Who Needs Headlines?
Issue № 238

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.

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To sell or not to sell?#section1

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#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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#section7

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#section8

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#section9

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#section10

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#section11

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)#section12

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)…

At last, a coursebook that puts you in control of your lessons

Announce something new#section13

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#section14

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#section15

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#section16

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#section17

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#section18

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#section19

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#section20

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#section21

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#section22

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#section23

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#section24

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#section25

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#section26

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#section27

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#section28

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#section29

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#section30

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.)

40 Reader Comments

  1. Thanks for the great collection of headlines. Also I read articles like this one before I got some new ideas for our copy.

    I know that the headline is the most important part of an article (webpage, …), but yet I spend more time on the content. I should shift that…

  2. “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.” I fully agree with You on this “Speak to the individual, not the audience.” so thanks for very interesting article. btw. I really enjoyed reading Your book – “100 Copywriting Tips for Designers and Other Freelance Artists”. It’s interesting to read ideas, and observations from someone else’s point of view”¦ makes you think more. So please keep up the great work. Greetings

  3. Bad thing about all those headlines 101 or 100 tipps for copywriter lists are, that the headlines you read are more an dmore all the same. You should not only try to write a good headline according to those lists, you have to find something suitable for your content and your readers. Some (copy) writers miss that. I’m really getting tired only reading headlines all of the same style.

  4. I think most of the rules and tips discussed here are already covered by Jakob Nielsen and Steve Krug’s usability laws. But I can somehow appreciate Shaun’s positive insights on the marketing aspects of web writing.

    PS : I think there’s a broken link inside the article. http://alistapart.com/articles/www.37signals.com

  5. Sorry about the title-only burp preceding.

    I read your article, which I found quite complete and undoubtedly helpful for those who have little or no experience in writing copy. (Not that that ever stopped anyone.)

    But I fear most people who read your blog and messages like this already are beyond 101. For example, I have been writing copy professionally for four decades, with the last 10 years focusing on Web copy.

    Still, I view articles like this like going to church. You don’t learn anything new, necessarily. But it is good to be reminded.

    Keep up the good words. (Pun intended.)

  6. great ref, I’ll be reading this again when I need a headline

    one notice though, the 37signals website link seems to broken.

    someone please check that

  7. The link to the 37signals website is broken — missing the http://

    But the article is a solid rundown of the fundamentals — I’ll be sharing it with clients and colleagues.

  8. Because I don’t write often and I am not trained this article has been very helpful to me. I really liked at the beginning were state, “motivate the visitor to continue to the next stage”. This is something I always ask, “what’s the next action?”

  9. Great stuff Shaun. How about more info on product descriptive copy. I often get clients wanting to throw the kitchen sink onto the product detail page.

  10. Thank you for your overview. Not all of them I agree with – specially the “I-number-everything” is getting on my nerves – see Digg It. But as another poster mentioned above: it’s like going to church – I cannot allow myself not reading it. Good work. Waiting for the next overview…

  11. A great read… thanks Shaun. I agree with a lot of what you had to say, especially your points on writing simple, easy to understand copy that doesn’t force a reader to think. In your opinion and experience, is forcing a reader to think through a headline OK (using a pun)? Do puns invite a reader to jump to the content to figure it out, or make them shy away?

    I have had the most success using How To phrases in my headlines so was happy to see it mentioned here as well. I’m looking forward to reading your books.

  12. Great article. I like the fact that you can apply all of the hints in this article to just about any web copy – blogs etc… It’s hard to hook people as they rush around the web. The web is just as much about selling ideas and information as it is products.

  13. I have found that the articles that make the front page of Digg.com aren’t those with the best content but the ones with the snappiest titles, proof positive that writing headlines that sell is crucial. It’s interesting to see how the examples in this article correlate with the front page Diggs.

  14. Hi
    since one week ago I’ve written an similiar article at my website in german language.

    yesterday – timezones ;)..

    saturday I’ve written an article about social media marketing – and I’m sure we have to realize that one headline is absolutly perfect to kill our server with digg traffic – but is the absolut false headline for i.e. delicious.

    If you are a developer and create the headline like your good tutorial – grabb the phone number of your hosting support 😉

    If not – your chance is less then 50percent.

    Shaun Crowley,
    your article is good . I’ve found it on a german social media at top article of the day or so.
    Because it is written in Alistapart.
    I know that more than 1/3 of the community member can’t read and understand english – but it is from Alistapart and so the article MUST be good.

    I’m sure this website needs no great headline – 😉

    Thanks a lot for your words, for understand my meanings.

    regards
    Monika

  15. Your article was helpful. I _hate_ selling. It always feels like I am trying to trick someone.

    But with some research and reasoning, you made it seem more like science, which I feel good about.

  16. I don’t question the merits of Shaun’s article — it’s useful and interesting. no doubt. I only question the artificial (in my opinion) separation “web copywriter”/”ordinary copywriter”…
    These are NOT two different people! A good, professional copywriter should know how to write for each medium, for each genre as the end result should always be the same — engaged reader.
    Even a rookie would know that web copy has to be more succinct and informational, that it’s not print advertising, nor radio, etc. But the “web writer” is not a different species.
    True, there’s plenty of badly written websites around, but I bet that their authors write bad print ads, too. I — being a copywriter myself — have contributed my fair share of web blah-blah, forced by clients who insist on covering all “selling points”…
    In short — a good writer is good because he could write well for print, web, direct mail, long brochures and boring sales letters. He even writes smart e-mail to his Mom. Today, some agencies look for “Direct Mail copywriters”, others — for “web copywriters” or “conceptual copywriters”, but I say – that’s a mistake.
    Look for talented ones, not for narrow “specialists” with blinders. Oh, and by the way — how exactly would the “web writer” collaborate with the “conceptual” one who created the theme of the ad campaign — so all media channels would work consistently and in unison?

    Milko Stoyanov
    Creative Director, Chicago

  17. I don’t question the merits of Shaun’s article — it’s useful and interesting. no doubt. I only question the artificial (in my opinion) separation “web copywriter”/”ordinary copywriter”…
    These are NOT two different people! A good, professional copywriter should know how to write for each medium, for each genre as the end result should always be the same — engaged reader.
    Even a rookie would know that web copy has to be more succinct and informational, that it’s not print advertising, nor radio, etc. But the “web writer” is not a different species.
    True, there’s plenty of badly written websites around, but I bet that their authors write bad print ads, too. I — being a copywriter myself — have contributed my fair share of web blah-blah, forced by clients who insist on covering all “selling points”…
    In short — a good writer is good because he could write well for print, web, direct mail, long brochures and boring sales letters. He even writes smart e-mail to his Mom. Today, some agencies look for “Direct Mail copywriters”, others — for “web copywriters” or “conceptual copywriters”, but I say – that’s a mistake.
    Look for talented ones, not for narrow “specialists” with blinders. Oh, and by the way — how exactly would the “web writer” collaborate with the “conceptual” one who created the theme of the ad campaign — so all media channels would work consistently and in unison?

    Milko Stoyanov
    Creative Director, Chicago

  18. Thank you. Your list is the most succinct and comprehensive I have seen. Although a few responses point out that this is not new, what you have written is valuable. Let’s not get too worked up about the new. Knowing what to do is very different from actually doing.

    And what’s more, (That phrase sounds like overenthusiastic copy!) people are different. Those three words—people are different—are burned into my brain. You have a wide audience here. If we are not careful we can fall into the trap of projecting our own values (and experience level) on our readers.

    I agree with Milko that if you can write clearly, persuasively, and get to the point, then it you are likely to have the intelligence to modify what you write for different media.

    I am happy to have just discovered alistapart.com.

  19. For someone like me struggling hard to improve their writing skills this article is more than enough to get started. Still, knowing what you want to deliver is one thing, the other is a lot of practice to make it look good. While this text cannot rplace practice, it can show you the way to a more effective outcome.

  20. Lukasz,

    Yes, practice may not make perfect, but it helps. In order to write well you need to give yourself permission to make a mess.

    I think it was P.G. Wodehouse, one of my favorite writers, said that it was about the eleventh draft where he put in the spontaneity.

    Have you noticed how any accomplished person makes what they do look easy?

    Writing takes time. Like any creative process we have to understand the process. Just putting words on paper is the first step. At this stage the non-writer can believe he can’t write. Not so. Horrible first drafts are necessary. We have to start somewhere. Expecting instant results is only going to hurt you. But you need persistence and to go easy on yourself.

    Writing helps you think. It helps you organize your thoughts. Writing can even help you speak more clearly. Your writing will get better the more you do. It will get easier. Writing also helps you appreciate what good communication is and how it works. You can get to the level where you have almost cut every adjective out. Management speak will be your enemy and you will write clearly. It’s all done with nouns and verbs.

  21. After reading this article I will definitely think more about titles and refer back to this page when I write another article or news item for my website, very useful.

  22. I know that there are so many people in here who find these informations to be a bit redundant, since they are specialists in this field. Still so many of us are totally new to this or with some small experience made just by doing and getting it wrong. In my country such a job is still something of the future and we have to think about our own text and headlines. As you can imagine, we are totally off sometimes.

    Good list. I’ll have to try and use this more. Some of the tips I kinda learnt, but there are so many I could surely start using.

  23. This is a very well written article. The importance of headlines are paramount in the online world. My traffic surged as soon as I had finally figured out how to catch reader’s attention and draw them in.

  24. Can report the same too, changed to some newspaper like Headlines and saw the results on the same day, 30% reader increase trough search engines. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  25. I have just finished making the layout of a brochure and I realized that I used an headline which sounded somehow familiar to me. Then I noticed it looks like the famous “where do you want to go today?” by Microsoft though it’s in italian and it sounds “where do I want to go day?”. I found out that the Microsoft headline in english is trademarked. I have to say that I am using it for a very small private transportation italian company which has nothing to do with computers and certainly Mr. Gates won’t ever come to know. But who knows. What should I do? Thanks

  26. Thanks for very interesting article. btw. I really enjoyed reading all of your articles. It’s interesting to read ideas, and observations from someone else’s point of view”¦ makes you think more. Keep up the good work. Greetings

  27. Hello from beautiful Montana:

    Thanks for the good information. I found your site when I was printing off a list of emotions. Go figure.

    You gave me a lot to think about. Maybe I need to edit some of my articles.

    Judy H. Wright aka Auntie Artichoke, family relations coach and author
    http://www.ArtichokePress.com

  28. Thanks for sharing This is a great post, I stumbled across your article while looking for some random stuff. Thanks for sharing, I’ll be sure to return regularly,

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