Why Your Best Headline Could be
Too Powerful

As a geek I am a compulsive tester. I discovered how copywriting techniques really work from testing. One result that shocked me was that we can make our headlines too good. At times we write headlines that are so powerful they are ineffective.

How can this be? There is one simple concept here that can either work in your favor or devastate the results of your headline.

  • Pay zero tax in 2007!
  • Turn a Loss-Making Campaign Into a Million Dollar Profit Machine in Ten Minutes
  • Lose 10lbs Just By Playing Computer Games

What do you think when you read headlines such as these?

A percentage of people would like to click through, but many more people, especially when particularly busy or distracted, would browse right past.

The issue is belief. Or put another way, credibility.

When we read a headline we pass it through our built-in BS filters. Any alarm bells and we move on by. We are bombarded by advertising, spam, hype and snake-oil every day. Your audience is suffering from sales-fatigue.

It could be your proposition is completely true. In fact two of the above headlines are based in reality. People do lose weight playing Wii and dance mat games. I really did turn a loss-making campaign into a million dollar profit (in fact it was Euros and resulted in a little more than a million dollars, but the whole story was less amazing than the headline implies and is probably a story for another time). With too amazing a headline though nobody is going to read far enough to find the explanation.

One way to fix those headlines could be to use “How”, or make them into quotes; “How I ….” Another route might be to use an expert or celebrity endorsement. The simplest approach though is to test then turn down the hype dial a notch.

It is worth remembering the famous quote from Carl Sagan:

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

Read more from Chris Garrett at his blog chrisg.com.

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Comments

  1. Chris, I’m with you. The more I test, the more I find that specific, non-hype headlines are doing the job better.

    What opened my eyes to this was Michael Fortin who wrote one that was very long but told the reader in very specific terms exactly what they would get by reading. It seemed a little low key, but stats proved it out pulled double the prior headline.

  2. Interesting article. The problem I have with it is that “your best headline” should really be just that.

    If it sounds so hypey it turns people off, then maybe it wasn’t so good after all…

  3. It is a good point about having too much hype in the headline. I do not think just adding “How I” would help much. Something to test.

  4. Chris,

    Good to see you writing the good stuff over here at Copyblogger.

    I totally agree with your concept because in growing my own blog, I have found it very necessary to make some hard choices about which articles/blog posts were worth my time to read and/or link to.

    I have started completely skipping headlines that are either boring or that sound too hyped up.

    It’s a tough line to walk, though, to be sure.

  5. A very good article.

    Chris, I am more interested in how you make loss-making campaign into a Million Dollar Profit Machine.

    Could you share this with us? Or, maybe in your blog?

  6. Hi Chris. I agree with you. The ideas mentioned in these headlines, even if they work, sound too good to be true. A big reason is of course the nature of such spurious claims on the Internet. People offer you stars and then sell you dirt. That’s why I think Internet marketing is less about “pitchy” headlines and more about nurturing relationships with your customers by sounding convincing and approachable.

  7. Hype never worked for me Chris, but I find so much of it on the Internet that apparently a lot of people think it does.
    “Attract beautiful naked women and lose weight while gorging on pizza” style headlines make me laugh, but not read on.

    Now absurd guarantees can work, for example (a real one) “If these tips don’t help you enormously, you can even burn the book and return the ashes for a full no questions asked refund!”

    Silly, but it works. Yes, I know, I need to test it better.

  8. Hi Chris,

    Some of those headings would be likely skimmed from my perspective.

    Interesting post.

  9. Ogilvy remains relevant in my opinion: Your headline is the ticket to the meat. Five times as many people read your headline as read your body copy.

  10. I’m very interested in the idea of testing your copywriting techniques. I find this a perennial problem: how to actually determine whether my work is any good or not, and if so, which components are effective and where can I improve? Apar from anecdotal feedback within my agency I often find my work just disappears after I provide it, with very little feedback if any. Interesting topic for a blog post at my end maybe.

  11. I disagree.
    It depends on the target audience.
    The target audience is everything.

    You’re talking to a bunch of copy-geeks here on this blog. And truly, that’s not your audience at all. Sure, you’ll get responses that say: “I don’t switch on to hype.” But you’d be totally off the mark.

    You’d be off the mark, because you’re talking to an audience that is already biased against ‘get rich quick’, or ‘get thin quickly.’ But such an audience exists. And I’ve been to not one, but two seminars, where in one case they had to pay $2500 for three days, and in another case the audience had to pay $8000 for 5 days.

    In both cases, the sales pitch was pure hype. In the first instance, they actually said you could (and anyone could) earn $20,000 or more in a day, even with zero-experience on the Internet. And then, at the seminar, they proceeded to prove the point. 249 people watched as one person became $20k richer (through a system that can only be considered a scam for those 249 people).

    But hey, we’re not debating the scam part. We’re talking about the factor of ‘does it attract or not?’. And the answer is: It does.

    To the right audience.

    In the second instance, 450 people paid $8000 (do the math) to be at an event. There wasn’t just hype–there was super-hype. The presenter even flew in his two Porsches into the seminar tent. He sold them pictures of his mansion on the hill–and his unending flow of income.

    It worked. You’re damned right it worked. And to date, it works in both these instances year after year, after year.

    Because both of these seminars are actually running seminars (no, I won’t give you the names or venues).

    So how do I know? One of them I was asked to speak at. The other one, I was given a complimentary pass. Why did I attend? I wanted to see how these events are held (just so we could do the exact opposite–it helps to study what is being done if you want to know what to do, yourself).

    So yeah…they work.
    Not for this audience, but they do work for the right audiences.

    And they work exceedingly well too!

    Sean
    http://www.psychotactics.com

  12. it’s not about being too powerful, it’s about being weak.

  13. Hi Chris, your post reminded me about the marketing story behind Crest toothpaste. Introduced in the 1950s as the first toothpaste with fluoride, their initial tests with consumers bombed. Why? Because the lab results said Crest reduced cavities somewhere in the 90 percentile. Consumers at the time didn’t believe one ingredient could make that big a difference. So the ad folks reduced the % and made the claim more believable. And brand history was thus made.

    As you’ve stated, here. Sometimes the absolute truth is unbelievable.

  14. when i read such headlines most of the times i dont read the article. I think they will have some kind of a catch because I dont think paying zero tax is possible.

  15. To make such “impact headlines” it takes more work to create the content that fit the headlines.If the headlines is totally crap, the percentage to lose readers is very high.And i’m will not create such headlines if my content doesn’t meet the headlines itself.

  16. Thanks for reading folks. I’m actually on vacation right now so I haven’t been able to check in as often as I hoped.

    I have not had the benefit of any formal copywriting training, what I create is the product of trial and error. The “best” I refer to in the headline I guess should more correctly stated “what you think SHOULD be your best” – your best is always just your current best attempt.

    Does it attract? Sure. Could a less hypey headline attract more? Test it and find out. With my testing I found sometimes the audience was not ready or willing to accept the most powerful statements even when they were the truth. They just didn’t read far enough to get the explaination.

    It is an audience thing, I agree with that. I believe the seminar example works because the audience is full of people who are conditioned to believe in the “internet riches”. Just like the tons of people who queue for lottery tickets believing “it could be you” (but it is almost certainly NOT).

    The toothpaste example is ideal. Audiences go through education curves. One of the outcomes of this is often later marketing needs to increase the hype to stand out successfully amongst the sheer noise of a market, the self same statements would fail when the same market was less mature.

  17. Great article! I have read all of your articles so far on headlines and I am still bad at coming up with them so keep the articles coming! I have a lot to learn!

  18. Well I made a headline “Top 5 Most Addictive Games” but the article delivered exactly what is was…