnight

Wow, what a promise! Problem is, it’s completely unbelievable. Sure, you might get the most desperately optimistic souls reading until they figure out you’re full of it, but most people will shake their heads and move on without bothering. The headline is so incredible, it literally lacks credibility.

On the other hand, being too believable isn’t all that great either:

How to Get 10 New Blog Subscribers
With Only 10 Hours of Work

Now, that’s perfectly believable, but not very compelling. In fact, this headline makes me want to give up blogging and become a shepherd.

What you need is something absolutely compelling that you can absolutely deliver on. It should border on the unbelievable, yet still be within the realm of possibility. You want people to keep reading, almost daring you to back up the claim in your headline.

Something like this:

How to Increase your Blog Subscription Rate by 254%

That’s a pretty compelling headline if you’re a blogger. It’s also the headline from yesterday’s guest post from Willy Franzen. The specificity of the claim and the magnitude of the number sucks people right in, whether hopeful that the solution will work for them or simply seeking to verify the supporting information for the headline.

Willy’s article backed up the promise made by the headline with data, and provided the “how to” guidance for people to achieve similar results. In fact, the solution requires only changing one or two words in the blog sidebar.

So, an even more compelling headline might have been:

How to Increase your Blog Subscription Rate by 254%
With This Single Tiny Tweak

Now you’ve just upped the specificity and made the headline that much more compelling. The promise is to not only show how to dramatically increase subscription rates, but to also demonstrate that the solution is quick and easy. It’s just a tad more unbelievable than before, which makes the curiosity factor hard to resist. But it doesn’t cross the line into completely unbelievable, and the headline is still completely supported by the content of the article.

Obviously this unbelievable technique can work for blog post titles, but it’s even more well-suited for landing page headlines. Take the time to find that fascinating element of your product or offer that borders on the unbelievable, and you may just find the perfect headline angle.

Just never forget that your headline is a promise you have to keep. If you can’t, you and your headline revert to completely unbelievable as soon as you let the reader or prospect down.

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

About the Author: Brian Clark is the founding editor of Copyblogger, and co-founder of Teaching Sells and Lateral Action. Get to know Brian better by following him on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. You know, Twitter links aren’t something I click all that often, but yesterday’s post worked for me. Not that it matters, since I subscribe and all, but case in point proven.

  2. I agree, it’s perfectly fine to write an “almost” unbelievable headline if you can back it up. As readers we are drawn to these types of headlines, but we’ll quickly click away if it doesn’t start delivering in the first few sentences.

  3. Great post Brian. Back in j-school, we had headline-writing workshops and the gist of these is reflected in your article above: 1) make the reader need to read your nut graph (the opening paragraph of a journalistic story) 2) make your nut graph just as compelling as the headline – or more so, and 3) deliver the goods in the body of the article, or the reader will never fall for it again. Same principles, slightly different application.

    And Willy’s headline -was- compelling. In fact when I blogged about using positive words to improve persuasive pursuits yesterday (a post inspired by Willy’s “Subscribe” phenomenon article) I even mentioned that his title was irresistible to bloggers, as that was my first impression.

    As always, great tips here, thanks.

    Daniel Smith
    Smithereens Blog

  4. Thanks for covering this excellent topic! My team and I are often grappling with how to balance the exciting with the implausible. Your post spelled out the balancing act nicely.

    P.S. Put me in the Joel camp — sort of. Like him (above) I clicked from a microblog link, in spite of subscribing. My RSS reader is straining currently from the weight of unread feeds! Anyway, I didn’t click from Twitter directly, but from your FriendFeed aggregation. Just so you know!

  5. I was recently pitched an historic vacation rental which the agent was told by the proprietor that it was the oldest house in America. Sadly, it turned out not to be the case.

    Still wanting to feature it on my blog I grappled with some headlines until I settled for: Not quite the oldest house in America.

    http://www.holidaypad.net/accommodation/400/

    I’m happy and quite proud of this because it alludes to the fact that it is pretty old with an illustrious history without being misleading.

    Also, this style of headline is a departure from my usual style and for that reason grabs attention by this context.

    Job done!

  6. I like this tip. Thanks a lot!

  7. You also see it happening a lot with advertisements.

  8. I try to write compelling headlines for my genealogy blog. One of my most recent was “The Baby In The Oven”. True story and part of my family history. It brought in a few more readers. :)

  9. I really appreciate this post; it is the epitome of useful. Thank you.

  10. One of my favorite headlines was from a direct mailing, years ago, for a water detection system. It was a set of sensors placed on a plant floor. The monitored moisture on the floor for potential floods, burst pipes, etc. in rooms containing computer mainframes.

    The envelope clearly contained something thick (1/4 inch) on one end, and it was “squishy” to the touch. The headline on the envelope: “WARNING: Contents of this envelope can bring down your mainframe!”

    Naturally the letter led with the fact that even an ounce of fluid can short out a major computer system if it gets in the wrong place. The letter had affixed to it a commonplace packet of take-out restaurant soy sauce.

    The mailing was check and successful, and it couldn’t have worked without this SLIGHTLY unbelievable headline.

  11. CHEAP and successful, that is. :-)

  12. Hey Brian – Nice post! I am actually searching for someone who can create an unbelievable tagline [seriously] for a new web project I am working on, so your post’s headline drew me in from Twitter. :)

    If you know of any talented tagline creators, or if you are interested in taking on the project (I emailed you but it must have drowned in the email abyss…?) please let me know.

    All the best!
    MH

  13. Mark, sorry about the sunken email. Hit up James Chartrand @menwithpens for tagline help.

  14. The take-away from this post is also that percentages are so useful (in headlines and otherwise.)

    I revel in the fact that my 2nd-ever client “increased my business by 100%!” When I was starting out, a million years ago, I loved saying that “40% of my clients have made over $1 billion with my results” all because I had 2 (of my 5 clients that first month) who are hit-movie directors…! Be honest, but use percentages to give yourself a lift.

  15. @GirlPie Yep, percentages are great ways to be specific, and specificity rules. Even better are un-rounded percentages, like 43% or 101.3%. Don’t feel like you need to round, it works against credibility.

  16. Brian,

    Here’s an unbelievable headline:

    “99% of Copyblogger readers didn’t notice Brian’s new ‘Lateral Action’ plug”

    or this one:

    “100% of Copyblogger readers now want to know what ‘Lateral Action’ is”

    Do I get a Copyblogger T-Shirt for noticing first in the comments?

    Buck

  17. Thanks for the great information. You’re one of my favorite people to follow on Twitter ( I am only following 23 right now). Your tip on increasing subscriptions to your blog was great; I implemented it this morning.

  18. Another insightful post. I’m never disappointed. I, too, am now following you on Twitter. Thanks for sharing!!

  19. Yeah, Brian, agreed that “jagged” percentages are perceived as more realistic – but there’s only so much splitting you can do with two of 5 clients — ha!

    And look what great commenters you attract — Buck is FUNNY.

    Thanks for a consistently valuable trade for my time Brian, your blog never disappoints.

  20. Here’s another tip. You can reflect the “unbelievability” by adding a question mark to your headline:

    Get 100,000 Readers for Your Blog Overnight?

    Lose 50 Pounds by Rubbing Your Tummy?

    Make $1 Million by Dealing in… Garbage?

    The question mark induces curiosity without diminishing the power of your headline. It’s a popular technique with control packages, from what I hear.

    Jon

  21. Somewhat off topic – Could you please write something about the power of Photo Captions? Or photo caption optimization?

    Why? – Because ALL photo captions get read. In fact… Photo Captions are one of the very few things on a page that will always get read. But don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself. Visit a website and try to avoid looking at the photo captions. It’s harder than it sounds. IMO – It’s a huge opportunity that’s being missed especially since the photo and the caption can be linked to something.

  22. “In fact, this headline makes me want to give up blogging and become a Shepherd”

    Good tips, but that line is so good it made me laugh out loud!

  23. I’ve gotta say I’m a big fan of the almost unbelievable headline. Whenever I see a completely unbelievable headline I automatically suspect a huge turd sandwich underneath it.

  24. Brian…Excellent post (as usual).

    This is great timing, as I’m getting ready to start 2 new blogs and write landing pages.

    Thanks for your clear and down-to-earth explanations.

  25. Headlines have always been the hard part. I have a writing website where the urge is always to write a creative sounding title that can have different meanings. I need to work more on the attention grabbing title as your post suggests. Thanks again Brian.

    Rick

  26. This is a really insightful tip that I think a lot of us who write for the web inherently know, but couldn’t put into words. You explained it brilliantly.

    Now, I just need to work on that first paragraph. I tend to go off on colloquial tangents before I get to what the title promises (although, I do eventually deliver on its promise).

    Yuwanda

  27. My articles and posts with these types of headlines always perform the best, which makes me shake my head in wonder that I don’t try to apply this tip to ALL of my headlines.

    I’ll have to keep reading this post each time I write headlines until it’s finally ingrained into my head from habit.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  28. Take the time to find that fascinating element of your product or offer that borders on the unbelievable, and you may just find the perfect headline angle.

    I think this is one of the best parts of this post.

    Question:

    What if your business is something like mine, a web hosting company / design company. Usually with companies like these you see page titles like:
    – Web Hosting
    – Web Design
    – Graphic Design

    What do you think of writing a “headline” for a “web hosting” page? I suppose it would work, right? It’s different – and I like different!

  29. I really appreciate this post,thanks

  30. Hi brian ,
    i was reading this post of yours ( through blog search ) , and based on that I wrote this , http://www.phpcafe.net/blog/2008/06/29/10-things-satisfy-dmoz-editor/
    I have been told that “satisfy” may not be the PC word to use . Is that required ? I actually wanted to use that to allow some negative comments , if any , actually.

  31. Great Article. Headline makes all the difference. To create popular headlines one need creativity and an aptitude. Headlines should also contain keywords that are used in your content.

  32. Great post. The idea of asking questions is a great one because people love to be asked questions.