Written by Colette Nichol, Story Strategist and Solo Filmmaker
Estimated reading time: 17 minutes
Why is headline writing so important?
Using (and responding to) headlines is human nature.
My husband, Jimmy, works long hours as a handyman/gardener. So when he comes home at 5 pm, he’s tired. He might have spent all day wrestling with badly behaved shrubs.
If he’s sitting at the kitchen table reading a Canadian Tire magazine, do you think he wants to hear me talking about myself?
Nope. Jimmy wants rest, relaxation, and some alone time. If I were to approach him with the phrase “We need to talk,” or “Let me tell you about my day,” he wouldn’t respond. He wouldn’t even hear me. His brain would recognize that there was nothing good on offer, and he’d be deaf to my words.
But what if I were to casually ask him this: “Would you like a chocolate chip cookie?”
He’d respond immediately. (Yes, I’ve tried this experiment.) His brain would immediately see the benefit of answering.
“Did you buy some!?” he’d ask excitedly.
“Yup, here have one!”
Suddenly, I have his undivided attention. It’s the same with a good headline. A good (or even just not-terrible) headline will capture attention by dangling a desirable benefit.
Table of Contents
- Include a Clear Benefit in Your Headline
- Headlines in “Real Life”
- Where do you need to use good headlines?
- Top 3 Headline Formulas for Blogs
- Three Important Headline Formulas for Website Pages
- Rules of Headline Creation
- Guidelines for Writing Good Headlines
- SEO Stuff – So Your Headlines Boost Traffic
- Mistakes You’re Probably Making
- Step-by-Step Process for Writing Catchy Headlines
- Headline Formulas
- Trigger Words
How to Write Headlines That Are Enticing and Has a Clear Benefit
Your headlines need to be as enticing as an offer of free, freshly made cookies.
Your reader is always filtering through information with the question: Is this for me? The only way they can decide if something is right for them is if there’s a clear benefit.
Yet, when we write our websites, we biz owners are often self-centred.
We don’t put ourselves in our customers’ shoes and write for their problems, dreams, fears, and needs. We don’t offer up cookies. Instead, we write about how awesome we are and give a million esoteric details about what we do.
Often, we don’t even use headlines. We jump straight into shop talk without flagging our client down in the first place.
It’s like trying to leap into a moving taxi. You’ve got to flag that taxi down first before you can open the door and get in.
If you take a cold hard look at your website, can you honestly say that you’re writing with your customer in mind?
If it’s time to fix things, you need to start with your headlines. The headline is what captures attention. It’s the one main element that helps people decide whether to read more or click away. It’s also a critical part of making your website show up in Google Searches and result in clicks.
Real-Life Example of Headlines in Conversation
We use “headlines” all the time in conversation to get the attention of the people we want to talk to.
We just think of them as opening lines not headlines. Just take a look at the difference.
Would you like a cookie?
I’m going to the store—do you want anything?”
Are you feeling tired? Can I give you a massage?
Can I help you with anything?
What can I do to help you out?
We need to talk.
Jim told me that blah blah blah.
I thought I told you to do blah blah blah.
I need to tell you something.
I’m so great! Want to hear more?
I want something from you now.
Do you see the incredible difference between the Audience-Centred approach to talking to people and the self-centered approach?
Most of us try to be more audience-centered in real life. Yet, in our websites we suddenly become self-centered.
Where do you need to use good headlines?
The short answer is everywhere.
This is not an exhaustive list of where you need to have a good headline. If you need to capture attention in order to start a conversation with your ideal client in the online space then you need a good headline.
Here’s where you’ll need to make sure your headline is catchy:
- opt-in pop-ups
- sales pages
- website pages – especially the home page
- newsletter sign up page
- newsletter sign up links
- product pages
- blog posts
- social media posts
- subject lines of an email (BUT, there are some extra rules and extenuating circumstances around email subject lines)
What happens if you don’t have a good headline?
Your business explodes, and you’re banished to outer space.
Just kidding—but making sales is much more difficult.
First of all, it’s more difficult for Google to find you and suggest you in searches from your ideal client if you don’t have any headlines that include keywords. Next, if your ideal client does manage to find you, it’s more likely that they’ll click away if you don’t immediately tell them in big, bold words what they’re going to get if they stick around.
Imagine inviting a guest into your home and then ignoring them. That’s what creating a website page without a headline is like. You’re inviting them in but not orienting them. It’s a recipe for losing ideal clients.
What are the top 3 headline formulas for blogs?
If it’s yes or no it has to point towards you providing the solution. Never write a yes/no question that allows the reader to say to themselves, “Right, don’t need to read that!”
A good question headline will make the reader realize they need to know more.
Example: Are you over-frying your donuts?
People who are searching for how-to articles are further down the buyer’s journey than people searching big vague keywords. How To post are also highly popular so it’s a win-win for you.
Example: How to Make Delicious Gluten-Free Donuts
I have no idea why, but we humans love to click on lists. There’s a curiosity element about a list that we just can’t resist. Typically either shortlists or really long ones work best. So go for 3 steps, or 10 tips, or 101 Essential things.
Example: 107 Donut Recipes That’ll Make Your Mouth Water
3 Top Headline Formulas for Website Pages
THE STRUGGLE IS REAL
Are you struggling with + ideal client’s problem?
Do you need help with + ideal client’s problem?
Are you struggling with getting your small biz taxes done?
Are you struggling with growing your email list?
Are you struggling to grow your business organically?
Do you need help moving your investments from the USA to Canada?
Do you need help creating a communications strategy that attracts clients?
WHAT IF FANTASY
What if you could + amazing result your client wants + without the thing they don’t want.
What if you could learn filmmaking without going to film school?
What if you could grow your email list without guest blogging every week?
What if you could attract ideal clients without spending on advertising?
What if you could get more traffic without using over-priced Google Ads?
Imperative + thing client wants + positive modifier (time, experience, action)
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3 Rules of Headline Creation
Imply a problem and a solution whenever possible
This is the key to most copywriting online and offline.
As humans we’re either running away from pain (trying to solve a problem) or running towards pleasure (trying to improve our lives.)
But, you’ll often capture attention more easily if you flag a client problem. Why? Because we want to get rid of our problems. And if you have the solution, we’re willing to listen.
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Always include a keyword
Yup, this means you’re going to need to do keyword research. If you don’t do keyword research, then you’re basically throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping it’ll stick. Reality check: most of it won’t stick!
Every headline should include a keyword that your ideal client is actually searching for online. It’s a word or phrase that’s in their head. You’ve proven that people are searching for it by looking at the search volume results.
Get started with keyword research using either Keywords Everywhere or UbberSuggest.
Balance curiosity with clarity
Sure, your headlines should generate curiosity. But they still need to be clear. It’s hard to create an example of doing this wrong. But let me try…
This is Bad:
This Incredible Top-Secret Trick Will Change Everything
Since I have no idea what this top-secret trick is related to or what it’ll change, I’m not interested. It’s got curiosity but no clarity.
This is Good:
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Guidelines for Writing Good Headlines
- Keep your headlines short, i.e. around 7 words.
- Add a subheading that gives further explanation and also includes a keyword.
- Put a 3-4 word version of your headline as your website page URL.
- Try to use as few “filler” words as possible in your headline (prepositions, articles).
- Headlines that imply a positive outcome seem to do better than those with a negative implication.
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SEO Stuff for Writing Your Website Page Headlines to Boost Traffic
H1 and H2 Titles
On your website, the main headline on each page is called an H1 Headline.
You often also have the chance to give your page a navigation title as well. That’s important for clarity on your website navigation bar. But it’s not crucial for SEO.
You also have H2 headlines on your pages. These are sub-heads that should be a bit smaller than the headline. Both are important for being found by Google.
Make sure your H1 and H2 headlines both contain keywords. In Squarespace 7.1, these are called XLarge and Large headings (which is totally stupid, but hey, what can you do?) So if you’re using Squarespace your main headline is XLarge and your H2 is Large.
In Squarespace 7.0, they’re just called Headline 1 and Headline 2. Pretty simple. For WordPress and most other site builders, you’ll see the setting for H1 and H2 clearly in your text formatting bar.
In addition to your on-page H1 and H2 headlines, you often have the option to create a Site Title.
This title doesn’t show up on your actual website page, but it does show up on Google Search. Every single page can have a site title that can be different from the H1 title that’s on the page.
This title must be optimized with your keyword. If you don’t put a separate Site Title on each page, you’ll be automatically using the H1 headline. (Which can be okay too, it’s just less specific.)
But…what if you don’t have any H1 headlines on your page?
Actually, I’m not sure what happens then.
Probably Google doesn’t show your page to anyone in any search results. Why would they? It’s an incomplete page! If you’re the only one writing about the topic, then you’ll still likely get seen. But if there’s any competition, your stuff won’t be served up to people in search.
If this sounds confusing, don’t sweat it.
Start by making sure all your pages have H1 Headlines. Then if you want to be more strategic at a later date, you can go and modify your Site Titles.
Top 3 Mistakes You’re Making with your Headlines
I don’t think she said this first, but I once heard online marketing genius Marie Forleo say, “The clearest marketer wins.”
It’s true. You won’t draw your ideal client in with a headline that isn’t ultra-clear. Someone needs to instantly know what they’re going to get if they dig deeper into a website page, a Facebook post or a proposal.
Creating a false headline
“Blah blah blah will blow your mind”
Will it though? Will it really blow someone’s mind? That’s a big promise.
This is a trap. You want to grab attention, so you start using click-bait style headlines. And yeah, they grab attention, but they aren’t honest. You’ll lose trust. You won’t get people staying long on your page, and Google will penalize you.
Your headlines should not play with your readers’ emotions falsely. They should not ever break trust.
Forgetting about your ideal client
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If your ideal client is a soulful and soft-spoken person who would never want a “killer tip,” then don’t use that phrase in your headline. It’s also easy to start writing great headlines that don’t appeal to our ideal clients. So follow the number one rule of comedy: know your audience!
Get some extra tips on how to not mess up your headlines from marketing master, Sean De Souza. His YouTube video on headlines is very instructive.
Step-by-step Process for Writing Headlines for Your Website
1. Pick a keyword that’s important for your headline.
2. Check that your keyword actually gets searched and tweak as needed.
3. Write a boring headline. (Yup, just get the plane Jane headline on the page.)
4. Put the boring headline into Co-schedule Headline Analyzer and see how many points you get and what suggestions it gives you.
5. Start tweaking using the following prompts:
- Could it be a question?
- Could it be a list?
- What’s it going to make people do?
- What’s the result or benefit?
- Is there any emotion you can include?
- Can you include a number?
- Can you use any less common words?
- Can you shorten it?
- Can you use the word “You” in your headline
- Can the headline be in the imperative “Make…” “Do….” “Write…”
6. Once you get over 70 points on the Co-schedule Analyzer, you’re good to go. For sales pages, try to aim for over 80 if possible. But don’t sweat it.
Headline Tip: Start a Swipe File
This is a next-level suggestion, but if you need inspiration, it’s a good idea.
Swipe headlines from other industries on popular pages. Or check out the headlines of gossip magazines or sites like BuzzFeed.
Then use that structure to create headlines related to what you do. You’re piggybacking on the headline know-how of someone doing this way longer than you, but using it for your industry.
No, you shouldn’t copy a headline word-for-word. That won’t help you in search. But take headline formulas from other industries and modify them for your site.
Headline Formulas for Sales Pages and Website Pages
If you decide to go all-in on making better headlines, there are a million resources for doing so. You can find headline formulas all over the place. Just make sure you use them as a starting point. Always consider your ideal client before plugging in a headline formula. Use these headlines formulas with care:
- Do you have X problem?
- Are you struggling with X?
- Are you + terrible thing that’s happening? Ex: Are you feeling creatively stuck and stagnant?
- What are you doing about X?
- Have you tried to X?
- Do you need X right now?
- Do you know (curious important thing)?
- Make (thing they want) + (thing they want) Ex: Make more money doing what you love
- Make (thing they want) without doing (thing they don’t want) Ex: Make more money without spending a cent on Facebook ads
- Do (thing that they want) without (thing they don’t want)
Other great imperative words for starting boss headlines:
Try Using How-to Headlines for Blog Posts
The How-To Headline is the most popular headline formula on the internet. Here are some examples of various styles of that formula:
- How to (thing they want to do) + (short time frame)
- How to (thing they want) without (thing they don’t want)
- How to (thing they want) + (extra delicious modifier)
- How to feel (what they want) without doing (what they don’t want to do)
- How to (do something they want) without (negative emotional outcome or thing they don’t want)
- How to (thing they want) Even If (thing they think stands in the way)
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Get Those Headline Words Right!
There are some tricks of the trade when it comes to headline writing. You’ll pick up more of them
Trigger Words That Are Good for Headlines
Use These Key Words Only When Truthful
- How To
Helpful Words for Creating Curiosity
Even If | Without | And
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That last headline was obviously not mine. It’s from the world famous book by Dale Carnegie. Whether you like the book or not (it’s kind of nuts, but also full of timeless sales truths) that headline is damn good!
But what if I don’t have time to write good headlines?
Listen, there’s no way around it.
If you’re creating content for your website and you want to convert visitors into customers, you need good headlines.
Put it this way: if you have time to run a business, you have time to write headlines.
Still don’t want to do it yourself? Hire a copywriter.
They’ll write all those dang headlines for you! Obviously, I love writing headlines, so feel free to get in touch with me if you need any copywriting services or headline writing done for you.
Here’s the biggest takeaway you should be getting: Headlines Matter.
They matter a lot. They matter to Google search. They matter to your ideal customer. They should matter to you.
If your website has no headlines, that’s a priority website fix. If your website or blog has poor or confusing headlines with no keyword research, that’s also a priority fix.
When writing headlines make sure you keep your ideal client in mind and use keyword research as your guide.
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About the Author
Hey, I’m Colette, a story strategist, filmmaker, and entrepreneur based out of rainy Vancouver. Obsessed with personal development and marketing, you can often find me attempting to read ten books at the same time. Through this website, I help purpose-driven creatives make more money doing what they love. Join the inbox party: get actionable tips on how to make more money doing what you love and sign up for inspiring emails that actually make you feel better about your life and business.