Crane with text "Constructing the perfect headline"

Headline writing, more than anything else, will determine the success or failure of your ad. Research tells us 60% of people never get past your headline. That is a massive drop off, so if your headline is bad, it doesn’t matter how good your content is, it is never going to get seen.

A good headline has to pull your reader in. It has to grab their attention and make them eager to find out more. I have put together some headline writing tips with headline examples to help your content get read.

No time to read - you can watch instead.

Give me a reason to read on

“What’s in it for me?” People are looking for benefits. Why should they read, what will they learn? Putting a benefit in the headline makes it much more attractive, so make your reader a promise. Write from the reader’s perspective – what issue are you solving for them?

This can be a real tangible benefit – a performance upgrade, a life goal or it can be a perceived benefit like the Nike poster below.

Example: Get out of debt faster.

Nike billboard
The benefit written in a clever way

I wrote this ad for Abes Bagels. These are bagel chips that have 72% less fat than potato chips. 

This appeared during Fashion Week, so that was relevant information.

I could  have just written a line, “Low fat chips.” That would have worked but it is not that interesting. A headline like, “72% less fat than potato chips.” would have worked better. News and a compelling number. 

We went with this headline because it evoked an image in the reader’s mind. It makes you smile and it gets the point across quickly.

Abes Bagels print ad
Abes Bagels print ad

Use numbers

Actual figures are very persuasive your headline writing. It is evidence, it makes your headline believable. They are facts that are hard to argue with. There is something about data that tickles our curiosity. Percentages, ratios or actual sums are intriguing. Where you can, use actual number, don’t round up – 23.4% sounds much more convincing than 25%.

Example: Accounting software used by 3 out of 4 small businesses – If I am one of those businesses that isn’t using the software I am going to ask myself why, what am I missing?

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Ask a question

If you have the answer to someone’s problem, ask the question. You are initiating a conversation, which is good. It is a stepping-stone – you are providing an answer that someone has been looking for. It can be much more interesting than a statement.

Example: Vegetables are good for you. This is a statement you can’t argue with – but a bit flat as as a headline. If I turn it into a question, Are vegetables really good for you? – it becomes more enticing, I want to find out the answer, I think I know it but is there something I’m missing?

If I had a skincare product, I could just go with a headline that was a statement – Revive your skin. I could make that better if I made it more specificRevive your skin in 5 days. If I turn that into a question, it gets even better – Want revitalised skin by next week?

Speak directly to your reader

Connect with you reader by using “you” and “your.” You are talking directly to them, rather than using a more impersonal pronoun.

Example: I could write a line in the third person – Turn monthly sales goals into weekly targets or I could re-write that in the second person – Reach your monthly sales goals in a week.”

Fish for prizes Shell ad
Shell promotion

This was the most successful promotion Shell ever had in New Zealand. It advertised an app customers could use to digitally fish from a boat. If they were lucky they hooked a prize. The headline landed lots of bites.

Breaking news

Headlines with news are always winners. The news can be an announcement, a product improvement, an innovation or price. According to David Ogilvy, ads with news are recalled by 22% more people.

Example: Don’t be scared to use words like Now, Introducing, More, Better. They are used a lot because they work.

Be specific

People want to know the facts that apply specifically to them. If you are Amazon or Walmart you can probably get away with a “Something for everyone” headline. The targeting of your ad will already narrow your focus. Mirror that strategy with your headline.

If only 60% of the people read your headline then it has to do 90% of the work. Your logo will fill in the 10% they don’t know.

Your headline should communicate just one thing, no AND or PLUS. One message and one take-out from your line.

Use quotes

Quotes are evidence of success. Quotes from customers, users or experts in your field carry a lot of weight with your reader.

You can use them to show efficacy – “My sales increased by 14%.” Use quotes to underline customer satisfaction but again, use the words that are specific rather than just general praise – “I couldn’t be happier” is nowhere near as compelling as a quote with a fact. Stick to your communication objective.

Economist poster headline
One of the best ad quotes of all time.

Keep your headlines short

Writing billboard headlines is one of the toughest test for a copywriter. People drive past a billboard at 60 kmph. They have to be seen and read at a glimpse.

The letters have to be big so they can be seen from a distance, so you learn that the headline has to be short.

Ideally, four to six words, any longer and you have already driven past, on to the next billboard.

There is no room for copy. The whole message is just a headline, picture, tagline and a logo. The headline has to tell you everything you need to know.

Those same lesson apply to any headline you write, whether it is a headline on a banner, a Facebook ad, an email subject line or a YouTube video. People are flying past every message they see. Clear and easy to read headlines work best.

Write then chop

The way to write a short crisp headline is to focus on the one thing you want to communicate.

Write it ten different ways and then edit. Chop out all the words you don’t need until you have a short headline.

There is a balance between being clear and being succinct. Brevity comes with practice.

The stopping power of headlines

Newspapers perfected the art of writing a great headline. They had to literally stop you in the street and make you put your hand in your pocket so you could read more.

The Sun, love it of loathe it, was extremely good at writing short, sharp headlines that held a nation’s attention. Quick, clear communication that often made you smile.

By the way – you very rarely see punctuation in a newspaper headline. No full-stops, never an exclamation mark! A good headline doesn’t need them. They are short, in bold large type, so don’t let anybody tell you a line needs an exclamation mark.

The Sun newspaper with classic headline "Freddy Starr ate my hamster

Headline writing is a crucial skill

Your headline, more than anything else will determine the success of your ad. A picture might be worth a thousand words but it is the headline that makes sense of it.

Writing great headlines takes practise. Be clear first and clever second. Don’t give you reader an excuse to skip to the next headline they see.

About the writer: Steve Girdlestone is a professional copywriter who has worked in advertising for many years all over the world.