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Wednesday, Mar. 11, 2009 at 9:48 am

3-Steps for Writing (and testing) Great Headlines

By Jeff Sexton
March 11th, 2009

According to copywriting legend Eugene Schwartz, a headline’s main job isn’t to sell; it’s to gain the readers attention and compel them to read the ad.  And this is sound advice, but the Internet also requires one other thing in today’s web 2.0 copy world

Step 1. Scent:
Web copy adds the requirement of scent.  Your headlines and sub headlines have to assure visitors that they’re in the right place.  A compelling headline that doesn’t orient readers to the page content risks bouncing paying customers before they’ve even started on the path to conversion.

So start your headline optimization process with a close look at scent.  These links will help drive home the point:

Bryan Eisenberg gets interviewed on Scent and Landing Page Stickiness:

YouTube Preview Image

How lack of scent feels like “bait and switch” to website visitors

Broken scent between e-mails and landing pages accounts for 35% of failed campaigns

Step 2. Angle of Approach: After you understand what it will take to provide continuity of scent, you’ll need to do the research and idea generation to come up with that compelling hook, or angle of approach that will compel readers to stop and scan the article.

Think of it this way, if scent is about matching information, keywords, and look and feel, angle of approach is about matching your copy to visitors’ emotional drives, motivations, hopes, dreams, fears, etc.  Of course, it’s also about introducing a compellingly interesting thought into the reader’s mind.  For some incredibly helpful tools and techniques on Angles of Approach,take a look at the following blog posts:

How to connect with your prospect’s dominant emotion

How to polarize an audience to speak to the prospects you most want

Roy Williams on Choosing Whom to Lose

Why writing to a specific person (or persona) Overcomes the 200 Headlines Myth

The power of Magic Words – and how to find them

Sean D’Souza on the Power of New & Knew

Sean on how specifics beat generalities when it comes to Angles of Approach

Roy Williams on Framing First Mental Images

Compelling the visitor to keep reading

Why your headline may want to refer to an unseen action

I’d recommend you come up with at least a couple of different approaches and test them.  This might cause you to rewrite your first paragraph or two of body copy for each test variant, but it’s well worth the effort.

Step 3. Wordsmithing:
Once you have the angle of approach and the “Scent” requirements, then it’s time for some of the traditional wordsmithing normally associated with writing headlines.  Can you sharpen the point?  Can you increase the curiosity factor?  Should it be a statement or a question?  Can you swap out words to create different emotional associations or connotations?  Can you test fractions vs. percentages?  What kind of presuppositions can you bury in And so on.

Here’s a monster list of links containing some of the best stuff I’ve seen on Headlines:

First, go sign up for Sean’s newsletter and get his free PDF report on Why do most headlines fail.

Second, read through Jay Abraham’s list of 100 Greatest Headlines Ever written

Third, listen to Gary Bencivenga’s explanation of why you should build credibility into your headlines

Now feast on Brian Clark’s brilliant headline articles:

5 Simple Ways to Open Your Post With a Bang

10 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas That Work

7 More Sure-Fire Headline Formulas That Work

Warning: Use These 5 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas at Your Own Risk

How to Get 53% More Readers for Every Blog Post You Write

And for sheer tonnage of listed techniques, it’s hard to resist Chris Bloczynski’s post:

99 Headline Techniques Revealed

Or SEO Blackhat’s 54 Headline Templates That Sell

Of course, it goes without saying that with all these choices, you’ll want to test and optimize, and the Grok’s own post on Top 10 Ideas for Testing Your Headlines is a great place to start, or you can watch the webinar on testing headlines and calls to action:

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Comments (25)

  1. [...] the process of persuasion. A bad headline is a quick good bye. I found this article at GrokDotCom, 3 steps for writing (and testing) great headlines. The post defines the 3 steps as Step 1. Scent Step 2. Angle of Approach Step 3. Wordsmithing [...]

  2. Thanks Jeff for mentioning all those resources, which are great to read. I specifically liked

  3. Thanks Jeff :) I’m in California, right now :)

  4. Great list of resources Jeff.


  5. Thank for once more putting a lot of great resources in one location. I bet the old masters like Schwartz would have loved the immediacy of the Internet. Especially pay per click where they could test headlines and see in a few days how responsive each version is.

  6. Great resources! Thank you. Esp. when you’re writing for such an audience with such “click-happy” fingers just itching to click away if you seem irrelevant.

  7. So useful! Been looking for posts like these, thank you. I think I often neglect the title when having paid attention to an article, when a title is the gateway- definitely something I’ll work on.

  8. Great advice for online-copywritimg. In Germany we have to educate potential customers for this theme. Their understanding of website copy until now isn’t going so far.

  9. yes, excellent source of reading material, thanks again for the great resources. You guys are filling up my bookmark menu with good items to read!

  10. Great advice for online-copywritig, thanks for share.

  11. Great resources, thanks for share.

  12. That was a fantastic read.

  13. a great read and very useful posts you have linked to. Some i stumbled before.

  14. Headlines are so important to catch the reader’s attention.

  15. I really like that video, it’s an interesting study on what parts of a website to concentrate on.

  16. I Like This …You Post is very nice…hanks again for the great resources.

  17. [...] 3 Steps for Writing—and Testing—Headlines. Whip-smart copywriter @JeffSexton analyzes key elements needed for successful Web headline writing—and includes a wealth of best-headline links. Via @CopywriterMaven [...]

  18. [...] 3-Steps for Writing (and testing) Great Headlines [Excellent resource with videos and tons of useful links] [...]

  19. [...] 3-Steps for Writing (and testing) Great Headlines Jeff Sexton, Future Now | 3/11/09 [...]

  20. Blog list in this article is very useful for me. Thanks.

  21. Fantastic copywriting resource. Especially enjoyed the video on Scent and Angle of approach. This topic is often oversimplified by the experts.

  22. Amazing article. In todays web 2.0 world it’s amazing how useful a back to basics approach can be when it comes to coy.

  23. a great read and very useful posts you have linked to. บ้านมือสอง | หอพัก

  24. Good list of resources. I am bookmarking this for the future. I have always known that headlines are important but you have explained that there should be much more depth to them.

  25. Great advice for online-copywritimg. In Germany we have to educate potential customers for this theme. Their understanding of website copy until now isn’t going so far.

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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