How to Write a Headline [Better Writing With Jeremy Ep IV]

  • Jeremy Tarrier

Continuing our series on the principles of better writing…

In this article we turn our attention to the adage: “first impressions count”.

You only have seconds in which to grab the attention of an increasingly fickle audience before they are distracted by another “shiny object” and your window of opportunity is gone. A powerful compelling headline is vital to keep their attention on your message.

Read on to learn the secret formula for writing your headlines and ways to shortcut the creative process.

Previously on Better Writing with Jeremy:
Writing Product Reviews [Better Writing with Jeremy Ep I]
Creating a Consumer Profile [Better Writing with Jeremy Ep II]
Meet AIDA – your copy’s not done till the fat lady sings [Better Writing With Jeremy Ep III]

My original headline for this article was:

How to Write a Blockbuster Headline for Your Tweet, Facebook Post, Email Subject Line, Article … Whatever … That Totally Rocks

which had an Emotional Marketing Value (EMV) of 36.84% according to the Advanced Marketing Institute. More about that later.

Unfortunately, under the B2Bento site theme it wraps horribly and probably would have caused a lot of cringing or early departures to pastures new. On a full width landing page it would totally rock according to it’s EMV.

The principles of writing headlines are the same for Tweets, Facebook and email subject lines. The number of characters may vary but the purpose is the same: to grab the reader by the eyeballs and make him or her want to read the rest of your content. Without an attention grabbing headline the rest of your content is wasted.

[cover image: Tested Advertising Methods, 4th Edition, John Caples]“If the headline of an advertisement is poor, the best copywriters in the world can’t write copy that will sell the goods. They haven’t a chance. Because if the headline is poor, the copy will not be read …”

Tested Advertising Methods, John Caples, 1932


Types of Headline

Look through any newspaper, magazine, your email in-box, Tweet stream or Facebook page and you will see a seemingly endless variety of headlines all trying to get your attention. Yes, the words are different but they all fall into one of the 8 types described by master copywriter Bob Bly in “The Copywriter’s Handbook“.

1. Direct Headlines

Direct headlines state the selling proposition in a no-nonsense, direct way. “Widgets 50% Off” is about as direct as it can get.

2. Indirect Headlines

Indirect headlines arouse curiosity. The questions they raise are answered in the body copy. “Fifteen Thousand to One, We Can Mix It Right First Time.” sounds like the advertiser, a home decorating supplier, is betting heavily that they can mix your chosen colour paint correctly at the first attempt. On reading the body copy it becomes clear that the “fifteen thousand to one” refers to the variations of colour that can be made, and the “we can mix it right first time” refers to the fact that they use a computerised mixing system.

3. News Headlines

News headlines are used to make an announcement about your product or service, e.g. “New, improved Widget”

4. How-to Headlines

How-to headlines offer the promise of a solution to a problem, “How to earn better interest on your savings, even in a recession”.

5. Question Headlines

For best effect, a question headline must ask a question that the reader wants to be answered or can empathise with, e.g. “What do women REALLY want?”

6. Command Headlines

The first word of a command headline is a strong verb demanding action from the reader, “Stop wasting fuel, get better mileage with WidgetX”

7. Reason-Why Headlines

If your body copy is essentially a list of features/benefits, the reason-why headline is well suited to introduce the list, e.g. “11 Reasons why you should join the Widget Owners Club”.

8. Testimonial Headlines

Testimonials from satisfied customers are a great source of headlines. This type of headline lets your customers do the selling for you, what could be better than social proof that your business delivers the goods?

Avoid embellishing or over-editing of the headline and include the testimonial in the body copy as proof (see Ep III “Meet AIDA”)

The Difference Between B2B and B2C Headlines

There is a difference between writing headlines for B2B and B2C. This is chiefly because C-level folk (CTOs, CIOs, CFOs etc) and business owners are looking for something to fix a business problem. They don’t have the time or patience to read a cunningly written headline that tries to play mindgames. Best advice: avoid indirect headlines.

How to test your headline

Even before split-testing (aka A/B testing) your headline it is worth running it through a headline checker.

At the beginning of this article I mentioned Emotional Marketing Value (EMV). The EMV system was developed by the Advanced Marketing Institute (AMI) based on the late 1960s and early 1970s work of Dr. Hakim Chishtia, U.S. government research scholar, who studied the roots of several languages including Persian, Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, and Urdu. His research found basic underlying harmonics, a tonality that permeates a language, which are more profound and powerful than the dictionary meaning of the words used. According to his findings the meaning of words can sometimes be mistaken, however human emotions always interpret (react to) the sound tones the same way.

The EMV system compares the words in your headline with words from the EMV Impact list. According to AMI the English language contains approximately 20% EMV words.

I’m not a psychologist or a linguist so I won’t comment on the veracity of the system, however the analysis does give some guidance on the potential reach of a headline.

Here’s the results from the analysis of my original headline:

To test your headline, head over to AMI’s Headline Analyzer, type in your headline, select the target business or industry then hit “Submit for Analysis”.

Another handy headline checker is the Lulu Titlescorer. OK, strictly speaking it’s for testing book titles etc. but I like to run my headlines through as many tests as possible before unleashing them on the world. According to Lulu, “The Lulu Titlescorer has been developed exclusively for Lulu by statisticians who studied the titles of 50 years’ worth of top bestsellers and identified which title attributes separated the bestsellers from the rest.”

A word of caution: if you’re working on the subject line for an electronic direct mail (aka eDM or email blast) ALWAYS test your headline against a spam filter. A headline that took you hours to create, scores well on EMV and is deemed to be a bestseller at Lulu can end up in the trash bin because it contains spammy words such as “free”.

What if you’re really stuck for a headline?

Sometimes you’re really under pressure to come up with something fast or the dreaded writer’s block has kicked in due to caffeine deficiency.

Don’t panic! Use a headline generator such as the Headline Wizard by Tim Gross. It is predominantly aimed at Internet Marketers but it can come up with some thought provoking suggestions. Take your pick from the results and run them through the headline and spam checkers. Make your tweaks then rinse and repeat until you’re happy.


Bob Bly “The Copywriter’s Handbook

AMI’s Headline Analyzer

Lulu Titlescorer

Headline Wizard by Tim Gross


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