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 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.
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…:
…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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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!