How to Create Winning Headlines in 9 Simple Steps

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In any ad, everything depends on the headline.

It’s why some copywriters are known to spend 50% of their time on just the headline.

As John Caples wrote:

“If the headline is poor, the copy will not be read. And copy that is not read does not sell goods.”

Justifiably revered, Caples was the copywriter who wrote one of the most famous print ad headlines:

“They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano.
But When I Started to Play!”

headline caples

Creating an attention-grabbing headline is perhaps the most important part of writing copy. It’s also the most enjoyable.

For inspiration, look at magazine headlines

Before I describe how to write headlines, let’s visit our brothers and sisters in the newspaper and magazine environment.

The headlines on a magazine cover sell the magazine. It’s fascinating to see the very first cover of Cosmopolitan — one of the world’s most successful publications, currently with a circulation of 3,017,834 and placing it firmly in the top 25 of US consumer magazines.

old Cosmopolitan cover

Notice the “how to” headline (middle left), the celebrity “testimonial” headlines, and the “news” headlines. I’ll discuss these headline formats in a minute but now look at a recent cover.

recent Cosmopolitan cover

Once again, you see a “how to” headline: Shrink Your Inner Thighs In Six Minutes A Day.

Yes, the editor took off the “how to.” In fact, the headline: “How to Shrink Your Inner Thighs in Six Minutes a Day” is a perfect direct response headline and would appeal to anyone whose inner thighs are proving vexing.

On this cover, you also see the “list” headline: 50 things…

List headlines are increasingly popular in the online environment. Here’s The Daily Telegraph from London: 10 classic cocktails from Mad Men.


See how the headlines sell these magazines and newspapers? That’s why their owners hire specialist writers and editors to craft compelling headlines.

Now let’s bounce over to Amazon. Here it’s not headlines, but titles that make the sale. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the top three sellers from mid-April.

In particular notice #1 and #3 in the list, which are “how to” headlines.

Amazon best

Again, the editor has left off the “how to” but these books use the how-to formula.

As a headline for an advertisement, “How to Eat More Food and Lose More Weight” would be a winner. It’s a winner now, sitting on top of the Amazon bestseller list.

Now let’s break it down…

How to Create Winning Headlines in 9 Steps

  1. Understand the target. Before writing, especially if you want a good ROI, it’s vital to understand the target audience. The editors at Cosmopolitan clearly understand their readers. Their headlines perfectly target the emotions of their readers.
  2. Write an outline of the ad first. Then write the headline.
  3. Write several different headlines and read them out loud.
  4. Pick the most important benefit and include that benefit in the headlines.
  5. Include the product or problem in the headlines.
  6. Use one of the headline formulas below.
  7. Use a fairly standard, straightforward headline based off a formula.
  8. If you can, write a headline that’s whacky, offbeat, or ultra-different. This headline will fail miserably most of the time but, occasionally, will beat the ‘normal’ headline from #7.
  9. Test like crazy and rewrite the headline when you see some degradation in response.

That’s perhaps a little simplistic, but I believe that writing headlines should be a simple process.

Simple is clear.

Complex, on the other hand, can be confusing — and confused readers don’t buy.

Learn how to write catchy headlines that convert in this video:

The secret structure of a persuasive headline

Powerful headlines have three parts:

  • Pre-head. A short sentence at the top of the copy. Often including the people you’re trying to reach. For example: Attention Dog Owners!
  • The main headline. The ad for your ad. It must make people want to read more.
  • Decks. Short bullets introducing additional benefits.

All the elements must work together and lead directly into the first few paragraphs.

Headline Templates Make Life Easier

When I’ve completed my research and it’s time to write, I create a headline from one of the templates I’ve compiled over the years. Many of these are from Dan Kennedy’s classic copywriting book, The Ultimate Sales Letter.

They follow proven structures that are simple to adapt to your own promotions. So feel free to borrow responsibly.

Before using a template, remember that headlines grab the attention of the prospect by:

  • Making a promise.
  • Drawing a picture.
  • Stating a fact.
  • Asking a question.

Let’s look at the templates.

Classic formulas

Are you ____________ ?

“Are You Ready for the Most Beautiful Lawn in Your Neighborhood?”

A word of warning about question headlines: I only use them when the answer is obvious to the reader. I never use open-ended question headlines.

“How I _______________”

“How I Overcame Joint Pain, Got Off the Sidelines, and Back in the Game.”

“How to ______________”

As you’ve discovered, this template is a classic direct response copywriting formula. You can lop off the “how to” if necessary.

“How to Add at Least 20 Yards to Your Drives and Hit the Ball in the Fairway More Often than a PGA Tour Pro.”

“Secrets of ____________”

“Secrets of Wall Street’s Elite Investors Revealed…”

“Thousands (hundreds, millions, etc.) now ______________, even though they ________________.”

“Millions of ambitious investors are beating the ‘down market blues’ by listening to this woman’s advice…even though they know little or nothing about stocks and bonds.”

“Warning: ___________________.”

Perhaps my favorite headline but difficult to use well.

“Warning: a little-known change in the law will make it harder to manufacture chocolate. Here’s what you can do right now to keep making chocolate…”

“Give me _____________ and I’ll _________________.”

“Give me 10 minutes right now and I’ll show you how to sell your home for full value in any market.”

“__________ Ways to ______________”

“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”

With apologies to Paul Simon.

The Stacked Benefit Headline

When you want to emphasize several important benefits, you can stack them as part of the headline. For example, this formula has converted well:

Attention Fishermen!

“I’ve discovered a new fishing boat that’s sensibly priced AND provides all these advantages…”

  1. Ultra-comfortable for all-day fishing pleasure
  2. Speedy so you get to the fish faster
  3. Fuel efficient so you spend less on gas and more on bait
  4. Perfectly balanced so it’s easier to land the big fish

The Simple Benefit Headline.

Kiss Knee Pain Goodbye in 20 Minutes!

The Offer Headline

Buy one banana…get two free!

The Discount Headline

Save 40% on Steaks but only for 48 hours…

The News Style Headline

New Laptops Selling for Just $99 but Only a Few Remain

The Bonus Headline

Free Shipping PLUS a Free Printer When You Purchase a New Laptop on Tuesday from Sam’s Computer Shack

The Testimonial Headline

“Getting my degree in nursing from Dry Creek Community College helped me get a great job with a great doctor.”

Note: You can use this with a celebrity.

The Shocking Headline

82 year-old golfer hits the ball 40 yards further off the tee using the revolutionary and legal MAX CANNON driver. He was about to give up the game but now he’s pummeling the young guys.

Headlines with ‘Free’

FREE FISH AND CHIPS on Wednesday at Sir Ed’s Pub in Park Road Shopping Center.

The Guarantee Headline

One of my favorites and it can be extremely effective—especially in the service space.

A personal guarantee from Robert Jones, owner of Nuclear Cockroach Services.

“If a cockroach appears in your home up to three months after we provide our special ‘Nuclear Deterrent’ service, we’ll provide the service again absolutely free. AND write you a check for $200.”

In about 30 minutes of searching, you can find other headline templates but the ones above provide plenty of conversion horsepower.

Headlines swiped from Denny Hatch

Denny Hatch wrote a famous direct response book called Million Dollar Mailings. It’s a compilation of copy that generated a million dollars in sales.

Some of the headlines:

24 Months of Dog Fancy Magazine for Only 21.97!

2 Years for the Price of One – like getting one year FREE.

Head’s up, Gardeners! Here’s a sharp trick that will get you FOUR TIMES more broccoli from every one of your plants. Look inside…for free garden tips!

Notice that a solid chunk of these winning headlines make an “offer.”

Want more headline templates? Check out these persuasive formulas.

Get Vivid or Be Straightforward?

In the world of direct response copywriting, you’ll see simple headlines and you’ll see headlines that yell and scream.

Here’s a quiet one:

quiet persuasion MailChimp

Here’s one that’s more vivid:

overt persuasion

Testing will tell you how much “volume” you need when writing headlines.

How to Test Headlines

Testing headlines is relatively simple if you have (and know how to use) certain tools.

Visual Website Optimizer is a popular conversion testing tool.

Many digital marketing platforms provide built-in A/B testing tools so you can test headlines. MailChimp offers A/B testing. Ditto Unbounce, which is a landing page platform.

In each of these platforms, simply try one headline as version ‘A’ and another as version ‘B’ and you’ll quickly get a sense of which headline resonates.

Some final tips

I prefer slightly long main headlines because they tend to keep the reader’s attention.

The headline must be directed at the target and start to answer the question that’s in the reader’s mind: “What’s in it for me?”

Check your ego at the door. I HATE split infinitives, but a headline with a split infinitive recently beat one without. So the split infinitive stays.

Give your emails a headline and watch open rates and conversion rates skyrocket. Whenever I get an email without a headline above the body copy, I scratch my head. And no, the subject line is NOT a headline; it’s like envelope copy.

Subheads in the copy are just like main headlines. Best case: the subheads tell the story of the copy.

Photos can augment a headline but must be relevant and complementary.

Be positive. Turn negative statements into positives.

Specific details or numbers can be valuable in a headline. “How I Beat the Stock Market by 23% Last Year.” (23% is specific. “A lot” would be too general to get the same result.)

Headlines are vital because they draw the reader into the body copy. If you get stuck, use one of the templates above. Then imagine you’re about to tell someone a story or you want to provide some advice; imagine you want to get their attention.

Finally…practice and test!

The ultimate headline expert is the reader — the person you’re trying to persuade. Your readers will tell you, by their actions, which headlines work and which fail.

Scott Martin is a direct response copywriter based in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has also written or edited 18 books including The Book of Caddyshack: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Greatest Movie Ever Made. Scott provides free resources for marketers including direct response checklists.

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