Writing headline copy that gets results

July 31, 2019

Excerpt from 'How to Wrestle an Octopus: an agency account manager's guide to pretty much everything'. Available now!


Headlines have (traditionally) been the domain of newspapers, newsletters, and magazines. These days headlines are everywhere, notably in social media posts, blog posts, email communication and subject lines, search engine results, and website articles. When people read either online or offline publications, they usually scan the headlines and images first, to see if they want to dig deeper into the content. Therefore, creating headlines that make people want to read further is a crucial weapon in winning the content war.

You may be lucky enough to work in an agency that employs (or contracts out to) a copywriter. If not (or if you cannot contract out due to budget limitations) the job may fall to you. Whilst writing ‘great’ headlines, bylines, and copy is usually the domain of the masters, it is possible to learn to write ‘good’ copy (or, at least, ‘good enough’).  

The 50/50 rule of headlines

The first 50 words of any article (the headline and first paragraph) are the most important and are what will persuade the reader to keep going. Some copywriters say that you should spend half of all the time it takes to write a block of content just on the headline alone.

The 80/20 rule of headlines

On average, 8 out of 10 people (80%) will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 (20%) will read the rest. The better your headline, the better your chance will be to improve on 20%!


When deciding on a headline that will be attention-grabbing and inspire action, you need to look at it from the customer or reader’s perspective. Always try to answer the “what’s in it for me?” question to find the most compelling result. Adding the word ‘you’ or ‘your’ to a headline helps immensely.  

Headlines that work
  • How-to headlines (“How to double your salary in one month”).
  • Story headlines (“Buried alive and lived to tell the tale!”).
  • Challenge headlines (“Is your weight getting you down?”).
  • Extreme headlines/shock and awe (“1 in 5 people have this growing on their skin”).
  • Targeted headlines (“If you want the best-behaved dog in your neighbourhood, you’ll love this!” – targeted at dog owners).
  • Emotion-based headlines (“Someone you love may have a heart attack – would you know what to do?”).
  • Audacious promise headlines (“Learn to speak Spanish like a native in just 10 days!”).
  • Headlines with numbers. There’s a reason why so many copywriters use numbers in their headlines – it works.
  • Headlines with interesting adjectives. Fun, free, incredible, strange, effortless...
  • Headlines with unique rationale. Reasons, principles, facts, lessons, ideas, secrets, tricks...
  • Headlines with what, why, how or when. These are trigger words designed to persuade or enable someone. Use a trigger word OR a number (but try not to do both).
The Four U’s (by American Writers & Artists)

The Four U’s approach to writing headlines, subheads, and bullet points says the writing should:

  • Be USEFUL to the reader.
  • Provide the reader with a sense of URGENCY.
  • Convey the idea that the main benefit is somehow UNIQUE; and
  • Do all of the above in an ULTRA-SPECIFIC way.
Six questions to ask before you write (by Clayton Makepeace)
  1. Does your headline offer the reader a reward for reading?
  2. What specifics could you add to make your headline more intriguing and believable?
  3. Does your headline trigger a strong, actionable emotion the reader already has about the subject at hand?
  4. Does your headline present a proposition that will instantly get your prospect nodding his or her head?
  5. Could your headline benefit from the inclusion of a proposed transaction?
  6. Could you add an element of intrigue?
Simple headline-writing formula (by Jeff Goins)

Number or trigger word + adjective + keyword + promise

Example: Take the subject ‘bathing elephants’. You could write an article entitled, “How to Bath an Elephant” or “Why I Love Bathing Elephants.” Or you could apply this formula and make it: “18 Unbelievable Ways You Can Bath an Elephant Indoors.

Another (more serious) example: Take a bold promise like ‘selling your house in a day’. Apply the formula, and you get: “How You Can Effortlessly Sell Your Home in Less than 24 Hours.

People don’t want to be tricked into reading something boring; they want to be drawn into something exciting. Make all the copy worth their while. 

Beware of clickbaiting

Clickbait is a web-based headline or a link that intentionally over-promises or misrepresents to pull viewers into a particular website. The headlines are usually sensationalist (such as “you’ll never guess what these celebrities look like now”), but then fail to deliver on the viewer’s expectations.

Nobody likes to feel duped. Therefore, unless your remit is to specifically produce clickbait for your client, you’ll need to make sure you write quality headlines that lead to quality content.



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