Writing Home Page Headlines For The Modern World (3 Formulas That Work)

Writing Home Page Headlines For The Modern World (3 Formulas That Work)

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The sad thing is that the advice that follows is often severely outdated and originates from the snail mail sales letter people from the 1950s and beyond.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.

Join the Conversation Add Your Comment

  1. You think that the adroll one is a really solid headline? I mean why am I supposed to believe that it’s #1? The supporting copy doesn’t even explain why they’re #1.

    Maybe something like “Target Your Website Visitors When They Are On Facebook”

    or “Simple & Effective Facebook Retargetting”

    1. Peep Laja

      In the examples I was only demonstrating possible ways to use the formula, ignoring the rest of the copy.

      I agree that the #1 statement is usually a turn-off, but when you go to their site you see that they back it up – they’re no. 7 on the Inc 5000 list (and #1 Advertising Company in the same list). 7th fastest growing company in the US with 3-year growth of 11,082% (yes thats over 10k %). Impressive feat. So the headline is not fluff actually.

    2. I think #1 Ad Retargeting is a smart headline, because they are selling their position. They are first to the market. This headline wouldn’t work, if they couldn’t back it up.

      Oglivy said: the first question shouldn’t be how to sell a product, it should be how to position it.

      AdRoll is doing tons of activity to support their claim so that while people might believe it if they land cold from a search engine, when they start seeing them in articles, conferences, and around the web, the idea will stick.

      I don’t work for AdRoll either :) That said, this headline won’t work in 1-2 years when the market gets crowded and whoever was first doesn’t really matter for the buyer.

      Marketing is about helping people choose–choosing the safe choice of the clear market leader is always a good way to go, if you are really the #1 selling product.

  2. Homepage headlines and blog post headlines are two different games, wouldn’t you say?

    One is more about clicking through via on-site and shares (writing headlines for Twitter, etc.), and the other is about informing new visitors on your offering.

    In fact, using them in tandem (outrageous headlines to get them on-site, straightforward headlines on the homepage to inform them) are what I see many marketing related sites doing.

    1. Peep Laja

      For sure. This post is *only* about home page headlines. And the cheesy ones I listed on the post were definitely recommended as website headlines

  3. Awesome post Peep. I’ve got to point out though, that the CrazyEgg.com headline is a standard formula from the old school copywriting techniques. “The Astonishing (blank) of (product/service)…” —- which is combined with —- “How to do X with out Y.”

    Still this is a killer post. I think it’s interesting that most of the businesses that would be in that sample you pulled are relatively new businesses. It’s interesting how this relates to Market Sophistication as Eugene Schwartz defined it.

    What I mean is, is there a phase that these business go through where people wonder what they are? So, they’ve got to tell people what they are and what their product can do.

    Then later…

    After these businesses establish their brand, and their marketing teams begin to focus more on growth/user acquisition… Or, capturing as much of the market as they can. Do would they switch to more direct response style messaging? OR to something else even?

    It’d be an interesting question to answer.

    Keep jammin Peep! Thanks for another good post.

    1. Peep Laja

      Of course, Amazon and Adobe dont have to explain who they are. However, most companies never get so big and well-known that they have to stop explaining.

      Yes, the companies in the list are new as I wanted to only look at little known businesses that get customers online so the headline could have an impact.

      Headline on a Microsoft website matters much less.

      As for the Crazyegg headline, it also conforms to the new formula:)

  4. Thanks for the good post, Peep.

    Fun detail – I was surprised that you picked “Find your perfect case” for Otterbox headline. The visual design does not emphasize it as one, I really had to take a conscious second look at the screenshot to even find that phrase there.

    At first glance I only noticed the “Protection for what’s next” line and the image with the phone cases.

    1. Hi Priit, I found the same thing! I saw “Protection for what’s next” first, which is meaningless as a phrase until you know it means protection for phones etc…

      Guess that shows that planning a site’s design and where you put your main headline is just as important as getting that headline right.

    2. Peep Laja

      I agree, the design sucks ass. But the headline fits the formula, and I wanted to use an example for a tangible product.

      And – Otter Box sales are through the roof, 2011 Revenue:$347.5 million

      I don’t know how much of it is online, but I’m sure it’s some of it.

  5. Peep

    All three formulas are right on the money. Like Felix Dennis would say this is the formula to make “filthy lucre” (that means a whole bunch of money)

    yes for the first one “you must let let the person know what this is by letting them know what it is” from there they would have already known if theyre interested or not

    for the second one you tell them how its going to benefit them by telling them what theyre getting

    and the third what the person will be able to accomplish with it.

    Man I like this article alot man, great job

  6. Great post – so good in fact that I downloaded the Web Copywriting Bible. But that’s when it went wrong for me and I asked and received a prompt full refund. Here’s what went wrong for me:
    1. I thought this was an ebook – I may not have read that properly, and it seems it’s rather than more of a workshop/work book. I really don’t have time to do anything other than read, my business and site are already up and running.

    2. The link I followed went from your blog Peep, to a completely new place, which I assumed was some sort of shopping basket.

    3. Then I had to open a ruddy account with this shopping basket before I could get the ebook, why should I give them my details? Who are they?

    4. So after trying to buy without creating an account, I finally paid and got a link in return that made no sense, I didn’t know what it was linking to and I didn’t ‘know’ the company it’s from, that opened up something that made no sense at first glance. I honestly don’t even know what I was looking at, web page? More links? The actual ebook? Who knows? But it was still something to do with a company I’d never heard of before, and it began to look like what ever it was I’d purchased was pretty much like the content of your blog anyway.

    5. I bought it because of the offered the money back guarantee and at this stage I just wanted my money back and to get out of here. I’d lost all trust in the shopping basket place and quite a lot in you Peep. I won’t be so fast to follow a link from you again.

    So, sorry that it’s frank, but that was my experience

    1. Peep Laja

      Thanks for sharing and Im sorry for all the trouble. I did mention that its a course on Startup Plays, but of course that didnt help your experience. I will take your feedback seriously and consider from now on to only have products available on my own site rather than external platforms.

  7. Very inspiring article! Based on it I already started to make own comparison for the growth companies in my country. In the meantime, did you found any cohesion or difference between home page headline vs. title/meta element? In the first sight I can say that many of the companies have a really bad headline, or don’t have it at all. If they have a good headline, you can find that they are using it also in title-element in a nearly similar way.

  8. Good post, thank you, and it did make me to click through to you workshop although a few bumps like the case case companies headline which I think is actually the call to action.

    I’d also say that the testimonial headline could work if a) it’s true b) not full of hyperbole and c) it has an accompanying image of the person, not just any person but the one who said it.

    I have yet to test this myself, although will soon, but have seen it on a few other growing web companies as the best version after testing.

    Thanks again Peep

  9. Great post and some very good examples. My only worry with this is that people will start to switch off to these types of headings – I’m already doing so.

  10. Magnificent post!

    BEST piece of copy writing transparency I’ve seen in a coon’s age! Your headline tips and samples are genuinely helpful and I’m happy to know you’re kicking those old-style hype-ridden headlines to the curb. :)

    Discovered you thanks to my fellow Word Carnival blogger, Eugene Farber, of “Reality Burst”.

  11. Thanks Peep. Many of the examples demonstrated would score well on what I call the trust monitor, rating on inclusivity, disclosure, transparency, competency and authenticity.

    It’s a big ask for a few words backed up by a sub head and a scan of the overall site, but when it works you are far more likely to click through.

    I wonder why though, people are still duped into clicking through on ‘the secrets of…’ type headlines. It must appeal in a powerful way to our lizard brain?

  12. I laughed quietly on the $4 beauty secret of Rachel Bilson – who on earth would ever believe Rachel Bilson uses something that costs $4 to help her maintain her appearance when she could apparently enjoy luxurious products?! That being said, she actually MAY use inexpensive stuff and I don’t mean to make her look shallow, but I really doubt that’s the case. Such headlines are kind of annoying, cause they make me feel like they thought I was stupid enough to believe that crap. Really bad approach to prospect customers!

  13. Simply awesome tips, and great examples. Killer apps needs killer titles, similarly killer sites needs killer headlines.

  14. This was a really helpful article. Did you find any ‘clever’ headlines on successful website pages?

  15. Excellent post. I was checking constantly this blog and I’m impressed!

    Extremely useful information specifically the last part :) I care for such
    information a lot. I was looking for this particular info for a very long time.
    Thank you and best of luck.

  16. Thanks for the post.

    It’s useful to be reminded of the differences between writing for posted letters, emails and web pages.

    As a self-taught bootstrapping business person I need all the help I can get and will be reviewing my headlines accordingly.

  17. Oh and BTW, I’ll be testing a change to my mailout letter – I’ll post the results in a few weeks time.

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Writing Home Page Headlines For The Modern World (3 Formulas That Work)