How to write a headline

Business Writing That Sells. Part 11

I’ve been a professional writer since 1998 and as Editor for The Business Show and Business Startup, I have worked with literally thousands of business owners and entrepreneurs to improve their content marketing. As a freelance copywriter specialising in content marketing, I meet and talk with many entrepreneurs, start-up founders and owners of SMEs on a regular basis. I will share some of my secrets and tricks of the trade with you here. Today, we look at how to write a headline that grabs your customers’ attention and refuses to let go.


What does a headline do?

There’s an old saying among journalists that, “If the body copy tells, then the headline sells.” In other words, the headline sells the idea to the reader that the article (or press release, blog or marketing collateral) is worth investing their time. The sole purpose of a great headline is to convince the reader to… read! Traditionally, that was true of newspaper front pages, but it holds true for blogs, social media and web links in the 21st Century.

Approaches to headlines have always differed depending on the outlet, from The Sun’s sensational ‘Gotcha’ to the New York Times’ factual ‘Nixon Resigns’. But in today’s always-online marketplace, there is a very marked divide between ‘traditional’ headlines of any flavour and a desperate drive for the internet’s H1 headings to generate clicks. So let’s start there.

You’re bound to have seen headlines/links like this:

  • This girl opens her front door late at night. You won’t believe what happened next!
  • It looked like any normal box, but what’s inside is incredible!
  • What this man found in the morning post will change the way you open your mail forever!

And – quite possibly against your better judgement – you couldn’t resist clicking that link. The tantalising prospect of titillation, revelation or epiphany proved stronger than your cynicism. So you clicked. And were doubtless presented with a breathless account of a perfectly mundane event. We may well live an age of hyperbole, but how did that make you feel? Misled? Gullible? Stupid? Do you want to make your customers feel that way?


Do visits = profit?

Even after all these years of the internet, online marketers are still struggling to establish meaningful metrics for their effectiveness; cold, hard numbers they can present to the board to quantify and validate their work. The numbers they like to lean on are visits or clickthrough – how many users have viewed the marketing collateral as a result of that headline or link passing before users’ eyeballs. The higher the number, the better they look.

But do visits = profit? Only if your business model is as a content provider or it’s based on serving advertising. For everyone else – for any start-up or SME in the real world – the only thing you should care about is customer engagement after click-through. How do those clicks convert into sales? Why are you in business in the first place? To make money. Not to reach out to people. That’s why your metrics should be based on ‘conversion’ not ‘clickthrough’.

You can have all the visits in the world, but if they don’t translate into sales, you might as well shut up shop and go home. Although before you do that, I’d recommend firing your marketing goons and offering your audience a meaningful interaction instead…


What does a good headline do?

A good headline grabs the reader’s attention, ensures relevance, offers an overview of what follows and encouragement to read on. A good headline needs to grab the reader’s attention and make it impossible for them not to read your content. It’s a promise that their life will be enriched by reading your words – and that’s a promise you must be able to deliver on. Failing to deliver on that promise is to fail your customer – even before they are your customer – it’s almost a dictionary definition of an ‘own goal’.

But let’s assume that you have a meaningful offering. Whether it entertains or informs, you know you have content that’s worth your audience’s time. But how do you convince them to read it? That’s where your headline comes in.

It’s a busy world out there and you have to stand out to get noticed. But that doesn’t mean that whoever shouts loudest gets heard. The right message delivered to the right audience is worth any amount of shit flung at a wall and hoping some of it sticks.


Make your headline stand out without selling out

So you want to make sure that your headline doesn’t promise what your content can’t deliver, but that doesn’t mean your headline has to be boring. There’s nothing wrong with announcing your latest special offer, discount or incentive in plain English – and that’s often the most convincing way to go in business copywriting.

But how do you grab the audience’s attention if you don’t have an irresistible offer? Your communication is one of countless calls to action any consumer will be confronted with on any given day. Imagine your content in the context of all those cries for attention. Does is scream ‘ME!’ or ‘Me too?’ Your headline may be perfectly professional, but is it just a bit too… perfunctory?


Man bites dog: look for the unusual

We humans are a curious species and things that are out of the ordinary grab our attention. As journalists like to say, you never read about a plane that didn’t crash. It’s always the exception to the rule that will intrigue your readership. Jesse Lynch Williams famously wrote at the end of the 19th Century, “‘A dog bites a man – that’s a story; A man bites a dog’ – that’s a good story!”

Spend some time looking for the reason your story is unique and play on it. Add some colour with playful language and if your headline contains conflict, offers a solution or appeals to the reader’s greed, then so much the better!


Headline examples

Let’s take a look at some headline strategies that have proven effective. I’ll illustrate each of them with the mail scenario we encountered before:


10 ways to process your mail better

How to

How to process your mail more effectively

Direct and informative

Modern mail handling options explained

Pose a question

What’s stopping you processing your mail faster?

Offer a solution

This simple fix will help you process your mail faster

Start mid-argument

Mail is over for business. Here’s why…

Make an offer

Save 25% on mail handling with these easy steps


New software will help you handle your mail faster and save money

Tell a story

Find out how sped up their mail handling by 25%


OMG! Why your mail could be killing your business!


Yeah, probably don’t use that last one…

Although each of these examples seems very different, they share one thing in common; none of them feature the plain-faced statements you find in most press releases. OK, they share two things in common; These strategies have also proven to be effective in both generating readership and sales. Why? Because they not only engage the reader, but they offer something meaningful in exchange for their time.

Remember, your reader doesn’t care about your business, but they do care about what your business can do for them. Whether that’s saving them time, money or simply providing a quality service at a reasonable price, headlines are every bit as much about benefits over features as the content itself.


Choose your words carefully

Copywriters don’t choose the wording of their headlines at random – and neither should you! We work in key phrases that we know will not only generate clicks, but also profit, based on our knowledge of the market, audience research, sales results and experience.

Here are some keywords that are proven strong sellers to work into your headlines:

  • Why
  • Fast
  • Easy
  • Free
  • Save
  • Best
  • Bargain
  • Results
  • How to
  • Make money
  • Save money

Why? Because these words are a fast and easy way to offer your audience a free way to save money, bag the best bargains and achieve real results. If you can show your audience how to make or save money, then you’ve won a lifelong customer. Isn’t that what every business wants?


If you find the series – or any of the articles in it – useful, please share them via LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or your own blog. I’d really appreciate it, thanks. If you need professional copywriting for anything from your new web copy to marketing collateral and press releases, I’d love to hear from you. Get in touch today to find out how I could help your business.

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