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.