A List Apart


Who Needs Headlines?

Who Needs Headlines?

A lot of web copy is written by copywriters who aren’t trained in writing for the web—and much of the rest is written by people who aren’t trained writers at all. If you’re a designer who can consult intelligently on basic copy improvements, you can gain a substantial business advantage. This article is designed to help you do just that.

To sell or not to sell?

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If a client asks you for copy input, your first task is to decide on the function of each section of the copy. Is it to improve navigation of the site? Or is it to sell the company’s products or services?

If the copy is a signpost to content located elsewhere on the site, it should be stripped down to short descriptions and links, summarizing the essence of what’s on offer and allowing visitors to access what they require fast.

If the copy aims to sell, it should “talk” to the individual visitor, and motivate the visitor to continue to the next stage of the buying process—be it a direct sale, an enquiry, a consultation, or a free trial.

The art of selling online

Persuasive, benefit-driven copy is essential when selling any product or service, offline and online. But the traditional direct approach to advertising (“here’s the product, this is why you should buy it”) is not geared to online selling. Website visitors expect to choose their own route to the information most relevant to them when they evaluate a product.

That’s why websites that sell products work best when they marry sales-inducing copy with an element of choice. The 37 Signals website is a good example of this technique—a hard-sell approach, disguised by relinquishing control to the visitor, allowing users to decide how to engage with the site.

But even when the sales message of a site is softened, persuasive copy is essential for holding the visitor’s interest, eliciting desire to buy the product, and encouraging the visitor to take some kind of action.

Writing headlines that sell

Headlines provide busy visitors with an immediate measure of your site’s relevance and can also help designers unify a website’s look with its voice.

A good headline will seduce site visitors. It should grab their attention and convince them the information on the page is worth investigating.

Below is a selection of conventional techniques for writing headlines. Use them as idea-starters if your clients’ website copy fails to inspire your design—or if your client specifically asks you to suggest basic improvements to the copy.

Reveal facts

Website visitors are looking for information fast. The best headlines for the web immediately communicate facts. If you can feed site visitors’ hunger for knowledge, you will be rewarded with more hits.

85% of cigarette smoke is invisible

Use “How To” phrases

People often go online for quick, easy guidance. Headlines like How to…, 10 reasons why…, and 50 top tips for… promise the reader valuable tips, and they help you to highlight the key benefits.

How to be the most respected person in your company.

Use a quote

It’s not easy to gain the trust of site visitors, especially when you have only three seconds to communicate your authority. That’s why messages of endorsement can make good headlines. Testimonials from respected people allow you to do that.

“The best material I have seen at this level” Professor C. Banks, Milford University.

Lead with popularity

You can gain people’s trust by saying how many other people have benefited from the product or service.

Over one million people rely on Realline Web Hosting

Guarantee the product

A guarantee dissolves any skepticism people may have about the reliability of the product. Guarantees can be based around customer satisfaction, results, quality, durability, strength, fixed price promises, a commitment on behalf of the company, and lowest price claims.

Guaranteed! Cut six to eight strokes off your game… or your money back!”

Give a direct command

Commands speak directly to people and help you go straight to key benefits.

Make $1000s working from home

Create a need—then show how the product fulfills it

A proven way to position a product is to show how it solves a need or a problem.

Everyone knows showers are more efficient than baths. So why do dishwashers work like baths?

Ask a tantalizing question

By asking site visitors a direct question, you are creating a need for the information on the page. You are also engaging them at a personal level, so the message is more direct, arousing curiosity and drawing wandering eyes into the body copy.

Do you make these mistakes in English?

Focus on the product’s unique selling point (USP)

A USP can be a fact about the product (such as sales history, brand reputation, or product origination)…

The original Swiss muesli

…It can be a product feature (something the product has that no other product has)…

Color like no other (advertising TVs)

…Or a USP can be a benefit (something a product does that no other product does)…

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Announce something new

The word “new” is one of the most powerful words in advertising. Sometimes the most effective message is simply to announce the product’s newness.

Introducing new finest cuts from Feleba (advertising new range of cat food)

Announce some news

You could use the format of a newspaper headline to make the copy seem more immediate. “Newsy” headlines are effective if the body copy relates interesting research, if the copy release coincides with a timely news story that relates to the message—or if the market has been waiting for the information on the website.

New U-drive compound sweeps up at US Packaging conference awards

Announce how much and where to buy

If the product is particularly good value for money, you can’t go wrong with “the three Ps”: show the Product, show the Price, and show where to Purchase.

Back-to-school shirts from just $4 at Barkleys (opposite MacDonalds)

Just state the offer

People are always looking for a bargain, which is why the word ‘Free’ is another powerful word in the advertiser’s lexicon. If you have a good offer to tell people about, lead with it.

Get a free Mozart CD in tomorrow’s Sunday Bugle

Put the product to the test

You can “test” the product to highlight its key features such as convenience, strength, versatility—or to show how the product compares with the competition.

Duromax lasts up to three times longer than conventional alkaline batteries

Use a case study

Case studies prove validity by showing how people have already benefited from the product in the past. They are particularly useful for highlighting success stories, before-and-afters, or for demonstrating the versatility and universality of the product.

I lost 20 pounds in just one month on the LoseQuick Plan!

Start a story

You can present a section of copy as you would a story. Stories always grab attention because they appeal to our natural desire to be entertained or informed. Tip: End your headline with an element of suspense, encouraging visitors to continue reading the body copy.

When Edward Bertillon created Bertillon Noir, he didn’t just break the mould. He broke the law.

Be frank

Headlines that reveal a trade secret or confront a taboo can make the website look refreshingly honest—and therefore never fail to grab attention. Warning: this only works if your target audience welcomes the information, consciously or unconsciously.

Not everyone can afford the Corpex Platinum credit card…

Be controversial

The most controversial websites and blogs are often the most popular. That’s because people like subversive news. If you can install contentiousness into your headlines (without being offensive), you can guarantee site visitors will carry on reading.

There’s nothing fair about fair trade

Take an original point-of-view

You don’t have to write in the third person. Your headlines can mimic the voice of anyone or anything that benefits from the audience using the website’s product or service.

Mommy, I can do it too! (headline for a website advertising special diapers that allow children to sit on a toilet)

Use puns

Headlines that play on words can make a website memorable. Make sure the pun reinforces the message so it works on more than one level—as a clever idea and as a sales pitch.

Ironic that a phone would leave you speechless

Break expectations

Really clever headlines incorporate an element of surprise; setting up an expectation, and presenting the message in a way that breaks it.

Heard the one about women drivers? They got cheaper car insurance.

Associate the product with a connected idea, feeling, or emotion

Metaphor is commonly used in consumer advertising, corporate-identity, and brand-building collateral. It can be particularly effective in activating an archetype that connects an emotion with the brand.

Let the conversation flow (advertising cognac)

Bonus pointers: body copy

There may be times when you need to revise body copy as well as headlines. Where do you start?

First, evaluate the existing copy by asking the following questions:

  • Does the copy get to the point quickly?
  • Is the copy shy about the offer or incentive?
  • Is it easy to respond to?
  • Does the copy overcome every objection to replying, leaving the reader with no choice but to act?
  • Does the copy use simple words?
  • Does the copy use active language (does it address the site visitor as ‘you’)?
  • Is the copy broken down into simple sections and bullet points?

Next, revise the copy based on your answers. Here are a few simple guidelines to get you started:

Make the text really simple

People read 25% slower on screen, so keep your sentences and paragraphs ultra-short. Highlight keywords to make the messages jump out. If the website is offering something, make sure the offer is simple and transparent—and be clear about what you are asking people to do if a response is needed.

Put important messages before the fold

Anything that appears “above the fold” is immediately visible when the web page loads. Site visitors will use this information to make an instant decision as to whether the site is useful to them—they will only scroll down if you have successfully grabbed their attention and aroused enough interest in the product. Do this by being upfront with your offer and product benefits.

People are online to save time, so respect it

Website visitors are restless. They spend more time scanning and clicking than reading, and they expect quick progress once they have decided to make an order. Your copy should:

  • Shout the offer—most people are looking for something free, first, or forbidden.
  • Be specific—the first five words must have meaning.
  • Make the news stand out—don’t bury your message.
  • Signal where to go—make the actions visually clear, ensure the click-through paths follow a logical sequence, make sure visitors can go straight to the key information, and above all, don’t ever ask your reader to think!

Speak to the individual, not the audience

Try to personalize your web copy as much as possible. Build a picture of your readers. Are they likely to be familiar with the product on offer? Are they likely to be regular internet users? Are they in regular communication with your client’s company? If any of your answers are “yes,” integrate that knowledge into your copy to make your reader feel more connected and understood.

If you don’t know the answers, give visitors a choice of avenues so they can access more targeted information. (You might include things like links to detailed product information, company news updates, and detailed ordering instructions for people who may be unfamiliar with e-commerce conventions.)

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