How to Write Headlines That Get Results in 5 Steps

by John Hargan

There is one crucial element found in all forms of marketing, from digital to print, even in radio and television – the headline.

For the digital marketer (which I assume you are) headlines are found in search advertisements, social ads, blog posts, landing pages and emails.

It’s the first thing a prospect sees, and is the biggest determinant of success for any marketing communication.

A good headline is arguably the most important part of an ad or content badge/link. It grabs attention, sets the tone, and makes a first impression.

Without a good headline, the prospect will read no further. Its job is to win attention, and start the buyer on their journey.

effective headlines for content marketing

Headlines are particularly important for Google Ads and other paid acquisition channels, where you’re relying on split second decision making to capture attention.

And despite digital marketing’s technical advancements, it still relies on the same direct response tactics used in direct mail marketing since the 19th Century.

While the medium may have changed, human nature has not.

Consider the words of David Ogilvy, the advertising guru has the following to say about headlines:

“On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar”.

Yes, you can do 80% of your selling in one or two lines.

I’ll walk you through how to do it. Let’s take a look at a five-step process for building a killer headline:

1.   Know Your Audience

An effective headline is super-specific to the segment you’re advertising to. So before you even begin writing copy, you need to have a firm grasp of who you’re targeting and why.

If you don’t already have it documented, building a concise customer avatar and value proposition will make it a lot easier to write effective headlines.

customer avatar

After you have that solid targeting documentation in place, consider the following:

What Benefits Can You Offer?

Building on the buyer persona, make a list of the problems they might encounter. Then write down what the implication of this problem is, and how your product/service offers a solution to that problem.

After you’ve got these in place it will be easily to articulate how you can offer a benefit to the prospect.

List out at least 5 of these to get started. Here’s the formula: Problem + Implication + Solution = Benefit.

headline formula content marketing

Remember you’re looking to highlight benefits, not features.

This is an all-too-common mistake, particularly for B2B marketers. You should write to appeal to emotion first, fixing an irksome problem is going to trigger strong emotions for anyone.

After you have their attention, you can present a more logical argument in your body copy or followups.

What Stage of the Buyer Journey Do We Want to Target With this Campaign?

Consider carefully what stage of the buyer funnel you’re addressing.

funnel buyer journey

For those who are earlier in the buying stage, more informational content might be needed to begin the buyer journey.

Prospects closer to purchase can be served headlines with more commercial intent.

Don’t try and sell to people at the top of the funnel, present them with a low-threat offer that helps them with a specific problem, and warms them up to your product or service.

2.   Know what a headline should do

A headline serves to do two things: grab attention and encourage readers towards action.

The attention grabbing part is self-evident – you need something punchy and unique that is relevant to the reader. Encouraging readers towards action can vary depending on the offer you’re presenting, and the buyer stage you’re marketing to.

Grab Attention

This is table stakes for an effective headline. You need to have something to say that will immediately grab your prospects attention.

According to research from Microsoft, the average consumer’s attention span is only 8 seconds, what’s even more worrying is that it’s predicted that this attention span will continue to become shorter each year.

So what can we take away from this?

People are not patient, and they typically do not care about your content. The world is noisy - getting attention is tricky and not getting any easier.Click To Tweet

With this in mind you need a punchy headline to stand out, not only to grab a fleeting attention span, but to differentiate from competitors who are trying to do the same.

  • Pick a clear benefit (use the benefits and buyer persona you developed earlier)
  • Present it in a simple and engaging way (it should be immediately obvious what your message means. Try asking a question of the reader, offer useful information or a solution to a problem they have)

Remember to always tie the headline to a benefit and relate it to your product or service.

Encourage Action

email form lead magnet

Encouraging action is a little more nuanced, depending on the goals of the associated campaign, it may be encouraging direct response (usually a form submission to get a lead, or purchase/add to cart for e-commerce) or for other products and services it may encourage them to read more into the body copy and pique their interest to begin research.

In general higher ticket items like a car or education purchase require far more due diligence. On the other hand low-ticket items like shampoo or cat food can rely on impulse buys.

Consider this when writing your copy, how much information does the prospect need before making a decision, and where does your ad sit on their buyer journey?

3.   Choose a Proven Headline Type

marketing headline types

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel when writing a headline. Copywriters have been testing ads for decades, and it’s in your best interest to piggyback on their work.

Here are five popular headline types you should try (there are lots out there, these are some of my personal favourites):

Question Headlines

Asking a question is a great way of capturing your prospects attention.

headlines question

In order to get the most bang for your buck here, make sure to ask something that resonates with your audience, and they’d like to see answered.

  • Hiring Marketers? Talk to the Experts
  • Are You Getting the Best Rate on Your Mortgage?
  • What Are the Best Credit Cards for Under-30s?

These types of headlines work even better if you address the reader directly.

Remember: the word ‘You’ is still one of the most powerful in a marketers dictionary.

Testimonial Headlines

Using a testimonial in your headline is a great way to leverage social proof in your marketing.

testimonial headline marketing

By using the voice of the customer, you can quickly connect, build trust and establish legitimacy before diving deeper into addressing a customer problem.

  • “I’ve Worked With a Lot of Marketing Agencies, but Example Are True Experts”
  • “Example Is the Only Newsletter That I Read”
  • “Our Orders Just Went Through the Roof Since Switching to Example”

When choosing a testimonial to use, look for ones that are easily understood, that speak to a widespread problem for your audience and that are short and punchy enough to be used in a headline.

Less is more here, using a teaser or excerpt from a longer testimonial is a good approach.

Make sure to get approval before putting this out in the wild, ask permission directly and explain in what context you’ll use their quote.

This should avoid any awkward conversations later!

How-to Headlines

This is a real workhorse of a headline, it’s not fancy or innovative, but it sure as hell does the trick.

how to headlines marketing

These are great to turn to when you’re really stuck for ideas, once you get a few good how-to headline variants out, you can begin to tweak and ideate further.

  • How to Cook Juicy Chicken, Every Time
  • How to Break Bad Habits When It Feels Impossible
  • How to Land Customers When You Have Zero Marketing Budget

How-to headlines work because they’re action-oriented, by teasing the solution you can directly address a prospects pain point and give them a reason to click your ad or read the rest of your blog post.

News Headlines

Presenting your content or ad as news is another good tactic.

news headline content marketing

These types of headlines can also be used to appeal to past disappointments readers have faced – by presenting a new way or new development and highlighting how it’s different from frustrating past experiences.

  • A New Way to Write for SEO in 2020
  • Finally, a Broker That Charges Zero Fees
  • This New App Helps You Learn a Second Language in Weeks

News headlines are pretty versatile, and can be used to announce a new product, a recent improvement or just to highlight a point of differentiation between your offering and your competitors.

Numbered List Headlines

These are about as ubiquitous as they come, they form almost the entire basis of Buzzfeed’s content model, seriously – take a look.

numbered list headlines content

If you’ve been anywhere near an internet browser in the past 10 years, you’ll have seen plenty of examples.  But for good reason – they perform incredibly well.

  • How to Build a Killer Email Marketing Strategy in 6 Steps
  • 28 Ingenious Ways to Open a Cold Call
  • 10 Marketing Tools That Small Businesses Need to Know About 

Numbered lists are simple to compose, list of the items you’re going to cover, wrap it in a hook that appeals to the prospect and you’re set.

They’re concise, simple and let readers know what they’re getting in for.

These perform so well that in an analysis of 1 million headlines, they performed the best out of any headline type. Give them a try.

4.   Write, Rewrite, and Rewrite Again

Now that you know who you’re targeting, the benefits you want to highlight, the reason they might be interested in your ad, along with some classic headline formulas – it’s time for the fun part – writing.

writing content

This can take time. Don’t expect a great headline to jump out right away.

My best advice is to write freely for 30 minutes to an hour. Jot down headlines as they come into your head, don’t filter, edit or judge – just write.

After the initial writing burst, take a break, then go back and sift through the ideas you’ve jotted down.

Select the best gems for further development, iterating on each until you have a draft of headlines you’d be happy to publish.

Don’t just go with the first, second or even third draft.

Let the headlines marinate for a few hours, or take a look at them the next day. The longer you wait the better (within reason!).

Share them with a colleague, even share them with friends who don’t work in marketing. Feedback from a different perspective can help you spot opportunities to improve your work.

This stage can be frustrating, but it’s a process that yields results.

Once you’ve looked at the headlines with a fresh set of eyes, and ideally shared for external feedback, choose 2 or 3 of the best headlines to test (we’ll cover the importance of testing in a little bit).

Check for the 4 U’s

This is a great tip that Robert Ply puts forward in the copywriter’s handbook.

After writing a few headlines and picking out the best ones, check each of them for the following attributes. By checking for these attributes and rewriting if they are lacking, you can greatly improve the quality of your headlines quickly and systematically.

Your headline doesn’t need to contain any or all of these elements, and many effective headlines don’t, but they are battle proven, and can be used to a little extra spice or perk up a mediocre headline.

1.    Urgent

Are you giving the prospect a prompt to act now, rather than later?

Try time limited offers, with discounts or incentives to purchase before a certain date “20% off Bike Helmets – This Week Only”. Or incorporate a time period in the headline e.g. “5 Marketing Mistakes to Avoid in 2020”.

2.    Unique

Readers are fatigued.

With information overload a very real problem, you need to make sure you’re offering the reader something new or presenting information in a way that they haven’t seen or heard before.

How can you present information in a new way, or frame it to pique interest?

3.    Ultra-specific

With headlines, the more specific the better. Draw readers into your offer or article by highlighting a niche problem or situation.

For example: “5 Money Moves 29-Year-Olds Need to Make” – this headline selects the reader and presents them with a teaser for useful information that is super-specific to their demographic.

With more targeting options than ever, these headlines can be very effective for tightly segmented social media campaigns.

4.    Useful

Are you offering the reader something useful? A strong headline includes a benefit or incentive that prompts the user to take action.

Chances are, your prospects already have too much on their plate, cut through the noise by presenting them with a benefit that solves a real problem.

A good headline encourages action by stirring up a need to know more, or demand for your offer.

Remember the Body Copy

While we’re focusing on headlines here, we can’t neglect the body copy. You should build upon claims you’ve made in the headline.

If you haven’t presented a call-to-action in the headline itself, this is a great place to do so.

5.   Test and Optimise

OK, so we’ve looked at the components of a good headline, and how to write one. But this is only half the battle. The next step is to get them out in the wild and launch.

headlines test and optimise

Post-launch is a crucial time, even a fantastic creative can underperform if it isn’t tested and optimised properly.

Don’t set and forget.

The best marketers consider everything an experiment, and are quick to pivot when they get data on what’s working.

I recommend gathering at least a week worth of data, ideally 2 weeks before making a call on what’s working. Run your data through a tool to test for statistical significance and pause your underperforming variants.

If things are looking bad, and your campaign isn’t hitting forecast goals, it might be time to revisit earlier steps – check if you’re going after a tight segment, know what their pain points are and offer a relevant benefit.

Based on learnings from real campaign data, you should have enough info to validate assumptions about your audience and develop new angles. Take this data and use it to tweak your headlines.

Have Multiple Headlines Ready to Test

As mentioned in the previous section, you should have a collection of headlines to test for each campaign.

Start off testing 2 or 3 at first, to gather data quickly, but have multiple variants in reserve ready to go.

This will allow you to start new tests rapidly, and avoid context switching when you’re in execution mode vs. creative mode.

A/B testing

ABT – Always be Testing!

You can follow the headline writing process perfectly, but if you’re not regularly testing and optimising, you’re leaving money on the table.

split test marketing

If you’re working with a landing page, using a tool like Unbounce, or similar landing page builder will allow you to easily set up a split test, with a percentage of traffic going to each variant.

Another popular free tool is Google Optimize, this allows you to test web page headlines based on a variety of visitor attributes, so you can get a little more fancy in your targeting and tests.

Run tests regularly, checking results at least every month, and when you get a statistically significant result be sure to pause the loser and swap in some new ad creative.

Set aside a block of time after a certain period to review test results and tweak to improve performance.

Test Different Combos

Try different combinations of headline and body copy. You might find that a certain headline performs much better when paired with appropriate body copy, and that other headlines just tank regardless of what else is on offer.


Headlines aren’t rocket science, but they are a crucial element of any marketing communication.

The humble headline has been the make or break factor in countless campaigns since the advent of advertising as a discipline.

That importance isn’t set to diminish soon, with digital platforms like paid search and social ads heavily reliant on the power of a good headline, it pays to put in the extra effort to make it pop.

The process we’ve looked at should give you a solid foundation for writing strong headlines. Follow the process, tweak it to your needs and improve upon it.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, experiment and break the mould a little, that’s what great advertising is all about.

Want more content marketing strategies, advice and tactics? Check out one of our most popular ever articles: 

John has worked with many different companies across the US and Europe to build marketing and sales programs that deliver scalable ROI. At AgileMarketers, his writing focus is to distill this frontline experience into simple-to-digest, actionable pieces that help readers improve their marketing strategy and drive business growth.

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