Decoding Powerful Headlines In Copywriting

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Headlines…they’re everywhere: subject lines, envelope messages, banner ads, landing pages, book titles, training course titles.

Although most copywriters will tell you they find writing headlines the hardest part of any job, sometimes they just seem to arrive out of the ether.

One of my favourites in this category is from a subscriptions renewal letter in Top Gear magazine. The headline reads:

People who think dolphins are cleverer than McLaren engineers want to ruin your fun

The letter was signed by Jeremy Clarkson, the lead presenter for the Top Gear TV programme, who also has a monthly column in the magazine. It captures his trademark tone of voice and style and does, I think, contain a clear appeal to the reader’s self-interest.

Namely, not having their enjoyment of cars spoiled by do-gooders.

So, what do you think is the purpose of the headline? Here are a few possible answers:

  1. to demonstrate to the reader how clever I am
  2. to indulge my taste for wordplay and ‘humour’
  3. to stop the reader from turning the page
  4. to make the reader want to read the body copy
  5. to encapsulate my sales pitch in 10-16 words or fewer
  6. to fit in with the picture I have chosen
  7. to allow me to use the same tired old cliché as our competitors
  8. to raise brand awareness

Though they would never admit it, many copywriters – both in-house and agency/freelance – are clearly motivated by a combination of a), b), f), g) and h).

This type of writer frequently, though not always, works in an above-the-line role, where measuring results from specific executions or campaigns is difficult if not impossible.

(But grinning broadly as they drive by a 96-sheet poster with their headline on it is effortless if not mandatory.)

Writers working below-the-line, where everything is measurable (and testable) tend to opt for a combination of c), d) and e).

(Though not always.)

Winning the battle for eyeballs

If you need to make money from your marketing campaigns, your headline is your first and biggest weapon in the battle for eyeballs. Get it right and you have a (temporarily) captive audience and the possibility of winning orders. Get it wrong and you have a funny picture for your office wall.

So where do we start? You can roughly divide headlines into three categories:

  1. Those promising news.
  2. Those arousing curiosity.
  3. Those offering a benefit.

When Ogilvy & Mather tested headlines, they found that benefits out-pulled news, which out-pulled curiosity. A combination of all three was the most responsive of all. This is bad news for writers who favour headlines like this:

Have you discovered Acme toner cartridges yet?

Your headline is your first and biggest weapon in the battle for eyeballs.

(Reader: ‘No.’ Turns page.)

But excellent news for writers who like lines like this:

Fighter pilots: how this everyday vegetable can help you see better at night

(Unfortunately, I’ll never use that one, but you get the idea!)

This should be simple then. After all, you know your product inside out, don’t you? You know what it does for your customers. You know what makes it special and different. All you have to do is get all that across in a dozen or so words. Oh yes. That. That’s what makes writing good headlines so infernally hard.

In case of emergency, break glass

If you find yourself staring into space for more than ten minutes, it’s time for emergency action. You’re busy. You have too many other things to do to be just sitting there. Here’s a way to get something down on paper. It might not be your final line but it will free the wheels and let you get on with the rest of your copy.

Step one: Complete this sentence: My product helps my customers because it…

E.g. My product helps my customers because it saves them money when they buy their next new car.

Step two: Cut everything up to and including ‘it’.

E.g. Saves them money when they buy their next new car. Step three: change ‘them’ and ‘they’ to ‘you’ (and tweak the rest as necessary)

E.g. Save money when you buy your next new car.

Step four: Add ‘NOW: an easy way to’ at the beginning.

E.g. NOW: an easy way to save money when you buy your next new car.

Not bad. Could be better of course. But this only takes a few minutes. And it will be better, much better, than 90% of the headlines you see around you every day.

Practical help

There are no fixed rules on the best format for headlines. But I’ve always found that ‘How to’ headlines work well a lot of the time. Openings like these:

How to save £35 a week on your family’s food bill

How to impress even the most sceptical ballroom dancing judge

How to win friends and influence people (oops – sorry, not one of mine!)

If you want to add a sense of newsiness, the simplest trick is to add NOW: at the beginning of any headline.

And remember, FREE almost always works well in a headline. Don’t be shy in business-to-business (b2b) contexts either. Everyone likes getting free stuff.

Try to keep your headlines as short as you can. Under 16 words is good. Ten is better. (But there are also plenty of examples of control-pulverising headlines longer than either of those numbers.) Remember, you’re not trying to write the whole pitch, just enough to get your reader interested. And if you feel drawn to words like ‘communication’, ‘effective’ or ‘significantly’, try ‘talking’, ‘better’ or ‘much’ instead.

As a general rule, headlines should be on a single line, two at a pinch. If you really feel the need to keep going, use a subhead instead. Like this:

How to make the perfect sponge cake every time

Order a trial pack of Wonder Mix today and save 99p

You could even add a lead-in that refers to your target, like this:

Attention all homemakers…

How to make the perfect sponge cake every time

Order a trial pack of Wonder Mix today and save 99p

Design and layout

Headlines look better set in a larger point size than your body copy. But don’t go mad.

As a general rule for most print and online communications, your headline will tend to shout if it’s more than twice the point size of your body copy.

(Of course, you may want it to shout.) And don’t use ALL CAPS: it makes it harder to read quickly and forces your reader to decode it letter by letter.

I think simple sentence case looks best; initial caps force the reader’s eye to jump up and down as each new word starts (though there’s evidence that initial caps also work well).

Finally, never use full stops at the end of your headlines. They say ‘stop’ and you don’t want your reader to stop, you want them to keep reading.

The absence of a full stop implies that the sentence hasn’t finished yet and they will keep reading till they find one. Look at a newspaper and see if you can find a headline with a full stop.

A few ideas to keep you going

For new products (or things you want to appear new), start with…




At last…



It’s here…

After 10 years…

Use a journalistic headline

The secrets of fine wine collecting revealed

237 ways to cut your tax bill this year

Looks good, smells better: is this the ultimate aftershave?

Use storytelling or editorial techniques

They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I started to play (a classic)

He started life on the wrong side of the tracks, now he’s running the company

Why Susie had to turn down an offer of marriage

Compare value with price

Want a CEO lifestyle on a part-time salary?

Break the price down into manageable chunks

The car you’ve always dreamt of, for just £129 a month

Feature the discount

Save £100 when you subscribe to Copywriter Magazine by

Direct Debit

Provide practical information

The seven steps to a perfect lawn

Do you want to improve your copywriting?

Do you make these mistakes in English? (Another classic)

A simple but delicious chocolate cake recipe

How to drop a dress size in two weeks (without giving up chips)

Style your headline as a quotation or testimonial

‘I’d never won anything. Then I joined QuizFriends. Now I drive a new BMW’

‘You can make money on the stock market without StockPix. I just wouldn’t want to try’

‘If you’re looking for a reliable food mixer, it has to be the

FoodStar 500’

Ask your reader a question

Have you ever wished you could retire early?

Are you ready for a snap customs inspection that could cost your company its life?

What would you do with a million pounds?

Can health and safety be improved in your business?

How much do you know about gardening? Take this simple test

Come in half-way through a sentence

Because there’s more to driving than miles per gallon.

Most of these I have adapted from other copywriters, including the excellent John Caples’ book, Tested Advertising Methods. If you don’t already own a copy, buy one. You won’t be disappointed.


Headlines are too important to waste on lame puns or bogus ‘Ooh! That’s intriguing’ teasers. This goes double online, when people are even more impatient.

If you do nothing else with your next headline, spell out your main benefit.

And remember, if your reader can say ‘so what?’, it’s not a benefit.

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