9min read

Web Headline Writing Made EASY [with headline swipe file]

by Article by Remington Begg Remington Begg | November 1, 2013 at 1:00 PM

Do you know the main difference between copy that converts and copy that doesn’t? You might think it’s the information that sells, the connected offer, how well the bullets are written, or the CTA at the end of your blog post. But the answer is much more basic:

Copy That Converts Is Copy That Gets Read

It’s that simple, and since on the Web and in search results we often don’t see more than a link, a blog title, or a headline, we have to make it count! Without a good headline, no one reads your copy and no one clicks on your call to action.

The headline or title is the most important element on the page – regardless of whether you’re writing a blog post title, white paper, or designing a Web page. Based on some studies, of those who read your headline, only 20% read the copy. Some marketers suggest spending 80% of your copywriting writing time on your headline. Your goal is to develop a message that getsyour reader nodding and compels him to read on. So, let’s take a look at how to write headlines that convert.

What are Headlines Writing Formulas?

Of course, numerous articles, books, and particularly formulas have been published about writing headlines. But while there are some good headline formulas out there, some tend to make it needlessly complicated and confusing. Finding that perfect hook that blends all the elements of a good headline often takes considerable time, but the payoff is huge when you get it right.

We believe the key to creating great content is to write a great headline first and then outline your content based on the headline. A great headline will provide an awesome sense of direction for the rest of your piece.

The benefit of using formulas is that they help us apply fundamental principles in a repeatable, consistent way – think of it as a checklist.   We like the SHINE headline formula, developed by conversion consultant D Bnonn Tennant, known as the Information Highway Man, and train our writers to apply it to all of our clients’ content. Let’s get started.

Compelling Marketing Headlines = SHINE

S is for Specificity

How do you get someone to read your copy? Easy, you’ll tell him what it’s about. Nothing is as uninteresting as vagueness. Specific and concrete facts, on the other hand—particularly ones that form pictures in our minds—are intensely interesting.

So the first thing you must do to create a winning headline is:

  • Use objective, quantifiable language: Figures are excellent; they imply research, which adds to your perceived legitimacy (i.e. 5 Ways to improve …). But all kinds of specificity are good: names, descriptions—including of your reader himself; Mel Martin made millions writing “For people who…” headlines.
  • Avoid subjective claims that anyone can make. “The number one ___”, “The leading ___”, etc. These are meaningless. Everyone says that kind of thing, and studies show these sorts of claims actually reduce readership significantly, because people give them the same sort of attention they give to banner ads—not much.

H is for Helpfulness

For your reader to see value in your copy, you must show how it will help him. Sounds obvious, yet most headlines give readers no clear idea of how reading the copy will help them—and so they don’t read it.

To make your headline helpful, simply speak to the issue that is foremost in your reader’s mind—the problem he came to your site to solve. People understand that what’s stated in the headline implies a solution in the copy.

It can be explicit, as in 37Signals’“Basecamp is the project management tool you wish you had on your last project.” 

Alternatively, if your reader isn’t yet aware of the problem, simply begin by stating it directly—as in the headline, “Toxic Killers in Your Grocery Cart” 

I is for Immediacy

Speaking of toxic killers, your headline should be so interesting that your reader cannot help but read on immediately.

Why immediately? Well, let me ask you: how many articles, eBooks and white papers have you saved for “later” reading? If you’re like me, you might have an ever-growing file of these. So I think we agree, that if you don’t read it right away the odds are slim you’ll read it at all. The same is true of anyone reading your copy.

Creating immediacy is obviously easier for topics with greater emotional appeal; more difficult for highly technical topics. Nonetheless, you can do it for anything if you appeal to your reader’s immediate self-interest and pain points. Focus on desires rather than needs, as these are often stronger.

Curiosity is an immensely powerful motivator. Paradoxes, quizzes, an implied danger or reward, or even simple questions can inflame a headline’s immediacy by playing to your reader’s curiosity—almost forcing him to read the copy. Here’s a classic that illustrates the irresistible power of the self-interest and curiosity combo: “How Safe Is Your ____?”

N is for Newsworthiness

To give someone a reason to spend time reading your copy, as opposed to your competitor’s, your headline must say something he hasn’t heard before. Or, more precisely, something he thinks he hasn’t heard before. 

Obvious, generic, or familiar statements will put a bullet in your foot. In fact, anything that makes him think, “I already know what this is about.”

In other words, your headline must have news value. This doesn’t have to mean actual news—although headlines starting with “Now”, “Finally”, “Announcing”, “At last”, “New” and so on are all tested winners.

E is for Entertainment Value & Emotional Appeal

People today are information grazers. With so many blogs to read, so many things to Like on Facebook, so many tweets to scan, so many videos to watch…sales copy stands in boring contrast. Even non-sales copy.

Headlines which promise some entertainment succeed more often than those which don’t. This is something you don’t see emphasized very often in headline formulas. Indeed, by putting your headline in terms of a story, you guarantee a unique spin. You also guarantee the critical element most headlines on the web lack.

Let me put this as bluntly as I can: People on the Internet will not be bored.

Stories, the oldest form of entertainment, are highly effective. So is humor, if used cautiously, but you must understand the kind of humor your reader likes and what he’s comfortable joking about.

The Perfect Headline Length

A headline you can read in a single glance obviously communicates its content more effectively than one you cannot. Usability research shows that people not only scan body copy, but headlines as well—and they tend to take in only the first and last 3 words. This suggests the perfect length for a headline is 6 words.

Of course, that seldom enough tilts the specificity-meter into the red. And I have it on good authority that some of the highest-converting headlines on the web are as long as 30 words. As a rule, if it won’t fit in a tweet it’s too long. But let me suggest that rather than worrying about length you should worry about making every word count, especially the first and last 3.

Last time we checked, Google’s rule was to display the first 70 characters of a title in search results. Now, as we know, that could change at any time. But for now, it would be a good practice to keep your title to this length in order to fully display.

Use Lists to Format Your Posts

A great idea is to structure your blog post as a list. Here are some awesome headline hooks from our friends at HubSpot:

  • Top 10 things every X needs to know about Y
  • 5 ways to improve your Y today
  • 3 myths about Y
2. Take a stand against or in favor of an industry trend or convention:
  • Y : What every X needs to know
  • Why every X needs to know Y
  • Should X start using Y?

3. Write about some data or research that your company is privy to: 

  • The best examples of Y
  • The worst examples of Y
  • The complete guide to Y for X

Making a Headline SHINE

Let’s put all this to work. I’d like to help you construct a headline here, so you can see how the principles I’ve covered make headlines SHINE.

Here at Impulse Creative, our clients are busy managers and are looking to us for help with web design that has the end in mind: increasing leads and sales. So, a shining headline could look like this:

7 New Ways To Increase Leads Today - Without Burning Through Sales Staff

Let’s start with Specificity. This blog post is for the busy leader who wants to increase leads for his sales people. Can it be that simple to get our ideal client’s attention? Yes it can.

Right, how about Helpfulness? What is it that our ideal client will want out of this blog post? I’m thinking help with being efficient and resourceful.

Okay, what about Immediacy? Pitching to offer immediate results is no secret, but “today” is always better than the long-term solutions we usually go for. We can always offer those later.

Now, News. Well, when promising “new“ ways, you better be sure to deliver.

As for Entertainment Value, “Burning through sales staff” is the mental image we’d like to show up in our prospect’s mind. It’s sure to ignite the proverbial spark that will result in a fire when our prospect reads our blog post that’s just as helpful as the headline suggests.

Use a Headline Swipe File

Every business owner in the “digital age” should have a Headline Swipe File. You simply copy and paste other people’s good headlines when you see them — hence the name “swipe file.”

We break out this document when we’re writing:

  • Blog article titles
  • Email subject lines
  • White paper titles
  • Headlines for Web pages
  • Names of presentations
  • Video Titles
  • Etc.
Russ Henneberry started one of our favorite headline swipe files and shared it with these wise words of advice: “Print and Steal This Headline Swipe File But Use It For Good, Not Evil.

Download our swipe file and read through the headlines — try to determine why each of them works.  What psychological strings are they pulling that make people take action?

The right headline, subject line, presentation title, etc. can make a huge difference.  Just be sure to deliver on the promise you make in your headline.

By the way, our SHINEing headline above was written with the following formula from the swipe file:

[X] Ways To [desired result] Without [undesired result]

Download and Use This Headline Swipe File