Everyone’s always on the lookout for the best shortcut to writing attention-grabbing headlines. It’s understandable. But then they wonder why the article they’ve toiled over only gets disappointing results.
If headlines were easy to write, we’d be reading everything. (And I’d be out of a job.)
But here’s the good news. You can train your instincts to recognize the elements that make headlines persuasive (i.e., emotional responses). But that’s just half the battle. The other half involves research to gain an in-depth understanding of your target audience.
By the way, because I specialize in SEO copy, we’ll stick to discussing headlines with SEO in mind.
So, the two main skills required to write persuasive headlines online are:
- Recognizing the correct emotion to appeal to, and framing it correctly in the headline. (This depends on the target audience, the medium, and your goal.)
- A basic understanding of SEO vis-à-vis headlines.
Let’s go over these two points in greater detail.
But first! A brief overview on why you should even bother dedicating so much time to training yourself to craft compelling headlines.
Why writing persuasive headlines is an essential skill for every serious copywriter
Fact: Of the millions of blog posts published every day, only a few will ever get read. And 55% of these dear readers will spend only 15 seconds or less on your precious article before they leave.
This means, if your headline isn’t compelling enough, buhbye!
“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.”
How to write better headlines
So how do you write better headlines?
Well, who’s your target audience, what’s your goal for this piece? And on which platforms does your target audience hang out? Is the headline for a blog article or a Facebook ad? What about Linkedin?
The platform will dictate, to a lesser degree than the other two factors (target audience and goal), the headline you choose. This is because the platform affects how users interact, in turn influencing language and approach. Specifically, each platform encourages certain ways to communicate, behaviors, and perceptions.
For instance, Linkedin is a “professional networking platform”, in juxtaposition to Facebook, which is a social media platform.
With these considerations in mind, let’s cover how to create emotional appeals in persuasive writing.
What is an emotional appeal in persuasive writing?
Called pathos by Aristotle, an emotional appeal is a logical fallacy, where the writer aims to sway readers with emotion, rather than through logic (logos) or established authority (ethos). These are not mutually exclusive though, and combining all these elements together is best.
You can appeal to pretty much any emotion in your headline, although it doesn’t necessarily have to contain one. However, without an emotional appeal, headlines tend to fall flat. Let’s examine why.
Due to my background in propaganda research, I’ll cover a few similarities here.
Propaganda is 100% concerned with persuading through emotion. That’s why in most–if not all–propaganda techniques, emotional appeals are necessary. As mentioned, the correct appeal depends on the objective.
- to cloud judgment
- Muddy the waters
- sow discord
- simplify a complex issue
In contrast, for copywriting and advertising techniques, emotional appeals are intended to drive action. (Your copy’s goal is to get your target to purchase or give up their email address). You can do this through positive motivation (example: appeal to safety) or negative motivation (example: fear of missing out).
Loaded language is also used in emotional appeals in propaganda. Think of them as power words in copywriting. As copywriters, we know certain words carry more weight than others. In SEO, you can see this change in action: Changing a single word could spike your click-through rate dramatically.
Your best headline won’t persuade anyone if it’s cut off.
This SERP simulator provides a preview of how your title and page description will look in Google’s search results. Awesome.
Brainstorming great headline ideas
An extensive brainstorming session for a headline is not only unnecessary, it’s time-consuming and impractical.
Before the Internet, the best headline writers were direct response copywriters (because they tested their headlines).
Online, this process has become streamlined. For instance, awesome tools are now available to show us what’s working for our competitors. We can even check on the performance of past articles that are similar to the ones we’re considering writing.
Below is a screenshot of Buzzsumo, which is a tool I use just for this purpose. It’s an example of a very basic headline search for the query “write headlines”.
You can even check engagements by content type, content length, etc. Because my target audience hangs out mainly on Facebook, Buzzsumo shows me that the “how-to” type is promising.
Below is a screenshot from SEMRush, my SEO tool. Here I’m using the Organic Research feature to explore keywords that have generated the most traffic for “headline”. Then I can go deeper and check out the individual links and look at their stats and read the articles too.
But here’s a quick, free, and easy way to do this:
Search your chosen topic on Google and see what pops up. Make sure the top 10 to 20 results include domains that aren’t well established. Read these articles and make sure you cover everything.
Once you’ve gathered everything, if you were to write the most comprehensive guide on the subject, what would you call it? This is the angle we’re gunning for.
Mind maps are another excellent tool for the brainstorming process. You can start by jotting down ideas and drawing circles around them. Connect relevant points with arrows to visualize your entire thought process.
When you feel you’ve gotten enough ideas down, go through them. Cut out the ones you feel are meh. Keep the rest for testing (best) or constructive feedback (decent).
Copywriting headline formulas
John Caples was a direct response copywriter who is undoubtedly my greatest influence in copywriting. His book, “Tested Advertising Methods”, represents the pinnacle of headline analysis, and should be required reading for every serious copywriter.
In it, he covers 35 headline formulas. Each type of headline has a different effect, albeit some of them to a much more significant degree than others. For the sake of conciseness, we’ll stick to what I believe are most effective for online use.
All 35 Headline Formulas
For a complete list of John Caples’ copywriting headline formulas, check out copywriter Lars Lofgren’s list here.
Catchy headlines: Examples and analysis
The types of headlines listed here are still effective for online use today.
- “How to” (Note: Quite possibly my favorite type of headline. You can also modify with a number, like “7 ways to…”)
- “How” (Example: “How I made $260,000 in bitcoin just shy of 11 weeks!”)
- A testimonial headline (The power of social proof. Example: “I used to think Fluffy Fluffs was a picky eater, until she tried Meaty Meats!”)
- Challenge the reader (Example: “Can you identify these spelling mistakes?”)
Look at the engagement on these two ads above. The first one uses the meme clause, “When you see it.” Nearly 20,000 shares. Insane.
The second is simply labeled, “Can you spot the liar?” Not nearly as much engagement, but still effective. Could it be due to its clickbaity nature? (In the first ad, you can spot the differences. In the second ad, you can’t, so there’s no reward.)
(Swiped from Mike Schauer’s swipe file.)
- Offer valuable information: (Example: “Cut your electricity bill in half in just 5 minutes”)
- Open with a story (Example: “Jane loves filing ecommerce taxes now.”)
- Direct your headline to your target audience (aka personalization or prequalifying. Example: “How Shopify Plus platform owners can boost their customer lifetime value by 123% fast.” This one’s a must for email subject lines.)
- Ask a question (Example: “Why did your doctor just refuse that free medical check-up for herself?”
- Open with a fact or figure (Example: “4 types of auto businesses won’t make a profit in 2019”)
- Use words that sound like an announcement (“Finally”, “Presenting”, “At Last”, etc.)
- Insert an end date in your headline to increase urgency or deliver value on a promised date. (Example: Only 4 days left to snag our…”)
- Write it like a news headline (like an advertorial. Example: “VA man makes 463% profit from a single penny stock in 2 weeks”)
- Feature the price. (Example: “Only $39.95 for lifetime access to our premium plan.” Although Appsumo operates based on this model, their headlines rarely–if ever–feature the price.)
- Feature a discount (Example: “90% off your next meal if you place an order in the next 48 hours”. This example headline combines the discount with the urgency principle.)
- Feature a free offer (Because of the ubiquity of free offers around the Internet, this should be tested, not assumed.)
What’s the best emotional marketing value headline analyzer?
An emotional headline analyzer measures your headline’s potential emotional resonance with your target audience.
The best headline analyzer is, in my humble opinion, a free headline analyzer. That means, no email capture, no hard or soft sale. Just pure value delivery. Thanks, Advanced Marketing Institute. I use your headline tool almost daily.
(Caution: It’s not the end-all be-all for determining your headline’s emotional marketing value. Headline analyzer tools should be treated primarily as a reference, and rely mainly on common sense and your critical thinking cap.)
Split testing: The only real way to know your headline’s effectiveness
In the end, the only way you’ll really ever be able to know this is to test it. Opinions are useless because they’re not measurable. You can trust the results of a test if you know how to run them and interpret your results.
So test your headlines, and study the results. You can be the next Ogilvy and dish out your opinions on what works best, but numbers don’t lie.
How does your own process look like for coming up with powerful, head-turning headlines? Let me know in the comments below.