5 Criteria for Writing Powerful Headlines: Introducing Our “Headline Scorecard”

Measure your powerful headlines

The single greatest question a marketer can ask is this:

What’s the headline?

You’d think that a marketer should be most focused on the higher-level questions. Like, “Are we growing?” or “How did our campaigns perform?” or “What’s our net profit?” or “What did they say about us?”

Those are all good questions.

But they’re not the best questions. The answers to each of them are directly tied to the biggest, smartest and best question of all:

What’s the headline?

Not growing? Look at your Plans & Pricing headline. Last three campaigns tanked? Look at your sales page headlines. Yes, the headline is more tactical than strategic, but startups and growth hackers can’t just brush off tactics the way bloated giants can – you’ll usually do well to look to your tactics to see why things are going right or wrong.

So, for every page on your site,
what’s the mother-effing headline, y’all?

The headline is not important because it will sell your product; in fact, a powerful headline is not designed to sell at all. The headline is not important simply because master advertiser the late-great David Ogilvy told us it is: “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.” (That’s perhaps the most over-cited quote in marketing, but it’s a good one, so I’m not gonna stop using it.)

Here’s why the headline of every page on your site – from your home page to your About Us page – is critically tied to your marketing successes or failures…

Your Headline Is Your First Point of Connection
With Your Prospect or Customer

In marketing, everything comes down to the connection between you and your prospect. You know this to be true because you’ve read so much about product-market fit, learning from users, targeting an audience and narrowing to a niche. Your landing page headline is your first point of true connection with your prospect. It’s the point at which either they feel welcomed into your space – as if you may have something that could serve them well – or they feel unwelcome, out of place or even rejected.

The opportunity to sell something – or build a relationship – or both – starts or stops with your landing page headline.

It’s because headlines are so important – and check this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this out, if you’re not sure if headlines still matter – that we recently turned a free headline worksheet that gets loads of downloads into a free headline scorecard you can use to measure if your headline is powerful or not.

Measuring powerful headlines with a scorecardTry the Scorecard on Your Home Page Headline

If you’ve picked up Book 3, you’ll recognize the elements of the scorecard. But whether you read the book or not, let’s talk about the elements of the scorecard – so you know what you’re measuring against.

The 5 Criteria of a Powerful Headline

To be clear, we’re not talking about powerful blog post headlines. This is Copy Hackers – we’re the “conversion copywriting” people, not the content marketing people. So we’re talking about the headlines of pages that are meant to compel your visitor to sign up, start X or get much closer to buying. (But if you want a cool tool for blog post headlines, check out this generator by Portent.)

Over the course of my decade of copywriting and Lance’s 15 years of usability + conversion rate optimization, we’ve seen enough tests run and enough campaigns bring in jaw-dropping cash to believe powerful headlines address 5 criteria. And we’ve also seen some well-intentioned, perfectly fine headlines fail miserably because they didn’t address the 5 criteria.

But it’s not just a matter of ticking a box. Whether something addresses X criterion is not so much a black-or-white yes-or-no but rather a scale.

So, with that understood, these are the 5 questions we ask of a headline…

1. Does it match visitor expectations?

We can generally tell our visitors’ expectations by either paying attention to the keywords that bring them to a page or making dedicated pages for a variety of keywords. Whatever the case, on the web, knowing your visitors’ expectations often comes down to knowing the words they’re using to find you… and then reflecting those words in the headline.

So if I were to search “virtual assistant services” like so…:

Powerful headlines match expectations

…I’d expect to land on a page where the headline closely matches those expectations. When I clicked TaskBullet’s SERP result, I landed on a page with this headline + subhead combo:

Powerful headlines for landing pages

Does it match my expectations? The subhead does, and some could argue that the subhead here is part of the headline. This is why, in measuring powerful headlines, we recommend a scale – because this headline does a good job of reflecting the benefits I want to get out of “virtual assistant services”… but does it actually match my expectations?

Now, to be clear, to match expectations, you don’t have to resort to dynamically populating your headline with the search term your visitor used. Not at all. You just need to reflect your visitors’ motivations.

2. Does it grab visitor attention… in a non-scuzzy way?

Attention grabbing optimization is something you either love working on or loathe. If you’re not a fan of Cosmo magazine-style headlines, you might loathe trying to capture your visitors’ attention with words. You might find it spammy.

But you don’t have to throw word-bombs at your prospect to grab their attention. You don’t have to use so-called magic phrasing, like “the secret way” or “the forbidden truth” or “from the vault”.

You just have to do these two things:

1. Use interesting language or phrasing

2. Be more focused on pulling someone in than pitching to them

The above example does a really nice job of this. They grab your attention by presenting a unique, highly desirable opportunity to you without pitching their service (until the subhead!).

But to give you another example – and to move away from home page headlines for a moment – here’s the headline of a deeper-level page by the always-cool Less Films:

less films attention grabbing powerful headlines

3. Is it clearly communicated in easy-to-understand language?

Clarity trumps persuasion – we see it all the time. You can run around trying to impress your visitors with a clever line you dreamed up or a seemingly persuasive way to position your message… but people respond better to CLEAR headlines.

Check out how what appear to be 3 headlines on Salesforce.com are written:

Salesforce clarity

The language in each of the headlines is crystal clear. There’s no word wizardry, and the copywriter clearly wasn’t wearing her Fancy Pants when she wrote this copy.

You’ve probably already heard this, but it’s worth reinforcing: your copy should be written at a Grade 6 reading level at best. Clear, jargon-free and no-fuss language – like “in a whole new way” – gets you there.

4. Does it get to the visitor’s point?

Our scorecard asks if your headline “gets to the point”… but the truth behind that phrase is that your headline needs to get to your visitor’s point. Your point is not the point. The only thing your visitor cares about is his or herself. That’s it. Curing her headache and making her smile.

Your copy needs to be written with these 2 things in mind to score well on this point:

1. Your visitor is busy

2. Your visitor only cares about herself

Know what your visitor wants – which gets back to “matching expectations” above – and communicate it to her swiftly.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you’re only allowed to use 7 words. I’ve seen some instruction out there that suggests your headline needs to be insanely short… but it’d be pretty hard to craft a compelling headline in 7 words or less, so let’s not put that pressure on ourselves. Especially given that I’ve seen loads of long headlines, including many in this book, perform better than short.

Here’s an example of a home page headline – this time on InQuicker.com – that uses only as many words as are required to get to the visitor’s point:

InQuicker powerful headline

5. Does it highlight something beneficial or valuable for your prospect?

Ah, the benefit! The thing that your prospect really wants.

The benefit is at the core of your visitor’s expectations and their point – so if you’ve done well against points 1 and 4, you should easily slide through this point. Because people make most of their decisions based on emotion – including their decision to stay on your page or bail – messaging your best benefits well early in an experience can go a long way.

I’m closing this post with a great example of a headline that not only scores high on this criterion but also on all of the previous four. It’s the home page headline for Drip, and it makes me not only proud to know Rob Walling if only a little but also amazed by the bits of bold writing you see out there every so often:

Powerful headlines by drip

Beyond these 5 criteria, other good headline practices exist, such as leading with a verb in the imperative. But those other practices didn’t make it onto our scorecard… largely because we don’t see them consistently help a headline. For as many verb-driven headlines as we’ve seen win, we’ve seen just as many outperformed by headlines that lead with a noun or subject.

The 5 criteria above, reflected in our scorecard, consistently help us craft better-performing headlines… and we hope they’ll do the same for you.

My Turn! Let Me Try This Scorecard

BTW, this is not a disclaimer, but the scorecard is in beta… so we’d totally love and appreciate your feedback. Let us know below!

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  • http://www.mynotetakingnerd.com/blog Lewis LaLanne – NoteTakingNerd

    ALARMINGLY SIMPLE, YET ULTRA FANTASTIC GUIDELINES . . .

    You just have to do these two things:

    1. Use interesting language or phrasing

    2. Be more focused on pulling someone in than pitching to them

    Trying to make a headline do too much is sure way to sabotage readership. And while these two guidelines are simple, there is an art to implementing them in an intriguing way that pulls the reader in for the deck copy and then the first sentence. But I’m sure if these five criteria are adhered to, this will be far easier to do than if you’re just sitting there inside your head trying to be “creative” from scratch.

    Very cool tool Joanna and Lance. Very cool!

    PS. I MOTHER-EFFING LOVE the phrase “BODY SLAM”. I need to make a note to find more places to insert it into my fluid conversation. :)

  • Beatrix Willius

    A stupid question: what does your scorecard actually do that I can’t do with a simple Excel spreadsheet? I need to enter my headline and then I need to review the headline. The scorecard then calculates the sum. Is this correct?

    The webpage isn’t very pretty. In general I like the new trend for more casual fonts. But for the scorecard it looks overdone.

    • http://www.toppingtwo.com/ Lance Jones

      Tell us what you really think, Beatrix. :-)

      Beauty is in the eye of the beholder — and we were just trying to design something that looked a little playful… not too serious.

      As for spreadsheets, you could ask the same question of Basecamp, TurboTax, and Freshbooks… online software that basically just replaces Excel.

      The scorecard is only semi-useful when you’re the sole user. It becomes much more useful when you seek feedback from others — and our tool makes that process very easy. Just create the scorecard with your headline, etc., get the shareable URL, send it out to others, and watch the feedback roll in.

      Let us know how it works after you give it a try!

  • http://www.gedaly.com Gedaly Guberek

    This is awesome… I’ve bookmarked the scorecard to use with every headline I write from now on. Thanks! :)

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Coolness! That’s what it’s there for. :) Use away!

  • Ruben

    When I first started writing copy, I would lose soooo much time in the body, and the headline would be an afterthought. Looking back on a year, I’ve noticed the more time I invest on the headline, the more the whole ad or page writes itself. If pressed for time, most of it goes to the headline. I’m delving into the offer and the call to action now, exploring those elements to improve.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Awesome! Yes, if your headline is working, you’re way ahead of the game. If you’ve only got time to work on 1 thing, make it your headline.

  • David

    I just want to address something I keep seeing in various CRO blogs:

    How is the headline the first point of connection to the customer? It is not the first time I have seen people claim that, but do people just stumble upon your landing pages at random?

    Similarly, I have seen many people describe headlines as the first A in the AIDA framework. Again, how did people reach your page and see your headline in the first place, if they were not attentive to (and maybe even already interested in) your offer?

    Or maybe people are talking about a broader concept of headline that extends to SERPs and PPC copy? But in that case wouldn’t be better to stress the importance of page titles and ad copy?

    It seems to me to be something that is just repeated verbatim from advice that is true for print ads (with some caveats), but that does not really translate one-to-one to the reality of the web. In any case, I find that mismatch a little confusing, but maybe that’s just me.

    Now that I am done with my rant, let me just say that the actual advice given here as far as writing headlines is spot on and super actionable. Good job!

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Hey, David, the distinction for me is between “contact” and “connection”. Your website should be trying to connect with people — i.e., trigger good emotions to promote sign ups & purchases — so your headline, as the first line of copy they’ll read, is critical to connection.

      A PPC ad doesn’t connect with people. It doesn’t open a conversation. It’s the flyer that gets them into your store.

      I think of a headline as the first employee to welcome prospects into your store. The headline is ‘dressed’ with visual design, and the words it says are words that will shape the experience in some way. So imagine you could hire someone to welcome people as they arrive in your store; these people may already have heard of you, they may see others like them walking in and out, they might like the idea of you… but now they’re actually entering your store – and you’ve got a chance to connect with them or not. That’s your home page or landing page headline’s job. When you write a headline, you ‘hire’ the words you use to match expectations, get attention, speak clearly and waste no time highlighting a reason for that person to stick around.

      Each department of your store is a page on your site, each with its own headline that does all 5 things again, but does them at the department level.

      It’s not about contact. It’s about meaningful points of connection. Yes?