Read any copywriting manual or article, and it’ll tell you that the headline is the most important part of your sales copy. That’s true.
Unfortunately, the advice that follows is often originates from snail-mail sales letters from the 1950s. I researched 500 headlines of successful online businesses and figured out which formulas work today.
Table of contents
- Which headlines do I mean?
- The bad advice you’re usually given about site headlines
- Two key questions to weed out bad headlines
- Three headline formulas that work
- Headline formula #1: Say what it is.
- Headline formula #2: Say what you get.
- Headline formula #3: Say what you’re able to do (with it).
- Better than a headline: Make it a unique value proposition.
Which headlines do I mean?
Let’s make one thing clear: I’m not referring to headlines for blog posts or other editorial content headlines. Cosmo-style headlines may work for your personal blog, but it’s not going to sell products. What I’m talking about is the headline on your website homepage or a product page.
Like here, the headline is “Classic Chocolate,” which is way too vague. Classic chocolate what?
Or, for Loom, “Video recording, simplified,” a better, more descriptive headline:
The bad advice you’re usually given about site headlines
Most articles on copywriting tell you to use Cosmo-style headlines (e.g., “The $4 Beauty Trick You Need to Steal from Rachel Bilson”) or those age-old “Who Else Wants to Learn Killer Sales Secrets?” headline formulas.
They’re cute, but we’ve evolved. Decades of ad bombardment and cheap sales tactics have made people uber-sensitive to cheesy or self-important jargon.
Here are the kind of headlines you usually get recommended to write:
- “The Secret of Successful Writing (that Only Successful Writers Know About)”;
- “At Last! Scientists Uncover the Secret to Preventing Ugly Wrinkles.”
These are headlines I copied from a copywriting article. Who in the real world wouldn’t be thrown off by these? If your target market is full of uneducated, get-rich-quick-with-a-click people, it might work. If you’re marketing a real business to real people, think twice.
A prominent copywriting blog, Copyblogger, has tons of articles on writing “as cheesy as it gets” headlines for blog posts, but they use the solid “say what it is” approach for their homepage headline:
People yearn for authenticity. Our bullshit detectors are always on. Our attention spans have gone down. We’re too impatient to figure stuff out. If your headline sucks, you may not get another chance.
One goal of a headline is to build a rapport between you and the reader. Nobody identifies with a snake-oil salesman. Despite that, here’s another headline writing tip I found:
“Internet Marketing Exclusive is Pure Genius — Our Sales Have Increased by 40%!”
Headlines written in the form of a testimonial are very effective, as they instantly begin building trust.
Oh really? “Instant trust,” you say? Nope. This kind of copy will kill your sales. As David Ogilvy said, “The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife.”
My advice: Wake up and realize it’s not 1964 (or 1994, or 2004) anymore. You can’t rehash that old stuff. Don’t use scandalous blog headlines on your business website if you want conversions. Talk and write like a real person.
Two key questions to weed out bad headlines
When pondering a headline, see if you can answer “yes” to both of these questions:
- Imagine your website would be just your headline and a call to action (e.g., sign up, learn more, call now, etc). Would anyone take action based on your headline?
- Would you use the exact wording of your headline in a conversation with a friend to explain your product/service?
Yes, there are always exceptions, but use this as a guideline to get you on the right path.
Three headline formulas that work
I hate the word “formula” as much as the next guy, but I’m gonna call these formulas anyway.
How did I come up with these? Not by rehashing age-old formulas or copywriting truths. I actually analyzed more than 500 headlines of successful web companies.
- Web company. Companies that get all or most of their business online (so the headline on their website is important).
- Successful. I looked at graduates of top start-up incubators (e.g., Y Combinator, Techstars, 500 startups) that achieved commercial success as well as businesses that made it onto the Inc. 5000. I generally avoided companies that were already huge and successful (e.g., Amazon, Google, Facebook, etc.). Those guys operate on totally different terms.
Not all companies had great headlines. Many headlines sucked or were absent entirely. A headline does not make or break a business—but nailing it can help a lot. Looking at these headlines, I discovered trends (i.e. “formulas”) that were working for these businesses.
Still, these headline formulas are merely blueprints to help you craft a good headline. There’s no way to know in advance which headline will work for you. You have to split test your site headlines.
Disclaimer: While I did extensive analysis for this, it’s not a scientific method. Also, I did not have their A/B testing data. That said, I strongly believe the formulas I derived from this will work very well. I use them all the time.
Headline formula #1: Say what it is.
The brain is a questioning organ. Whenever we see something new, our brain asks, “What is it?” This formula addresses that fundamental question.
AirBnB: “Book unique places to stay and things to do.”
Rocket Mortgage: “A simpler way to buy a home or refinance.”
Bear Mattress: “Mattresses Designed to Improve Your Sleep”
Headline formula #2: Say what you get.
This formula is a benefit-oriented statement that sums up what you get when you sign up.
Otterbox: “Less laboring. More outdoorsing.”
LendingPoint: “Get the Credit You Deserve”
ConvertKit: “Connect with your audience. Make a living doing work you love.”
Headline formula #3: Say what you’re able to do (with it).
This is where the headline makes it clear what you’re able to accomplish if you use this product or service
Songkick: “Find your perfect concert in ________.”
Next Big Sound: “Grow through the power of Pandora.”
Crazy Egg: “Make your website better. Instantly.”
Notice how many of the headlines are reinforced with a supporting image? #smart
Better than a headline: Make it a unique value proposition.
A good headline alone isn’t enough—it needs help. That’s why you should always use headline as a part of a larger value proposition. Include
- A sub-headline to boost clarity;
- An intro paragraph to explain the service;
- Bullet points to emphasize benefits.
The sum of all of three will help you deliver a more effective message.
Remember: People scan; they don’t read. The structure I just described is extremely scan-friendly and enables to you to quickly deliver your main message to visitors.
Another important point: You don’t want to be a commodity. Google “project management software” and look at the different sites. “Easy project management,” “Fast, Easy and Efficient Project Management,” “Online project management made simple,” and so on. It all sounds the same.
People comparison shop. They want to be able to tell different options apart. You have to be different in an obvious way, or you’ll be “like all the others,” and your headline will fall flat.
The formulas I’ve outlined here work for a lot of successful companies. And they might work for you, too, (or might not). But they’re great starting points to get started with headline split testing.
If you test any of these formulas on your site, please let me know your findings.
Join the conversation
Add your comment
You think that the adroll one is a really solid headline? I mean why am I supposed to believe that it’s #1? The supporting copy doesn’t even explain why they’re #1.
Maybe something like “Target Your Website Visitors When They Are On Facebook”
or “Simple & Effective Facebook Retargetting”
In the examples I was only demonstrating possible ways to use the formula, ignoring the rest of the copy.
I agree that the #1 statement is usually a turn-off, but when you go to their site you see that they back it up – they’re no. 7 on the Inc 5000 list (and #1 Advertising Company in the same list). 7th fastest growing company in the US with 3-year growth of 11,082% (yes thats over 10k %). Impressive feat. So the headline is not fluff actually.
I think #1 Ad Retargeting is a smart headline, because they are selling their position. They are first to the market. This headline wouldn’t work, if they couldn’t back it up.
Oglivy said: the first question shouldn’t be how to sell a product, it should be how to position it.
AdRoll is doing tons of activity to support their claim so that while people might believe it if they land cold from a search engine, when they start seeing them in articles, conferences, and around the web, the idea will stick.
I don’t work for AdRoll either :) That said, this headline won’t work in 1-2 years when the market gets crowded and whoever was first doesn’t really matter for the buyer.
Marketing is about helping people choose–choosing the safe choice of the clear market leader is always a good way to go, if you are really the #1 selling product.
Homepage headlines and blog post headlines are two different games, wouldn’t you say?
One is more about clicking through via on-site and shares (writing headlines for Twitter, etc.), and the other is about informing new visitors on your offering.
In fact, using them in tandem (outrageous headlines to get them on-site, straightforward headlines on the homepage to inform them) are what I see many marketing related sites doing.
For sure. This post is *only* about home page headlines. And the cheesy ones I listed on the post were definitely recommended as website headlines
Awesome post Peep. I’ve got to point out though, that the CrazyEgg.com headline is a standard formula from the old school copywriting techniques. “The Astonishing (blank) of (product/service)…” —- which is combined with —- “How to do X with out Y.”
Still this is a killer post. I think it’s interesting that most of the businesses that would be in that sample you pulled are relatively new businesses. It’s interesting how this relates to Market Sophistication as Eugene Schwartz defined it.
What I mean is, is there a phase that these business go through where people wonder what they are? So, they’ve got to tell people what they are and what their product can do.
After these businesses establish their brand, and their marketing teams begin to focus more on growth/user acquisition… Or, capturing as much of the market as they can. Do would they switch to more direct response style messaging? OR to something else even?
It’d be an interesting question to answer.
Keep jammin Peep! Thanks for another good post.
Of course, Amazon and Adobe dont have to explain who they are. However, most companies never get so big and well-known that they have to stop explaining.
Yes, the companies in the list are new as I wanted to only look at little known businesses that get customers online so the headline could have an impact.
Headline on a Microsoft website matters much less.
As for the Crazyegg headline, it also conforms to the new formula:)
Thanks for the good post, Peep.
Fun detail – I was surprised that you picked “Find your perfect case” for Otterbox headline. The visual design does not emphasize it as one, I really had to take a conscious second look at the screenshot to even find that phrase there.
At first glance I only noticed the “Protection for what’s next” line and the image with the phone cases.
Hi Priit, I found the same thing! I saw “Protection for what’s next” first, which is meaningless as a phrase until you know it means protection for phones etc…
Guess that shows that planning a site’s design and where you put your main headline is just as important as getting that headline right.
I agree, the design sucks ass. But the headline fits the formula, and I wanted to use an example for a tangible product.
And – Otter Box sales are through the roof, 2011 Revenue:$347.5 million
I don’t know how much of it is online, but I’m sure it’s some of it.
All three formulas are right on the money. Like Felix Dennis would say this is the formula to make “filthy lucre” (that means a whole bunch of money)
yes for the first one “you must let let the person know what this is by letting them know what it is” from there they would have already known if theyre interested or not
for the second one you tell them how its going to benefit them by telling them what theyre getting
and the third what the person will be able to accomplish with it.
Man I like this article alot man, great job
Great post – so good in fact that I downloaded the Web Copywriting Bible. But that’s when it went wrong for me and I asked and received a prompt full refund. Here’s what went wrong for me:
1. I thought this was an ebook – I may not have read that properly, and it seems it’s rather than more of a workshop/work book. I really don’t have time to do anything other than read, my business and site are already up and running.
2. The link I followed went from your blog Peep, to a completely new place, which I assumed was some sort of shopping basket.
3. Then I had to open a ruddy account with this shopping basket before I could get the ebook, why should I give them my details? Who are they?
4. So after trying to buy without creating an account, I finally paid and got a link in return that made no sense, I didn’t know what it was linking to and I didn’t ‘know’ the company it’s from, that opened up something that made no sense at first glance. I honestly don’t even know what I was looking at, web page? More links? The actual ebook? Who knows? But it was still something to do with a company I’d never heard of before, and it began to look like what ever it was I’d purchased was pretty much like the content of your blog anyway.
5. I bought it because of the offered the money back guarantee and at this stage I just wanted my money back and to get out of here. I’d lost all trust in the shopping basket place and quite a lot in you Peep. I won’t be so fast to follow a link from you again.
So, sorry that it’s frank, but that was my experience
Thanks for sharing and Im sorry for all the trouble. I did mention that its a course on Startup Plays, but of course that didnt help your experience. I will take your feedback seriously and consider from now on to only have products available on my own site rather than external platforms.
Very inspiring article! Based on it I already started to make own comparison for the growth companies in my country. In the meantime, did you found any cohesion or difference between home page headline vs. title/meta element? In the first sight I can say that many of the companies have a really bad headline, or don’t have it at all. If they have a good headline, you can find that they are using it also in title-element in a nearly similar way.
Good post, thank you, and it did make me to click through to you workshop although a few bumps like the case case companies headline which I think is actually the call to action.
I’d also say that the testimonial headline could work if a) it’s true b) not full of hyperbole and c) it has an accompanying image of the person, not just any person but the one who said it.
I have yet to test this myself, although will soon, but have seen it on a few other growing web companies as the best version after testing.
Thanks again Peep
Great post and some very good examples. My only worry with this is that people will start to switch off to these types of headings – I’m already doing so.
BEST piece of copy writing transparency I’ve seen in a coon’s age! Your headline tips and samples are genuinely helpful and I’m happy to know you’re kicking those old-style hype-ridden headlines to the curb. :)
Discovered you thanks to my fellow Word Carnival blogger, Eugene Farber, of “Reality Burst”.
Thanks Peep. Many of the examples demonstrated would score well on what I call the trust monitor, rating on inclusivity, disclosure, transparency, competency and authenticity.
It’s a big ask for a few words backed up by a sub head and a scan of the overall site, but when it works you are far more likely to click through.
I wonder why though, people are still duped into clicking through on ‘the secrets of…’ type headlines. It must appeal in a powerful way to our lizard brain?
I laughed quietly on the $4 beauty secret of Rachel Bilson – who on earth would ever believe Rachel Bilson uses something that costs $4 to help her maintain her appearance when she could apparently enjoy luxurious products?! That being said, she actually MAY use inexpensive stuff and I don’t mean to make her look shallow, but I really doubt that’s the case. Such headlines are kind of annoying, cause they make me feel like they thought I was stupid enough to believe that crap. Really bad approach to prospect customers!
Simply awesome tips, and great examples. Killer apps needs killer titles, similarly killer sites needs killer headlines.
This was a really helpful article. Did you find any ‘clever’ headlines on successful website pages?
Excellent post. I was checking constantly this blog and I’m impressed!
Extremely useful information specifically the last part :) I care for such
information a lot. I was looking for this particular info for a very long time.
Thank you and best of luck.
Thanks for the post.
It’s useful to be reminded of the differences between writing for posted letters, emails and web pages.
As a self-taught bootstrapping business person I need all the help I can get and will be reviewing my headlines accordingly.
Oh and BTW, I’ll be testing a change to my mailout letter – I’ll post the results in a few weeks time.
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