How to optimize a headline

Presented live on Tuesday, June 6, 2017

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Your headline is among the most important copy you’ll put on the page. But how do you take a decent headline… and make it much stronger? Maybe you’ve heard you should write at least 25 headlines before you’ll even get close to a great option. That’s true – but how do you arrive at those 25 options?

In this Tutorial Tuesday, you’ll see how conversion copywriters create huge lists of test-worthy headline options – at least one of which may be your next high-performing headline.

Joanna is writing in Airstory, the writing collaboration platform that powers changemakers.


Joanna Wiebe:                     I have Sarah here as well with me. It’s awesome. That’s Sarah’s hand. We are here for our Tutorial Tuesday on June the 6th. She just popped up. That’s awesome. She’s my new cat. She’s like going to interrupt scenes. It’ll be awesome. I just want to see here jump up on top of this bookshelf getting to the pillow. Okay. All right. Okay. We are already a minute into his 20 minute tutorial. We are talking today about headlines. Headlines are good. We like headlines. We like good headlines in particular. I’m going to show you one really simple way to go from having a decent headline, maybe even a high performing headline to one that could push things further. What can you test? Can you come up with a new headline that might better attract people’s attention, that might pull more people in?

Things like that. Hello to the people who were chatting over. Hello. It’s always nice to see the little hellos from everybody. It’s wicked. Yes, just as a quick reminder, this is being recorded. We’ll have the recording available after the fact. If you have any questions, we’ll try to address them during today’s session. We are aiming for 20 minutes. I think we’ll do it because I’ve basically done all the work fully in advance, but we’ll kind of walk through and play with it a bit. If you have any questions that must be answered, please put them in Q and A. If you just want to chat us something, cool. Put that in chat and we will address it as we go. Okay? Cool. All right. Hello, everyone. Cool. I’m going to share my screen now and then we will work through this approach.

You want to optimize a headline. Awesome. That’s wicked. Great. Fantastic. This is the process that you’re seeing on the page. I’m just going to blow it up a bit so you can see a bit more. Okay. Cool. Begin with your original, right? If you don’t have an original at all, if you don’t have a control, you’re like writing a page from scratch or something, cool. Just write down the thing that you think would be the placeholder headline like this is how we buy this in order to get that or something like that, right? You’re just going to knock at the headline best. If you already have a headline to work with, cool. That’s great. The point is we just want a starting point. Then we want to be able to optimize that.

Write the original. My cat is meowing madly in the background. That’s Puff taking over every session as he likes to do. Write the original. Grab your swipes. Yes. We’re going to talk about having a swipe file today. Then instaformulize them which is really … I’m going to show you what that means, but it’s taking headlines from your favorite ads that you’ve seen over time. Ads that you know have performed well or any sort of pieces, any landing pages you know have performed well, et cetera, and kind of turn those headlines into an instaformula. Where the idea is it’s not trying to be the smartest formula on the planet that’s reusable across any number of different things, you’re just trying to solve for this headline today.

I’m going to show you what that means. Then rewrite the original using that instaformula. Then order your list of options and start optimizing those, choosing the best out of them. This is a really quick way to get to. Oftentimes you might hear people say, “Oh, you should always start with at least 25 headlines. You have to write 25 headlines before you’re even getting close to the right headline.” This is how we can go through and actually get those 25 headlines turned out and it’s by not trying to come up with them all by yourself all the time. Sometimes yes. Sometimes you’ve been reading a lot of killer copy and your brain is just alive with possibilities.

Other times you have to turn something out fast and you’re like, “I don’t have any ideas,” and that’s good. Your brain is unlikely to have the best ideas for this. It’s not a matter of genius or anything. It’s a matter of doing the work. That’s the process. Now let me walk you through what that’s really going to look like. Just keep this process in mind as we go through. If you’re not keeping swipes, you should. That’s one of the things I know I’m demonstrating today. I’m not really demonstrating Airstory in any way, but that is one of the things that your card library is going to be really good for is sending any cool emails that you got.

If you subscribed to Ramit Sethi let’s say because his emails are always outstanding, if you do that and you want to, let me just strike this over, you want to take any of those emails and keep them in a swipe file, then that’s something that you would just like set up a Zap and just even sometimes manually copy or paste. If you’ve been keeping swipes in Evernote, then you can now import those into Airstory. Just go up here and you can add in any swipes just by connecting to your Evernote. That’s easy enough to do as well. Point being there’s lots of great copy being written out there and lots that has been written in the past. If you can keep files of that and tag them and just like have them handy when it’s time for you to write, your writing will be faster at minimum.

I would put money on it generally 90% of the time being much better than if you didn’t use those swipe files as a starting point. Basically every time I sit down to write anything, I do a full review of all the great stuff I’ve seen over the last year or whatever it might be that I’ve been keeping in my swipes and that’s a strong starting point. Swipes are good. In this case I’m just going to show you what those swipes are for me. I just went through and grabbed images. You can see them right here. This is something that you could easily do as well. If you’re not using Airstory, that’s cool. Swipes have existed since the beginning of time so just put them somewhere.

The point is that you want them handy when it’s time for you to write which is why the Airstory card library is so useful. Here are some swipes that I did just for the purposes of this demonstration and I’ve got other ones that are just on Zap here set up to turn them into cards. Anyway, you want to start with that. Here’s the process. Here’s our original. I went over to because they’re always doing cool stuff with their headlines to copy at all in general. I took that. This is their control headline that you’re seeing here. Now how do we rewrite that? How do we turn that into something that’s potentially stronger? Follow the same process I just mentioned to you. I’ll walk you through the different ones they’ve got now.

We find our swipe and then we instaformulize the headlines. Here it is. That’s our original that we’re going to be working with. This is “You can’t make linens cost less, but you can make them last longer.” Okay. Can we do anything like that? We’re going to quickly, very quickly pull out the stuff that obviously doesn’t apply. Make linens cost less, make them last longer and then that’s specific to linens. What about the rest of it? Is there something to that framework? Is there something to the way that headline is put together that we could repurpose? I just put in blanks there. That’s it. You can put whatever you want in there. For me for the purposes of just like whipping this out which is the job, do it fast, that’s what we’ve put together.

Okay. Great. Next one. “You’re twice as smart as you think.” Fantastic high performing headline. You’re twice as blank as you think. Okay. Fine. Note that we’re not going through and trying to rewrite as we put the formulas together. You’re just going through all of the swipes that you decide to use and you’re turning those into quick instaformulas. Then we’ll go through and try to rewrite, okay? That’s an important part of the process. Otherwise if I were to just try to just rewriting this right now and do “You’re twice as blank as you think” and compare that to this original, I’d probably lose motivation because I’m like, “I don’t know if that’s going to work at all.” Then you’re like, “Does this process work at all?”

You get like brought down by it. Don’t let yourself go there. Follow the process as it is. Just go through. Make the formula. Don’t think about what you have to write. Just make it. Move on. You’ll go back and fly through them afterwards. Okay? Here’s another one. “Don’t pay a penny for this book until it doubles your power to learn.” Don’t pay a penny for blank until it doubles your blank to blank. Okay. We’ll fill that in later. Cool. Next up. “Learning machine. Turn your blank into a blank machine. Turn yourself into a learning machine.” This one guaranteed to improve your child’s school marks where or pay nothing. It was just attached to the swipe. I’m not using it so that’s why it’s just sitting there. It’s fine.

It’s a working file, right, so whatever. This is the one, “Turn yourself into a learning machine.” That’s the one that I want to work with. Put that together. Next one up. Remove fear. Oh sorry. What are all of those things? “This book could remove your fear of death forever.” Would that work as a headline today? I don’t know, maybe. We’re going to do this “blank could remove your fear of” and then I also did struggle with because fear of is it’s fear mongering, right? We’re like, “I don’t know if I want to use that with my brand.” It could remove your fear of or struggle with blank forever. I’m not saying and I’m not saying not to use fear of. There might be a time. Don’t start scrapping things just because you’re like, “Will it fly?”

Do an alternative, but don’t scrap the original because the original, the power and might have been this fear of death message. Yeah. It’s aggressive. Okay. Fine. We’re not going to necessarily use it in the end. We’re just going through and doing the process. Don’t start like working through whether it will work or not yet. You put it down on the page. You chose it as a swipe. Just trust it and go with it. Let’s see if we have any more. We do not. Those are the formulas we’ve put together. We whipped through about six of them I think or something. Now if we go back to our process, now our job is to rewrite the original using that instaformula. Let’s do that. The Basecamp original is there. Let’s go over to the Clorox option.

“You can’t make blank, but you can make blank.” Can we do anything with that using this original? Basecamp solves the critical problems that every growing business deals with. One of the things that are in there … That message there is about problem solving. Basecamp as a problem solver. Problems that are particular or specific to growing businesses. That’s the message we’re really working with. We’re just taking them an ounce that they’ve got and we’re applying them. How do we do that? I did a couple here. You can’t grow without business challenges, but now you can solve them. Point is not to say is this good or bad yet. Not at all. Not at all. We’re still in the creation process. It’s just like brainstorming.

There are no bad ideas in a brainstorm. There are no bad ideas when you’re just whipping through these. We go through and fill this in. If you’re like as you work through these, as you do it the first time, you’re bound to come up with a few different ways to write it. Put them all on the page whether you like it or not, whether you think it’s going to make it in the end or not, put it on the page. Don’t start cutting at this point. We’re not editing. We’re in the writing in process. You can’t grow without business challenges, but now you can solve them. Businesses don’t grow without challenges. Solve them with Basecamp. Again as we run through it’s going to be like, “I don’t think that’s going to work,” but that’s not the point. Every growing business has critical problems.

A hundred thousand businesses trust Basecamp to solve them. Next one up. You are twice as productive as you think. This is again for Basecamp, your team is twice as productive as they think they are. This is going to be confusing. Your team can be twice as productive. Your team could produce twice as much. Your team is twice as productive as your spreadsheet thinks you are. Next one up. “Don’t pay a penny for blank until blah, blah, blah.” Don’t pay a penny for Basecamp until it doubles your power to execute. Don’t pay a penny for Basecamp until it doubles your team’s productivity. Don’t pay a penny for Basecamp until you hit twice the deadlines you’re used to. Next up. “Turn your blank into a blank machine.” Turn your team into a productivity machine and I had no other ideas after that.

Then finally, remove fear that is blank. “Could remove your fear or a struggle with blank forever.” The solution to remove your struggle with missed deadlines forever. Basecamp could remove your struggle with missed deadlines forever. Basecamp could remove your fear of failure forever. Of course, missed deadlines is not part of the original message. This is now me just working through ideas as they come. There’s probably absolutely better ways to that where I could say “remove your fear of, I don’t know, not solving problems.” I don’t know what that would be, right? That’s why we ended up here. That part of the process. Now what happens? We’ve gone through. We’ve quickly whipped out some headlines.

The process says that after that we want to order the list of options and start optimizing them. Let’s go back to the card library. What I’m going to do is go through and just quickly turn these all, these new headlines, into quick cards that we can drag onto a page. Just one second while I do this. You can see this all happens very swiftly. As you’re looking at these, you might be writing them yourself. I’m actually positive there are some keeners there who are like, “Oh no. Try it this way,” which is cool. If you have those, feel free to chat them over, okay? I’ve put them all in here and now I’m going to do all options. Then we’re just going to use those. Sorry. I already did that one. We’ll be muting cards soon enough.

Your team is and you can’t grow without. All right. We’re doing all those cards. Now we have all of these headlines to work with which is, sorry, I hit the wrong one, which is cool. Now we can go through and start saying, “Okay. Can we work with any of these?” This is where you can invite your team as well. You can see that you’ve got a good number, but you can invite your team here to come in and kind of select their favorites or even just build on what you’ve already got there. That’s it.

That’s the whole process of going from your headline that you had to just very quickly 15, 20 minute process going through and taking those swipes, taking the good ideas that people throughout history have used rather than sitting there and trying to come up with them yourself or force it into this like list of formulas you might have found elsewhere which is a great thing too, but this is a way to just like use your swipes. Turn those swipes into something that’s actually quite productive for you and up with a list of headlines to propose to your team or to go ahead and just test it yourself. Cool? Okay. Let me see. We’ve got some chats. I’m just going to make sure we don’t have anything to worry about. Sarah, do we have anything to just …

Sarah:                                        Where do we find swipes? Yeah. We already got five questions here in Q and A.

Joanna Wiebe:                     Okay. Oh, I see. Okay. Where can we find these swipes? For me I just keep them. This is something that I recommend that you do and it doesn’t take much. That’s why I subscribe to every newsletter you can find. Like yeah, I’ll sign up for that purely and then I send it to an email account. This is bad for email marketers. I’m an email marketer. I know that this is what happens sometimes. I send those to an email account that’s just for the purposes of seeing what other people are doing with their emails. Then I have a Zapier set up so I can just star an email in Gmail and send it to Airstory as a card so then I can move all of those. I tag those all as swipes. Then when it’s time for me, all I have to do is go into my card library and star swipes and they come up.

That’s the thing that I do and that’s what you should do. We don’t have like a big swipe file available. We might put that in our Airstory market to have different … There’s so many different things that you want to have swipes for that is usually for the best. Just keep your own. Follow things like Info Marketing blog. They’ve got a lot of old school stuff that’s like the older copy that tends to kind of last longer than new things that are being thought up. Even the stuff that we’re testing today. It’s usually the winners are almost always based on an older formula that came from these older swipes that we’re keeping. Do that. Anything else? Best covering method. Brain picking. Oh, thank you. Cool. Okay. Thanks. That’s awesome.

Now I’m going to go over Q and A and see what we’ve got there. Good sources for swipes. Honestly if you don’t have a swipe file yet, I recommend you go into … Open up Google. Switch to the images tab and then type in Claude Hopkins copy, Gene Schwartz copy, John Caples copy, see what comes up there and then just follow through on those. You’ll usually arrive on a blog post that is bound to have more than one example in it. That’s where you can just go through and quickly pull swipes from there, but it really is just Google images is a perfectly brilliant starting point. Just do the right search for it.

People have taken screen shots of so many different things that you can very quickly put together a swipe file just by dedicating a little bit of time to doing that and then tagging those inside Airstory or Evernote or whatever tool you’re using to clip things. Just make sure that you have it ready which is again import those Evernote files into Airstory and then they’re ready for you when it’s time for you to write. Okay? Nikki says, “How can you know if the swipe you have has been …” You can’t know. Sorry. I didn’t finish reading your question. “How can you know if the swipe you have has been high performing or not?” Let me be clear. You can sometimes know. You can know because people like Gene Schwartz would say how their headline performed.

They would tell people, “Oh, this is how this worked. This is how this piece pulled.” Point being though that they were trying to sell a specific product to a specific market. If your product is different and your market is different or either of those are different plus add in the difference in time, the difference in context now, if someone is reading on a phone which would not have been the case with a Gene Schwartz mailer that would have gone out, we have to consider that. You don’t know if it’s high performing. What you do know is that what’s sitting inside your head, you have no reason to believe that’s high performing either.

If you’re sitting there trying to dream up something, chances are not great that you’re going to come up with the copy that’s going to blow everyone’s mind. You might do it once, but can you do it twice and can you do it for a living? That’s the challenge. That’s where we’re like okay, we might not always land on the swipe that’s the highest performing, but that’s why we test. We just take things that where we use a bit of our gut to say, “That got my attention. It might get someone else’s attention too.” As we learn more things about copywriting then you can be like, “Oh, that’s using a curiosity gap. I like that,” and you can start pulling that stuff in as good examples of how to do these other techniques that you’re learning as you study copywriting.

Don’t worry about whether it has performed well or not. Worry about whether it does kind of match your gut like, “Wow. Okay. That could be something,” and then how you can try to use it and test it with your own market or your products. Okay? Suzanne asked for instaformulazing. Yeah. Yeah. We’re just making up words. That’s what we do. “I see that you’re using all these from the big daddies. What about more current examples or is the timeliness factor irrelevant for the most part?” Irrelevant. People are people. Some of the stuff that was appearing in the 1920s and 40s and even 60s, even 80s, let’s just keep going up, it’s been overdone now or people have moved far past that message. We have more a sophisticated audience potentially.

In that case, it’s just again a matter of like looking at some of the ones that I looked at like the fear of death. “This could remove your fear of death forever.” It would be hard to convince the average business today that they should go with that headline for many reasons, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not some merit to it and something to work with there. That’s why I do recommend that you use the oldies. If you’re finding cool new ones, right, like I have swiped so many things from Basecamp from what they’ve done. That’s just why I start with Basecamp because I believe that they’re very strong copywriting team which of course I’m sure they would agree with and their results would agree with as well. Everybody there writes copy which is amazing.

I like to start there because I have strong reason to believe that they have worked this stuff through enough that they’re a good starting point. They’re also worth swiping from because I am aware based on what they say at least that their team is deep into copy and they get it. I want to swipe from people who are doing interesting things with copy, who think about it, who are testing copy, stuff like that. Hopefully that helps. Yeah. I wouldn’t worry too much about whether it’s like relevant for today. Your job is to make it relevant for today. Take that formula and make it work today. Suzanne asked another one, “Someone who works in copy as a digital marketer told me the solutions such as Basecamp should not be mentioned to headline your thoughts.”

It depends on the stage where your subject-prospect is in. If you’re writing with the rule of one, one reader, one idea, one promise and one offer, those are the four parts of the rule of one, one reader is the biggest part of that. Understand that your one reader means understanding their stage of awareness. If they arrive on your page and they are product aware, then you should lead with your product. If they’re like, “I’m aware of Basecamp,” I don’t just mean aware of the brand name, but aware that it solves a pain that I have, that’s product awareness, then you can lead with Basecamp.

If I’m arriving on your page and I’m only pain aware, for the case of Basecamp, I’m just like, “Oh, my team isn’t hitting any deadlines. What’s going on,” and I arrive on a landing page and it says, “Basecamp is used by a hundred thousand people,” that’s going to be a mismatch for me. I’m going to be like, “But I have this deadline issue.” Now it’s my job to connect the dots which is bad. That’s the thing. You can and should mention solutions if your reader arrives in the state of solution awareness. If they arrive pain aware, talk about pain in your headline. If they arrive product aware, talk about your product in the headline.

If they arrive most aware, talk about an incentive for your product in your headline or another persuasion factor like scarcity, like social proof, like a hundred thousand are using Basecamp, why aren’t you? Not that you would say that that way necessarily, but that would be like the message, right? Let’s move them to a place that have a higher intent and feeling better about choosing us. Think of the stage of awareness, not random rules about what should and shouldn’t be said in headlines. Cool? Okay. Natalie, “How long do you normally spend crafting a headline on average?” I wish there were an average. This exercise is there to move you through the parts of the writing process where you get stuck in your own thinking.

That’s the bad part of writing copy and we’re trying as often as possible with conversion copywriting to push through you being stuck in your head and to do more of this stuff where you’re actually writing on the page with guess what I’ve done on the page. It’s a matter of sometimes you’re listening to somebody or you’re reading something and you see it and you know that’s your headline and it took like a minute to get there. That was a minute. It’s a minute that you should be charging maybe a thousand bucks for, depends on what you’re writing. Sometimes it takes days or weeks. Sometimes you’re still looking months later, right? That’s the way it goes. I wouldn’t expect anything. I would just go into the headline writing process knowing that this could take a while.

Let’s do whatever it takes to speed that up while also pushing for really good results which is what this process is all about. Jack Peters, oh sorry. Sometimes I say the last name. I hope that’s not a problem. “Could you provide us with a directory of newsletters for us to subscribe to. That’d be helpful.” I’d say start with I Will Teach You to Be Rich or I will teach whatever it’s called these days. Start with that. Read through Social Triggers also has really good … I mean these are companies that are investing heavily in getting copy right and testing it and really getting it right before they move on to the next thing. I would start there. That’s where really good copy education happens. Then there’s this company called Copy Hackers that teaches things too.

You might want to go there. You don’t need a lot. You don’t need a lot to begin with. You could rewrite every email you have just by subscribing to Copy Hackers, Ramit Sethi’s stuff and Social Triggers by Derek Halpern. You could do that and you have your full and complete copywriting education just by paying attention to those. Start there. You don’t need a lot. Just start with those three. Okay. Good. Thanks, Jack. JM asks about old episodes of Tutorial Tuesdays. Yes. If you go to, up in the top there is a bar at the top that says tutorials I believe. You can go up to the top and see most of our past Tutorial Tuesdays. We haven’t recorded all of them, but some of them we have.

You can go in there and see which ones are there and watch them and there are transcripts as well. Okay? All right. Thanks so much. Sorry. Yes. Sarah is telling me something.

Sarah:                                        Just to reiterate, who are the old boys of copy? Just to reiterate them again.

Joanna Wiebe:                     Sure. The old boys of copywriting are Gene Schwartz or Eugene Schwartz, search it both ways, John Caples, Claude Hopkins. I think Sarah’s typing those out right now. Those are the big ones. Ogilvy is an obvious one, but he talked a lot more about advertising than necessarily about copywriting and wasn’t an active copywriter the way like Claude Hopkins was in the end. Yeah. I’d start with those three. Modern copywriters were following that of the big daddies. They are like Gary Bencivenga. That’s B-E-N-C-I-V-E-N-G-A. That’s one too. I mean there’s lots today too, but he stands out as one of the biggies. Cool? Okay? Cool. All right, guys. Well, thanks for sticking around for 10 extra minutes of questions or 15 basically.

Nice interaction today. All right. Next week. Tutorial Tuesday we’re having another special guest down. We had one last week. This coming week we’re having my friend Lianna Patch. She writes funny. She’s going to be in to teach us how to write funny which is always a scary thing when you try to be funny, but we’re going to learn some techniques from her. Do tune in next Tuesday for that and we’ll see you then. Thanks, everyone.

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