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How to Write an Effective Headline: Basic Principles

HEADLINES ARE still the most important part of ALL your promotions, from web pages to blog post, from pay-per-click Adwords or Facebook ads, to Hot Frog or Gumtree listings.

A poorly written headline is fatal to online marketing efforts. Internet marketers must learn to write each of the following types of headlines – or let their businesses die:

  • Landing page headlinesthe large words that appear at the top of a landing page,
  • Webpage titlesthe hyperlinked words displayed in search engine results,
  • Pay-per-click (PPC) adsthe first line in a Google AdWords ad, and

Subject lines for e-mail promotions.

With thousands of marketing messages being shoved in front of your prospects, they’ll ignore all but those few headlines that pop out enough attract their attention. And if they get to your landing page, they will leave in a flash unless your headline grabs them by the collar and compels them to read further. Excellent headlines are vital.

The best copywriter in history was John Caples (1900-1990), best known for his classic book Tested Advertising Methods (5th edition; Prentice Hall, 1997, ISBN 0130957011) and his famous ad, “They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano, but Then I Started to Play!”

Caples taught generations of copywriters how to write a headline. I can’t do justice to headline writing in a brief articleit took Caples four chaptersbut perhaps I can whet your appetite.

Basis of Appeal

Headlines that work nearly always centre around:

  1. Self-interest, that is, reader benefits.
  2. News, something that the reader didn’t know.
  3. Curiosity, something that piques the reader’s inquisitive nature.

Of these, self-interest has by far the strongest appeal. A closely related element to self-interest is “quick and easy.” Curiosity by itself, without help from one of the first two elements, probably won’t produce a strong enough headline. A winning headline nearly always includes at least one of these three factors.

The Purpose of Headlines

Headlines, according to Robert Bly in The Copywriter’s Handbook (Owl Books; Henry Holt, 1985, ISBN 0805011943), have four functions:

  1. Get attention,
  2. Select the audience,
  3. Deliver a complete message, and
  4. Draw the reader into the body copy.

Overly cute headlines may titillate the copywriter’s desire to be clever, but without conveying a full message, such headlines seldom work. The copywriter’s chief job is not to be creative, but to sell.

Three Key Questions

How should you go about writing a headline? Bly suggests asking yourself three questions:

  1. Who is the customer at which this ad is aimed?
  2. What are the most important features of the product or service?
  3. Why will the customer want to purchase this product or servicewhich feature is likely to be most important?

When you’re able to answer question 3, you have arrived at your key selling proposition. Now the task is to state it in the most clear, compelling, and interesting way possible. The copy writing books suggested above provide a number of additional suggestions to help in the process.

Customer Focus

Remember that you are in the business of selling to customers, not to yourself. The title that appeals to youor the person who pays your salaryis not likely to be the one that appeals most strongly to your customer. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Find trusted people you can run ideas by who will help you sharpen them.

Try writing a dozen or two headlines. Then put them aside overnight. The next day, select the strongest headlines and develop them further. Don’t throw the others away. Rejected headlines may well become subheads in your sales copy.

Test, Test, Test

Test your final headlines. Google AdWords has a built-in way of testing several ads to see which one gets the best click-through rate and conversion rate.

Take full advantage of this. Google Website Optimizer ( also provides a way to do A/B split-tests on landing pages. Marketers have found that testing various headlines is the most important way to improve landing page conversion rates.

Yes, it’s work, but it will pay rich dividends in getting sales.

Until next time… Onwards and Upwards!


If you want to get the best from your headlines, give John a call 0414 955 743 – advice is totally free of charge.

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