A good headline is like quicksand.
Unfortunately, most headlines just aren’t that compelling. Of the people who read them, only 20% actually continue reading or click the link. There’s only one way to increase that percentage, and that’s to commit 80% of your effort writing a killer headline.
I admit I’m a sucker for any article, blog post, webinar or hangout promising to make me a better headline writer. In fact I collect articles on headlines like I collect headlines. The good writer or marketer who doesn’t have a headline swipe file doesn’t exist. Most writers read all the time, so naturally they compile shelves of good material to steal. I encourage you to start saving remarkable headlines and subject lines. You’ll start to notice patterns: the “how to” headline, the “if, then” headline, etc. A quick search will bring you more than enough swipe files to reference as you think of your next topic.
But what if suddenly your access to swipe files was cut off; or God forbid you hit your head and couldn’t remember all the tips and “tricks” you learned along the way.
Even with total amnesia, you could still write headlines as long as you had one thing intact…
Last Saturday I was pressed for a short answer about writing emails. The short answer for almost everything related to copywriting has to do with — you guessed it — short copy. That means subject lines and headlines. For all the books, articles and blogs about copywriting, this is the most important part of your copywriting skill set; the ability to write concise and compelling short copy. If you can do that, you hardly need any other “tricks” get people to read your writing.
Well, naturally the follow-up question was “how to write good headlines and subject lines.” But there was no time to go into technique. The truest, best, shortest answer about headlines is this: If you understand a handful of raw, human motivators, then you can write good headlines.
And I’m not talking about a shallow or perfunctory understanding. I’m talking real heartfelt knowledge…
- That comes from that sick feeling you get when you just missed out on something that can’t be replicated.
- Or that desire that jumps up in the pit of your stomach when you have a shot at obtaining the piece that completes the puzzle.
- Or that inkling to act on a hunch that could crack open the code, or change one corner of the world for good.
- Or the feeling that you’d gladly empty your wallet this moment if you could just feel or look a certain way.
- Or the relief you feel when a lifeline is cast in your direction, or the pressure’s off, or vacation is coming, or you just got that raise.
- Or the taste of insecurity as you dodge a small disaster careening toward you.
- Or the thrill of victory when you earn or achieve something after months of effort.
When you know an emotion in your bones…then you can write headlines.
Feelings are universal. You don’t need to feel the specific desire for whatever it is you’re selling or writing about. You just have to understand what your reader is going through. The way to do that is to be aware of how you felt in a universally intense human situation.
We’ve all experienced these emotions. We’ve all been there. The details are different for everyone, but you know how it feels to want something so bad, you’d go to the mat for it. Or you’ve fantasized a dozen times about gaining a certain delightful effect — preferably with very little hassle, time or money. You’ve imagined how freakin’ fabulous it would be if only….[this part’s all yours].
Now wring it out. Squeeze all those details out — because those details are personal to you — but look closely at the feeling that’s left. That raw emotion is what you touch on as you write your headline.
Most (but not all) good headlines come from the motivating triggers we all understand because we humans are all essentially the same. Our core values are pretty basic, when you remove the”stuff” around them.
The Big Emotions
…and some examples of the range of issues they encompass are listed below. By the way, some of these work best as email subject lines, another spot you want to compel your reader to click. Can you tell which ones?
- I’m sorry if you’re the last to know…
- How to triple your Facebook Likes in one month on $5 a day [curiosity mixed with self interest]
- The toxins in your hotel room can ruin your vacation [curiosity mixed with fear]
- The best investment Warren Buffet ever made, in his own words
- Slimming secrets stars use the day before they walk the red carpet
- How to get firm abs in 60 days, and shock your friends at the pool
- I hope they’re not laughing at you…
- New-car technology that makes you look smart
- Never lose your controller connection during an epic kill streak again
- 7 stupid money mistakes that get you deeper in debt
- You’ve waited too long for this to back out now
- Your smallest gift means everything to her
- If you say this single word, you can bring peace into your life today
- The truth about “Legacy” [benevolence mixed with self interest]
- Not everyone who gets this will respond [benevolence mixed with vanity]
- How to lower your mortgage and pay off your home quicker
- The doors are closing forever
- Are you wasting time and money getting Facebook Likes?
- Why investing in the wrong marketing channels can set you back months and weaken sales
These emotions are so vast and universal, you’d be hard pressed to find a desire, wish, or pain that doesn’t fit under one of these umbrellas.
Humans are wired to feel first, and then react.
Instinct saves lives and helps us make decisions. And it certainly accounts for different personalities and preferences. Expand on these feelings and write headlines that trigger action based on any powerful emotion. [Note: the list above is just a sample!]
All the formulas and tricks that A-list copywriters use are just fancy architecture built on very solid ground. Effective copy wouldn’t exist without an understanding of why people want to click and read more.
Connections are made when active minds think alike. Emotion both wakes up the mind, and gets people thinking about taking an action. Once you understand that, your headlines take care of themselves.
Camera picture: Flickr CC, TheonlyAnla
Quicksand picture: Flickr CC, Mark Roy