Can You Write a Better Headline Than This? Not Using Old Headline Formulas You Can’t

Do you know the main difference between copy that converts and copy that doesn’t? You might think it’s the story it tells, or the offer it makes, or how well the bullets are written, or any of a dozen things.

But the answer is much more basic than that.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN COPY THAT CONVERTS AND COPY THAT DOESN’T IS—THE FORMER GETS READ; THE LATTER GETS CLOSED

And what makes people read copy? You probably don’t need me to cite any studies to know that it’s the headline.

Without a good headline, no one reads your copy. And if no one reads your copy, no one clicks your call to action.

That’s why the headline is the most important element on the page. David Ogilvy, the great mad man, found that of everyone who reads a headline, only 20% read the copy. Pareto’s Principle at work.

Drayton Bird, perhaps the most experienced direct marketer in the world, suggests spending 80% of your time writing your headline. Put most of your effort into the thing that will yield the greatest returns.

And common sense suggests that if you rely on using words to make money, learning to write great headlines is more important than mastering every other copywriting trick combined. If your headlines don’t telegraph to your reader a message that gets him nodding and compels him to read on, you might as well give up copywriting immediately.

WHY YOU SHOULD USE A FORMULA FOR WRITING HEADLINES—BUT NOT THE ONE YOU ALREADY KNOW

You could power New York with all the electrons that have been (ab)used to produce articles, books, courses, and particularly formulas about writing headlines.

There’s a good reason for that. Formulas help us apply fundamental principles in a repeatable, consistent way. And even after doing that becomes second nature, formulas still make useful checklists.

But while there are some good headline formulas out there, they suffer from two problems:

  1. They’re too forced—“ultra-specific”, really?—which makes them hard to remember; and,
  2. They typically lack a key element which is extremely important to effective headlines on the web. (Not so much for offline writing—but definitely for web writing.)

I’ll talk about that element at the end. For now, let me introduce you to the SHINE headline formula. Why “SHINE”? Because after I’d picked out the five elements that go into a successful headline, and plugged their initial letters into an anagram generator, that was the only English word that came out.


S is for Specificity

If you are vague about the value of reading your copy, your reader will be too. Needless to say, he then won’t read it.

Nothing is as uninteresting as vagueness. Specific and concrete facts, on the other hand—particularly ones that form pictures in our minds—are intensely interesting.

So the first thing you must do to create a winning headline is use objective, quantifiable language. Figures are excellent; they imply research, which adds to your perceived legitimacy. But all kinds of specificity are good: names, descriptions—including of your reader himself; Mel Martin made millions writing “For people who…” headlines—titles, examples, projections, results, and so on.

Avoid subjective claims that anyone can make. “The number one ___”, “The leading ___”, etc. These are meaningless; like claiming your newborn is the most beautiful baby in the world. Everyone says that kind of thing, and studies show these sorts of claims actually reduce readership significantly, because people give them the same sort of attention they give to banner ads—i.e., none at all.

A WORD ABOUT LENGTH

A headline you can read in a single glance obviously communicates its content more effectively than one you cannot. Usability research shows that people not only scan body copy, but headlines as well—and they tend to take in only the first and last 3 words. This suggests the perfect length for a headline is 6 words.

Of course, that’s seldom enough to tilt the specificity-meter into the red. And I have it on good authority that some of the highest-converting headlines on the web are as long as 30 words. As a rule, if it won’t fit in a tweet it’s too long. But let me suggest that rather than worrying about length you should worry about making every word count. Especially the first and last 3—and if that means using the passive voice, so be it.


H is for Helpfulness

For your reader to see value in your copy, you must show how it will help him. Sounds obvious, yet most headlines give readers no clear idea of how reading the copy will help them—and so they don’t read it.

To make your headline helpful, simply speak to the issue which is foremost in your reader’s mind—the problem he came to your site to solve. People understand that what’s stated in the headline implies a solution in the copy. It can be explicit, as in 37Signals’s “Basecamp is the project management tool you wish you had on your last project.” Or it can be implicit, as in Saddleback Leather’s “They’ll fight over it when you’re dead”—implying both remarkable durability and enviable aesthetics and functionality.

Alternatively, if your reader isn’t yet aware of the problem, simply begin by stating it directly—as in the headline, “Toxic Killers in Your Grocery Cart”.


I is for Immediacy

Speaking of toxic killers, your headline should be so interesting that your reader cannot help but read on immediately.

Why immediately? Why not just be interesting enough to avoid the back button? Well, let me ask you: how many browser tabs do you keep open because their contents look interesting, and you fully intend to read them…later? If you’re anything like me, it’s so many that you’ve signed up for a service like Instapaper or Readability just so you can create an ever-growing list of things you really must read later, to hang over your head like a gradually descending zeppelin, slowly reaching such epic proportions that the only solution, in an eventual but inevitable act of desperation, is to set the whole thing on fire and watch it burn.

Anyway, you know from experience that if you don’t read it right away the odds are slim you’ll read it at all. The same is true of anyone reading your copy.

Creating immediacy is obviously easier for topics with greater emotional appeal; more difficult if you’re selling something like project collaboration software—which, with apologies to Jason Fried, few people really get worked up about. Nonetheless, you can do it for anything if you appeal to your reader’s self-interest. Focus on desires rather than needs, as these are, strangely, stronger.

Even better if you can tease him while doing so. Curiosity is an immensely powerful motivator. Paradoxes, quizzes, an implied danger or reward, or even simple questions can inflame a headline’s immediacy by playing to your reader’s curiosity—almost forcing him to read the copy. Here’s a classic that illustrates the irresistible power of the self-interest and curiosity combo:

“How Safe Is Your ____?”

Useful for a wide range of things, from information products to security systems to hats. How safe is your head from bird flu carried in pigeon droppings?


N is for Newsworthiness

To give your reader a reason to spend time in your copy, as opposed to your competitor’s, your headline must say something he hasn’t heard before. Or, more precisely, something he thinks he hasn’t heard before.

Obvious, generic, or familiar statements will put a bullet in your foot. In fact, anything that makes him think, “I already know what this is about.”

In other words, your headline must have news value. This doesn’t have to mean actual news—although headlines starting with “Now”, “Finally”, “Announcing”, “At last” and so on are all tested winners. But it can be as simple as the example I gave from Saddleback Leather: “They’ll fight over it when you’re dead.” How many leather goods companies emphasize quality and looks as their “unique” selling points? Probably all of them. But Saddleback gets away with appealing to the exact same USP by simply phrasing it differently.

Indeed, by putting your headline in terms of a story, you guarantee a unique spin. You also guarantee the critical element most headlines on the web lack—which brings us to our final point…


E is for Entertainment value

People today are information grazers. With so many blogs to read, so many things to Like on Facebook, so many tweets to scan, so many videos to watch…sales copy stands in boring contrast. Even non-sales copy.

Headlines which promise some entertainment in the copy succeed more often than those which don’t.

This is something you don’t see emphasized very often in headline formulas. In fact, since much of the advice you’ll read about writing headlines comes from the Cult of Claude Hopkins, you may even hear that copy should not seek to entertain at all. Hopkins famously said a salesman is not a clown.

But Hopkins wrote nearly a century ago, in a very different world. Although most marketing principles are universal, some things do change, so let me put this as bluntly as I can:

People on the Internet will not be bored.

Now, being entertaining doesn’t mean you should include the sorts of stupid “clever” gimmicks you see in much advertising—self-indulgent puns, whimsical turns of phrase and other such rubbish. That is worse than useless.

But stories, the oldest form of entertainment, are highly effective. So is humor, if used cautiously, but you must understand the kind of humor your reader likes and what he’s comfortable joking about.

Here’s a great example of the combined power of story and humor, written by the master of email, Ben Settle:

“How Even Skinny, ‘Barney Fife’ Cops Single-Handedly Control And Dominate Violent Criminals, Gang-Bangers And Other Cold-Blooded Killers…Without Even Drawing Their Guns!”


Making a headline SHINE

Let’s put all this to work. I’d like to help you construct a headline here, so you can see how the principles I’ve covered make headlines SHINE.

You know Mulder, I presume. Agent Fox Mulder of the FBI? If you haven’t seen The X-Files, he’s the guy who “wants to believe”. So let’s imagine we’re selling an information product that compiles all the world’s best UFO data into a comprehensive report. Mulder—or someone like him—is our ideal prospect.

Let’s start with specificity. This product is for the FBI agent who wants to believe. Can it be that simple to really get Mulder’s attention? Yes it can.

Right, how about helpfulness? What is it that Mulder will want out of this product? I’m thinking easy access to data which is normally scattered across multiple sources. He needs all the world’s UFO data at his fingertips.

Okay, what about immediacy? Well, Mulder’s job is often dangerous. Having the right data available in an alien encounter could be the difference between life and death. He doesn’t want to die because he didn’t know something.

Now, news. It’s pretty unlikely anyone is currently offering a product like this. But we can easily imagine that Mulder has often wished for one. Finally, we have created it for him—so we can play off that news factor for even more pulling power.

As for entertainment value, a man like Mulder is intensely curious, competitive, driven, highly skilled, and knowledgeable. Someone who can’t resist a challenge, who can’t resist finding out the answer to something, and who can’t resist perhaps showing off to himself a little. The kind of man who loves to test himself. Which gives us:–

For the FBI agent who wants to believe…
Can’t survive our “alien invasion” quiz?
Now you can get all UFO data right on your smartphone

About the Author: As well as being an expert on headlines, Bnonn is the author of a free video series covering all the elements of turning visitors into customers—from headline to CTA. Known in the boroughs as the Information Highwayman, he helps small businesses by improving both their copy and web design. When he’s not knee-deep in the guts of someone’s homepage, he is teaching his kids about steampunk, Nathan Fillion, and how to grapple a zombie without getting bit.

  1. Amazing article, this is my 2nd or 3rd week I’m subscribed to the newsletter and every day I find new amazing articles. Great job Kissmetrics. I followed many suggestions about how to create a good headline and it really works. For a youtube video I changed the title into something “SHINE”. The video was up on youtube for about 3 months with a generic title (around 1000 views), after I changed it, in about 4 months the video was viewed about 14,000 times and over 20 comments. Headline is a key element not just for blog posts but also for youtube videos and tweets.

  2. Thanks Virgil – that makes our day!

    It’s true – headlines are so very important. But it’s so easy to get lost in the depths of an article, video, or webpage and end up glossing over the headline or title.

    I believe the key to creating great content is to write a great headline first and then outline your content based on the headline. A great headline will provide an awesome sense of direction for the rest of your piece.

  3. This is a fantastic article. I love how you use this formula to write the headlines and I will most certainly be sharing this with my readers. As Sugarman states, the purpose of the headline is to get people to read the first line and on it goes… Terrific article. The headline certainly got my attention.

  4. This is a great article on headline writing, both online and offline. But for me does not live up to its own headline.
    The points covered here are mentioned in most copywriting books (even the ones before web).
    The SHINE formula is very similar to the four-U’s (I heard from Bob Bly).

    Anyway, like I said SHINE is still a great headline tool to have in your bag of tricks.
    And would probably be best used as a quality control to strengthen a headline.

  5. Steve, sure, SHINE is similar to Four Us. But as I mention in the article, formulas like the Four U and others don’t usually talk about entertainment value, and they usually make the other elements needlessly complicated or obfuscated. “Unique”—what does that even mean? It means newsworthy. Ultra-specific? Really? It just has to be specific! Etc. So that’s why I think SHINE is an improvement :)

  6. I thought the headline of my recent post, “Leprechaun with a Gun” would have attracted more readers. It seemed Specific, Helpful (for getting a laugh), Immediate (I want to know more about this . . ), Newsworthy (well, no, not this century), and Entertaining, for sure. But hardly anyone is searching on the phrase, “Leprechaun with a Gun.” I should have called it, “Can You Come Up with a Title Better than ‘Leprechaun with a Gun’?”

  7. This is a constructive and good article. When executed well, the entertainment element (which I think of as using your headline to imply or introduce a story) is particularly powerful in your headline. However, it is also VERY difficult to execute properly, which is why many educational copywriting resources treat it with care and after the basics have been pounded home.

    What is important to note when writing headlines is that there is a significant distinction between creating a headline in a totally new market with no products (but existing demand) and doing so in a competitive market where products already exist. The latter scenario is far more common and also difficult to navigate flawlessly. Finding that perfect hook that blends all the elements you listed often takes considerable time, but the payoff is huge when you get it right.

    Either way, beginning your headline writing with this system (or that of another teacher) is a far better place to start from than going about it willy nilly.

  8. Great article!!

  9. Thanks for the post. I have been blogging for a couple of weeks and am beginning to understand the importance of a good headline to attract people to the post you have worked on so hard to make just right.

  10. Interesting article, Kiss Metrics great job!

    I think Twitter 140 character is the best example, where 140 characters headlines make more sense then that of copy content. Those 140 characters headline is the potential tools to create more engagement and interactions.

  11. Yes! Its true that SEO is the biggest source of income as well as it is the another way to enlarge a Web site’s traffic counts, and eventually conversions, by position very high in the results of searches for the keywords in the search query. It is the mission of SEO to make the site’s content worthy of higher search engine ranking by being more relevant and competent than the competition’s.
    Thank you for sharing with us. Keep it up

  12. Thanks so much for giving such concrete examples of writing good headlines. My dog website has news articles and this will help me come up with more compelling headlines. Your generosity is much appreciated.

    • Plus anyone who loves steampunk AND Nathan Fillion is obviously a man of great taste.

  13. Totally awesome article – thanks!
    I work a lot with start-ups, and nailing a set of headlines to split test is one of the first things we look at. Will encourage them all to read this:)
    Another simple exercise I go through is to state a key noun, verb and adjective – as every product or service is a THING that helps the customer DO something, hopefully in a unique way. This is a great way of sifting down to what is important to the customer.

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