The Definitive Guide to Copywriting by Neil Patel & Joseph Putnam

The Definitive Guide to Copywriting

Chapter Three

Headline Writing 101: How to Write Attention Grabbing Headlines That Convert

On the average, five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy.
David Ogilvy

If you talk to enough copywriters, you’ll eventually hear that headlines are critical for your copy’s success. David Ogilvy summarizes this quite well in the quote above. The greater majority of people who read your headline won’t continue reading. Only the ones drawn in by an attention-grabbing headline will continue on to read the first sentence of your copy.

So your headline matters a lot. A great headline convinces more people to read your copy while a poor one sends potential customers searching for somewhere else to spend their money. This leads us to another famous Ogilvy quote:

“It follows that unless your headline sells your product, you have wasted 90 percent of your money…”

Ogilvy believed headlines were so important that he viewed them as being worth 90% of the money invested in advertising. Can this be true?

Why Headlines Are Worth 90% of the Advertising Dollar

Headlines are so important that a single word can impact a campaign dramatically. We’ve seen e-mail subject lines where a one word change increased click-throughs by 46%.

Open rates were nearly identical and the e-mail creative was exactly the same for both versions, but click-throughs went up by 46% in the second. If the ad was sent to 2,000,000 e-mails, the winning version would lead to 17,000+ more clicks, all from changing a single word. That’s a measurable difference that significantly impacts the bottom line.

So why are headlines so important? It’s because they’re the first lines of your copy that customers read. They create an initial impression that either draws readers in or pushes them away. Even if the rest of the copy is amazing and would convince 3 out of 10 people to buy, if the headline puts them to sleep, only a fraction of the customers who would have bought something will read your copy and make a purchase.

The headline alone can make or break an ad, homepage, or e-mail subject line. It sets the tone for the rest of the copy. If the headline pulls readers in, you’ll make more sales; if not, you’ll be left wondering what happened.

And that’s why we’re devoting an entire chapter to headlines. By following the points in this chapter, you’ll learn how to write attention-grabbing headlines that convert readers into buyers.

How to Write Attention Grabbing Headlines That Convert

The first thing you need to know is the #1 rule for headline writing: The primary purpose of the headline is to get the first sentence read. If you hang around copywriting circles long enough, you’re sure to read this rule at one point or another because most copywriter’s view getting potential customers to continue reading as the number rule of headline writing. Convincing your customers to keep reading means the time or money you invest in your copy won’t go to waste. So first, focus on writing a headline that pulls your customers in and compels them to read the first sentence.

Here are four more rules of thumb to keep in mind. They’re taught as the “four u’s” of headline writing by a number of copywriters.

The four u’s:

  • Your headline should be unique.
  • Your headline should be ultra-specific.
  • Your headline should convey a sense of urgency.
  • Your headline should be useful.

You can rarely accomplish all four in a single headline, but if you can at least include one or two then you’re bound to write a headline that’s more likely to compel your prospective customers to continue reading.

Let’s talk about each in more detail.

Tip One Your headline should be unique

The first thing you want to consider is how to make your headline unique. If yours is just like everyone else’s, then your company won’t stand out. Your customers won’t have any reason to think you’re different than your competitors, which means they won’t have any reason to buy from you than from someone else.

Today’s consumers are more savvy than customers of the past. They’re used to being bombarded with commercial after commercial that says the same thing. We can all remember watching a commercial with lines like, “Buy now with three low payments of $24.95. That’s right. Only $24.95 per month. If you buy today, you’ll get a free carrot peeler valued at $19.95.”

Businesses use commercials like this because they work, at least on a subset of customers, but many people are turned off by commercial wording they’ve heard over and over again. As soon as they hear, “Three equal payments of $24.95,” they tune out waiting for something that seems more credible.

If you sound the same as everyone else, you’re automatically going to put customers to sleep, but if you do something different, you’ll stand out, your message will be refreshing, and you may delight your customers enough to get them to buy from you.

Here’s an example from Copy Hackers:

Technically this is a tagline, but really, taglines are headlines of sorts.

What’s so great about this “headline”? For starters, it’s unique. It’s not a boring tagline that reads the same as the thousands of other taglines that copy each other. It’s also brazen. It shows personality. It stands out. It gets customers’ attention.

To write headlines like this you have to be willing to take risks, but the benefit of doing something unique that stands out means you won’t be placed in the same bucket as your competition. You’re more likely to connect with customers who are looking for businesses that don’t speak like boring corporate robots.

It works first and foremost because it has personality. People like to do business with people they like, and the same is true with businesses. If people like your business, they’re more likely to want to do business with you. We’d rather give our money to someone we like than someone we don’t.

Butchers and other local service providers used to differentiate themselves by being more personable, and you can differentiate yourself by giving your business a personality that appeals to customers. Gary Vaynerchuk did this with Wine Library TV, and Brian Clark did this with Copyblogger. MailChimp is another great example of a business that wins customers over with a unique, approachable personality that stands out from the competition.

Tip Two Your headline should be ultra-specific

In addition to being unique, your headline should be ultra-specific. It should provide enough information to let customers know whether or not the offer you're presenting is interesting to them. If your headline isn’t specific enough, customers won’t know whether or not what you’re selling is something they’re interested in.

Here’s an example:

A while ago I visited a blog with this headline: “You’ll Be Missed.” I had no idea what it was about. Did the owner lose a family member? Did her dog pass away? Did something else terrible happen? I felt bad for her, but I had no idea what was going on.

When I clicked through, I found out it was a post about Steve Jobs. He had just passed away in the past couple of days, and the author was writing about how she would miss Mr. Jobs. It ended up being a well-written post, but as a reader, I had no idea what it was about until I clicked through to read.

In cases like this, it’s much better to provide enough specific information to compel readers to continue reading than to write something “clever” that doesn’t give readers adequate information to decide whether or not they’re interested. Here’s another example:

With this homepage headline, Rejoiner conveys a specific benefit and singles out who they’re selling to. They get the attention of e-retailers with “abandoned carts” while letting them know they’ll get “15% more sales.” It’s clear, it’s specific, and it’s effective.

If it wasn’t this specific, e-retailers may not know the offer is targeted to them. They could read the headline, not know they’re the ideal customer, and then move on. Headlines should be specific enough to get the attention of the company’s target customers.

Tip Three Your headline should convey a sense of urgency

When possible, your headline should convey a sense of urgency. It should include something that compels readers to continue reading so they don’t miss out. This isn’t a rule that can always be used, but when it can, it works really well.

Here’s an example:

This post ended up doing well on the KISSmetrics blog. It’s titled “Are You Losing Sales by Giving Customers Too Many Choices?” So why was it so successful?

One of the reasons is that it conveys a sense of urgency. When business owners read it, automatically they think, “Hmmm...maybe I am losing sales. I need to read this article to find out.” And then they click through to read. The urgency of losing sales compels them to read the post.

Whenever possible, it’s good to write headlines that convey a sense of urgency to convince people to continue reading.

Tip Four Your headline should be useful

This may be the most important tip of all. If your headline isn’t useful and doesn’t convey a benefit, then it may not give people a reason to continue on past the headline. People want to know what benefit they’ll receive from reading what you’ve written.

This also happens to be one of the rules that companies break the most. They end up writing something clever because for some reason most people think that’s the point of writing a headline. In doing so they fail to communicate a benefit and fail to give readers a reason to continue reading. Eventually, they end up with disappointing sales because no one pays attention to their copy. That’s a mistake you don’t want to make.

Here’s an example of a good headline that conveys a benefit:

What benefit is Bidsketch promising? They’re promising that you can create professional client proposals in minutes, which ultimately means you’ll land more clients and save time in the process. What’s not to like?

Writing Your First Headline

Now that we’ve talked about four tips for writing attention grabbing headlines that convert, let’s practice writing a headline for your business.

First, start a document titled “Copywriting — YOUR PRODUCT NAME.” The sample project will be titled “Copywriting — Simple Survey Tool.”

Next, write down the first headline that comes to mind. We’ll use the following for the sample project:

  • Headline 1: Easy-to-Use Surveys for Website Owners

This headline isn’t very good on purpose so we can learn what’s not good about it.

For starters, it conveys a vague benefit. Being “easy-to-use” is a benefit, but it’s expected that tools like this would be easy to use.

It’s also very general. It describes the tool as “easy-to-use surveys.” Instead, it should stand out from other survey tools by mentioning how this one is made specifically for surveying website visitors. There are plenty of other tools for doing general surveys. This one is special because it allows site owners to survey their visitors.

Finally, it isn’t targeted. It mentions that it’s for “website owners,” but we previously defined our target audience as startups and marketing agencies. Speaking to general website owners means that our offer won’t stand out to our target market. They won’t realize our product is targeted specifically for them.

Let’s work on improving this headline by opening our product description document titled “Product Description — Simple Survey Tool.” Scroll down to question three — What big benefit does it provide? — and read the answer. Here’s what it says:

Let’s write a few more headline variations based on this.

  • Headline 2: Learn More about Your Visitors and How They Interact with Your Site
  • Headline 3: Find Out Which Questions Visitors Are Asking and What’s Important to Them
  • Headline 4: Optimize Your Site by Learning More about Your Customers
  • Headline 5: Gain Insights That Increase Conversion Rates and Sales

These headlines are an improvement over variation one since headline one describes the product but doesn’t convey a benefit. These headlines focus on the actual benefit the product provides instead of merely describing the product.

Of these four options, number five seems to be the best because it goes beyond the surface level benefit and describes what people really want which is to increase conversion rates and sales. Learning more about customers is good, but the point of that is to increase conversions and sales.

It’s impossible to know which of these is the best without testing, which we’ll need to do at some point, but let’s go on to see if our survey results can help us to improve even more.

Go back to your folder and open the document titled “Survey Responses — YOUR PRODUCT NAME.”

Next, look at the first question — How would you describe our product to a friend or colleague. Here are the sample answers:

Let’s write a few more headlines based on these answers:

  • Headline 6: The Easy Way to Survey Customers and Know What Questions to Ask
  • Headline 7: The Easy Way to Come Up with Actionable Survey Questions
  • Headline 8: The Easy Way to Survey Website Visitors and Learn More about Them

These are three good headlines we can glean from the answers. Out of these options, #8 seems to be the best because #’s 6 and 7 convey more of a side benefit. The real benefit of using the survey tool is learning about site visitors and improving the site. A secondary benefit is knowing which questions to ask. Thus, we’ll add #8 to our list of finalists.

Another survey question we can look at is number four — What did you hope to accomplish by using this product? Here are the answers:

And here are some headlines we can write:

  • Headline 9: Increase Sales Online by Learning More about Your Customers
  • Headline 10: Write Better Copy and Increase Sales with Actionable Customer Insights
  • Headline 11: Optimize Your Site by Understanding Your Visitors
  • Headline 12: The Best Way to Find Out Who’s Visiting Your Site

Out of these four, #’s 9 and 10 appear to be the best since they communicate a real benefit of using the survey tool. Optimizing your site and finding out who’s visiting it are both nice, but the point of those is to increase sales and write better copy. Thus, we’ll add 9 and 10 to our list of finalists.

Here’s a screenshot of the twelve headlines with the finalists in bold:

We’ll save these for now and come back to them later.

So what did we learn in this section?

  • First, we learned it’s not good enough to merely describe the product in a headline. It’s much better to convey the big benefit the customer will receive by using the product.
  • Second, we learned that survey responses can be a good source for headlines because they reveal the words customers use to talk about your product. By paying attention to survey answers, you’re less likely to use words that aren’t in your customers vocabulary while highlighting a benefit that actually matters to them.

Now that we’ve written some practice headlines of our own, let’s look at a sampling of headlines around the internet to see what we can learn.

Example Headlines

Example #1: Ginzametrics

One of the things Ginzametrics does well with this headline is start with two words in all caps — GET FOUND. This causes the headline stand out since every other headline online is somewhere between eight and fifteen words long. It gets points for being unique while effectively communicating a benefit using two simple words.

It also gets points for mentioning two specific benefits in the next line — driving more traffic and increasing revenue. Right away, customers know how they’ll benefit from using the product.

The headline (or sub-headline if you want to get technical) is even more specific in that it mentions the traffic and revenue is derived from SEO. They don’t just make a general claim but show specifically how the benefit will be generated. They also get the attention of anyone interested in improving their SEO.

Finally, they have a broad target where they mention “improving your brand’s findability.” This is ok if they’re targeting any and all brands, but it could be improved if their customers were specific like enterprise-level clients or startups. If not, brands is just fine.

Example #2: Indochino

This is an example of a headline that’s not very good (sorry Indochino). It’s very vague and doesn’t communicate much to customers. The two lines say “ULTIMATE TECH COLLECTION” and “NOTHING STANDS IN THE WAY OF STYLE” but neither of those communicates anything of value to customers. They could be considered clever, but really they just come off as confusing and borderline meaningless.

However, once you click through, you find a more meaningful sub-headline.

This headline helps to explain what the Ultimate Tech Collection is and what it means for nothing to stand in the way of style, but without the explanation, customers are left scratching their heads trying to figure out what’s on the next page.

It’s possible we’re wrong and that Indochino gets more click-throughs with the vague headline and sub-headline on the homepage, but we’re pretty sure that the more specific sub-headline would generate more click-throughs and sales.

Example #3: QuickSprout

QuickSprout uses the above headline in a HelloBar to direct people to a sales page. Why does it work so well?

For starters, it’s very specific. Not only does it mention the benefit of working with Neil — increasing traffic — but it shows a very specific amount in a specific period of time — 30% in 60 days. Specific results are always more impactful than general claims.

Next, it mentions a well-respected website that a lot of businesses look up to —TechCrunch. Many companies would like to generate as much traffic as TechCrunch, so by mentioning them, it’s implied that other companies can drive traffic numbers like TechCrunch’s.

The specificity of this headline makes it unique since most companies only make general claims, and it makes it effective because people respond better to specific, measurable, factual results.

Example #4: CrazyEgg

This is a great example of why it’s important to test headlines and any other website changes. On the surface, it may not seem like the most impressive headline, but Conversion Rate Experts used it to increase conversions by 30%. Why does it work, you ask? Great question.

The primary reason it works so well is that it communicates the real value of using CrazyEgg. Paying $50 per month for a heatmap tool seems expensive until it’s compared to eye-tracking technology which costs thousands of dollars. Thus, the headline quickly communicates the value of using CrazyEgg by comparing it to something that costs much, much more.

It’s also a unique headline that doesn’t follow the template that most websites use. By doing something different, CrazyEgg stands out from the competition.

Example #5: Trunk Club

This very well may be the best headline online at the moment. It goes well beyond describing the service. An amateur would write a descriptive headline like “Get a Trunk of Designer Clothes Delivered Directly to Your Doorstep.” A better copywriter would write something like “Get a Trunk of Clothes That Will Make You Look Great.” This headline goes so much further.

Instead of just describing the service or conveying a simple benefit, it digs down to the core of what men want from a service like this. It connects on an emotional level by appealing to their vanity. It doesn’t merely describe what the service does or how it works; it communicates what every man wants which is to be the best-dressed guy in the room.

Your goal should be to write a headline like this that goes beyond a simple description or a surface-level benefit. You want to figure out what customers really want to get out of using your product and communicate that in your headline. In a lot of ways, Trunk Club’s headline is the standard you should be striving for.

Bringing It All Together

In this chapter we talked about the importance of effective headline writing and how to write headlines that grab your customers attention and convert them in customers. We covered:

  • Why headlines are so important
  • How to write an effective headline that conveys a benefit
  • How to use survey responses to craft better headlines
  • The ultimate goal of headlines which is to connect with customers at an emotional level

In the next chapter, we’ll discuss some basic writing principles that will help you write more effective copy.