Read any copywriting manual or article and you will learn that the headline is the most important thing in your sales copy. And it’s true.

The sad thing is that the advice that follows is often severely outdated and originates from the snail mail sales letter people from the 1950s and beyond. I researched 500 headlines of successful online businesses and figured out which formulas work today. 

Just so we’re on the same page: which headlines do I mean

First of all let’s make clear that I’m NOT referring to blog post or any other type of editorial content headlines. Cosmo-style headlines may work just fine for your personal blog, but it’s not going to sell your products. What I’m talking about is the headline on your website home page or product page.

Like here the headline is “”Work the way you want to” (which could be better – it’s way too vague):

Or here it’s “Design your Mobile App or Landing Page in 7 Days” (potentially a very good headline):

The bad advice you’re usually given

Most articles on copywriting tell you to use Cosmo-style headlines (“The $4 Beauty Trick You Need to Steal From Rachel Bilson“) or those age-old “Who else wants to learn killer sales secrets?” headline formulas. They’re cute, but we’ve evolved past that. Decades of ad bombardment and cheap sales tactics have made people uber-sensitive to anything cheesy and self-important jargon.

Here are the kind of headlines you usually get recommended to write:

The Secret of Successful Writing (that only successful writers know about)

At Last! Scientists Uncover the Secret to Preventing Ugly Wrinkles

These are headlines I copied from a copywriting article. Who in the real world would not be thrown off by this? If your target market is uneducated get-rich-quick with-a-click kind of people, it might work for you. If you’re marketing a real business to real people, think twice.

“The secret of” type headlines might go down on blogs and newspapers, but don’t use it on your respectable company blog. One of the copywriting blogs – Copyblogger – has tons of articles on writing as “cheesy as it gets” headlines for blog posts, but they themselves use the solid “say what it is” approach:

People yearn authenticity.  Our bullshit detectors are always on. The attention span of people has significantly gone down with the digital age, people are too impatient to bother figuring stuff out. If your headline sucks, many won’t give you another chance.

One of the goals of the headline is to build a rapport between you and the reader. Nobody identifies with a cheesy snake oil salesman pitch. Here’s another headline writing tip I found:

“Internet Marketing Exclusive is Pure Genius — Our Sales Have Increased by 40%!”

Headlines written in the form of a testimonial are very effective, as they instantly begin building trust.

Oh really? Instant trust you say? NOT! Sounding like a cheesy fake salesman does not increase, but kill your sales by 40%. As Ogilvy said, The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife.

So my advice is to wake up and realize it’s not 1964 anymore. You can’t rehash that old stuff. Don’t use scandalous blog headlines on your business website if you want conversions. Talk and write like a real person.

2 key questions to weed out bad headlines

When pondering a headline, see if you can answer ‘yes’ to both of these questions.

  1. Imagine your website would be just your headline and a call to action (sign up, learn more, call now etc). Would anyone take action based on the headline?
  2. Would you use the exact wording of your headline in a conversation with your friend where you explain the product/service?

Yes there are always exceptions, but use this as a guideline to get you on the right path.

3 headline formulas that work today

I hate the word ‘formula’ as much as the next guy, but I’m gonna call these formulas anyway.

How did I come up with these? Not by rehashing age-old formulas or copywriting truths. I actually analyzed more than 500 headlines of successful web companies.

Definitinons:

  • Web company: companies that get all or most of their business online (so the headline on their website is important)
  • Successful: I looked at graduates of top startup incubators (Y Combinator, Techstars, 500 startups) that have achieved commercial success and businesses that made it onto the Inc 5000 list. I avoided looking at companies that are already huge and very successful – like let’s say Google, Amazon or Facebook – those guys operate on totally different terms.
I’m not saying all of the companies that I looked at have great headlines. Absolutely not – many have a really sucky headline, or don’t have one at all. A headline does not make or break a business (but it can help a lot if you nail it). What I discovered looking at these headlines were trends – “formulas” that were working for these businesses.

Disclaimer: while I did extensive analysis for this, it’s not a scientific method. Also, I did not have their a/b testing data nor con version data available. That being said, I strongly believe the formulas I derived from this will work very well. I use them in my work all the time. 

Here are the formulas for writing headlines along with 3 examples for each:

Formula #1: Say what it is

Brain is a questioning organ. Whenever we see something new, our brain asks ‘what is it?”. This formula addresses this fundamental question.

Heroku: cloud application platform

Next Big Sound: Analytics & Insights for the Music Industry

Adroll: #1 Retargeting Platform

Formula #2: Say what you get

This formula is a benefit oriented statement that sums up what you get when you sign up.

RocketLawyer: Everything you need to make it legal

Songkick: Be the first to know about concerts

Crazyegg: The Astonishing Power of Eye Tracking Technology…Without the High Costs

Formula #3: Say what you’re able to do (with it)

This is where the headline makes it clear what you’re able to accomplish if you use this product or service.

Rekko Toolbar: Attention folks, deliver any message, to anyone, on any page

Airbnb: find a place to stay

Otterbox: Find your perfect case

Notice how all of the headlines here are reinforced with a supporting image? #smart

Important: these headline formulas are merely blueprints to help you craft a good headline. There’s no way to know in advance which headline will work for you – you HAVE TO split test it.

Better than headlines: make it a unique value proposition

A good headline alone is not enough – it needs help. That’s why you should always use headline as a part of a larger value proposition. Include a sub-headline to boost clarity, an intro paragraph to explain the service and bullet points to emphasize benefits. The sum of all of them will help you deliver a more effective message.

Remember – people scan, they don’t read. The structure I just described is extremely scan-friendly and enables to you to quickly deliver your main message to the visitors.

Another important point – you don’t want to be a commodity. Google “project management software” and look at the different sites. “Easy project management”, “Fast, Easy and Efficient Project Management”, “Online project management made simple” and so on. It all sounds the same.

People comparison shop. They want to be able to tell different options apart. You have to be different in an obvious way, or you’ll be “like all the others” and your headline will fall flat.

I’ve written about value propositions in detail here.

Conclusion

The formulas I’ve outlined here are working for a lot of very successful companies. And they might work for you too (or might not). But they most definitely serve as great starting points for getting your headline split testing going.

If you test any of these formulas on your own site, please do let me know your findings.

FYI: I just released a copywriting course for startups on the Startup Plays platform. It’s called Web Copywriting Bible.