7 Proven Headline Formulas That Convert (And why they work)

by 47 11/09/2011

My wife thinks I am weird.

More on this in a second.

First, understand that the Internet hasn’t changed everything.   The headlines that David Ogilvy and other legendary copywriters wrote for print ads and direct mail in the 1950′s are found in 21st century Twitter and RSS feeds.

The art of writing headlines that convert survived the Internet revolution because it works. And it will always work, because good headlines tap into psychological triggers that are hard-wired into the human mind.

So, assuming the human psyche doesn’t drastically evolve any time soon, committing to learning how to write better headlines is a good investment of your time.

Teri Hatcher is compelling, and so are these headlines

When I see great marketing, I get excited.  And my wife wrinkles her nose and furrows her brow.  She doesn’t get it.

I’m always on the look out for great marketing, and I bet you are too.

My wife gets particularly concerned when I read and study headlines while standing in line at the grocery store. I know, it’s sick.

But you should try it.  Headline writers for print magazines are the best in the world at getting you to take action.

It’s a fantastic exercise.

Consider the following seven headlines from Prevention magazine and the formulas that make them work.

Headline 1 – Shrink Your Fat Zones: Lose 7 Lbs in 7 Days

This headline makes a promise, as all good headlines do. It promises that we will receive a benefit. And it promises that we will receive a desirable quantity of that benefit in a desirable time period.

The Formula

Get [desired result] in [desirable time period]

Examples

  1. Fix Your Poor Eyesight With a Simple 2-Hour Procedure
  2. How To Become Debt Free in 90 Days or Less
  3. Master the German Language in Record Time

Headline 2 – 8 Lies About Sunscreen: Believe Them At Your Own Risk

This headline poses a threat. It gets us to take action because we feel as though we may be putting ourselves or those we love at risk. It also implies that something we trust has misled us and may be dangerous.

The Formula

X Lies About [Something Common]

Examples

  1. X Lies Real Estate Agents Are Telling About the Housing Market
  2. Is Your Veterinarian Being Honest With You About Canine Heartworms?
  3. X Questions That Will Make Your Accountant Squirm in His Chair

Headline 3 – Vegetarian Nation: Will These Women Change The Way You Eat?

This headline works because it (in a sneaky way) demonstrates social proof and then asks a question. Social proof provides someone making a decision the reassurance that others are already doing what you are considering. The term ‘Nation’ at the beginning of the headline indicates that there is an enormous amount of people that are vegetarians. Yes, it is indeed a crafty use of social proof.

Asking a question in the headline automatically makes us more engaged in the headline. If we read the question, we feel compelled to answer it. In order to answer it we must read the content.

The Formula

[Provide social proof] [Ask a compelling question]

Examples

  1. Millions of Dollars Refinanced: Can You Afford To Ignore Changes In Mortgage Rates?
  2. Derek Jeter Trusts Us: Do You Know If You Are A Good Candidate for Lasik Surgery?
  3. Do You Know Why Thousands of Cancer Survivors Gather In Central Park Every October?

Headline 4 – The No Pill Pain Remedy Doctors Now Trust

This is a good headline formula if your audience is skeptical of the benefits your product provides. Your product might be new and unfamiliar to your audience. Or, it may have received poor reviews in the past.

The headline works because you are declaring that a trusted group of people now endorse the product.

The Formula

The [previously untrusted or unproven product] That [authoritative person/group of people] Now Endorse

Examples

  1. The Emerging Trend In Skin Care That Julia Roberts Swears By
  2. A New Way To Talk Business: Why Every IBM’er Is Now Using Android Mobile Phones
  3. The Water Substitute Thousands of Fitness Trainers Are Using To Hydrate

Headline 5 – Vacation Perils & Pitfalls: Banish Bedbugs, Bach Strain, Belly Aches and More

This is another threat headline. It makes a promise that if we read the article we can avoid some of the awful things that can ruin a vacation. The headline also takes advantage of the idea that people will do more to avoid pain than to seek pleasure.

The Formula

[Threat] + [Promise of a solution]

Examples

  1. 7 Legal Cheats That Keep The IRS Out Of Your Pocketbook
  2. Sidestep A Leaky Basement In 5 Easy Steps
  3. Insurance Nightmare: A Natural Disaster Checklist To Review With Your Agent

Headline 6 – Beat The Sunday Night Blues: Surprising Ways To Put The Fun Back In Your Weekend

This headline uses a word that will perk up your ears. Can you guess what it is?

Surprising.

The word surprising in this headline is critical because it communicates that these are not the ordinary suggestions we always hear about having fun on the weekend. These are new or, at least, new to us.

The Formula

[undesired result] + [mysterious solution]

Examples

  1. How To Avoid Public Embarrassment: A Professional Speakers Secret Revealed
  2. 17 Little Known Email Hacks That Keep You Out of Productivity Hell
  3. A Misunderstood Home Remedy For Reducing Heart Disease

Headline 7 – Teri Hatcher: Her Shocking Struggle With Secret Pain

People like to hear juicy details about the people they admire and respect. This headline uses some very powerful words including shocking and secret. If we are even mildly interested in the person they are referencing, curiosity forces us to take a look.

It also exploits our desire for new information. Something we haven’t heard before.

The Formula

[respected person/group of people] + [exclusive/new information]

Examples

  • Steve Jobs Reveals All About Apple’s Revolutionary Design Process
  • A Fresh Look At An Ancient Problem: How Los Angeles City Planners Overcame The Energy Crisis
  • A Behind The Scenes Look At The Latest Technologies in Movie Making

Will you use your powers for good or evil?

Writing good headlines is not, in and of itself, manipulative. That being said, you don’t have to look far to find a great headline with nothing behind it.

There is no better way to alienate people than to make a promise in a headline and fail to deliver on it. Writing headlines that don’t deliver is not just ethically wrong. It’s also bad business.

Study great headlines.  Put them (ethically) into practice for your business.  You will find that your spouse thinking you are weird is a small price to pay.

About 

Russ Henneberry is the Editorial Director at Digital Marketer. He's worked on digital marketing projects for companies like CrazyEgg, Salesforce.com and Network Solutions. You can connect with Russ on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ or on his blog.

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47 COMMENTS

Sherice Jacob

Prevention is a great source of headline ideas — actually, anything from Agora (the parent company) is a copywriting goldmine!

November 9, 2011 Reply

Russ Henneberry

Very cool Sherice. Thanks! Any idea what other magazines Agora publishes?

November 9, 2011 Reply

    ashrafsobli

    Prevention magazine is under Rodale Publishing. I’m not sure if Rodale is under Agora Publishing or not, but yes most stuff published by both Agora and Rodale are worth keeping and studying …

    To check what other magazines published by Rodale, go the site : http://www.rodale.com/

    You can see their magazine lines on the navigation bar, to name a few : Prevention, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Runner’s World, etc. All famous magazines.

    Hint: Sign up to each magazine newsletter to get more powerful headlines delivered to your inbox. But be prepared to filter the email into the right folder/label or otherwise your inbox will be full with their promotional emails.

    November 9, 2011 Reply

Caren Libby

What a great resource for headline inspiration! Many of us are so focused on the web that we forget about the print pros. Their writers mastered the “law of attraction” long before the Internet was part of our lives. I really like the way you analyzed the “juicy details” of why they work.

November 9, 2011 Reply

    Russ Henneberry

    @Caren Libby – It’s true. Many of the masters still work in print. And with so much content being generated everyday on the Internet, writing better headlines should be a priority.

    November 9, 2011 Reply

Beth Morgan

Great analysis! Love the summary to formula & then extra examples. Good stuff.

November 9, 2011 Reply

Demian Farnworth

Absolutely superb. Prevention knows how to rock the headline. Good call.

November 9, 2011 Reply

Michael Daehn

Russ,

I’ve met you. You are weird. Don’t change. My wife thinks I’m weird too.

Oh, and awesome post!

November 9, 2011 Reply

Suttida

This is a great post Russ. I love the examples that you provide along with the brackets that describe the actual meaning and why it’s effective (e.g. [undesired result] + [mysterious solution]). I will definitely put this blog post to use! I do find that coming up with a catchy title is one of the hardest thing for me when writing a new blog entry. Nice job! :)

November 10, 2011 Reply

    Russ Henneberry

    Suttida, I totally agree. Writing a catchy title, headline or subject line can sometimes take as long as writing the body of the post, email, sales letter, etc.

    One of the best things I did was create a “swipe file” on my computer. When I see a catchy headline I copy and paste it into that swipe file. Then, I pull it out for some inspiration when I need a good headline.

    Thanks for the compliments on this post!

    November 11, 2011 Reply

Dinesh Thakur

Best ever blog post i read on Headlines, great work! Being a search engine marketer i know Headlines play most important role in landing page to engage visitors. Your tips definitely help me in writing good headlines.

November 14, 2011 Reply

    Russ Henneberry

    Wow, high praise Dinesh. I know there is quite a bit written on this subject. Thanks!

    November 15, 2011 Reply

Kelly

I will never quite look at magazine headlines the same way. How did I not correlate them to web copy before? Must admit, a little disappointed with myself right now. Thank you for smacking me upside the head with the obvious.

November 15, 2011 Reply

    Russ Henneberry

    Ha ha… most of us walk around unaware of how these psychological principles work. You are in the powerful minority now Kelly! Use your powers for good! :)

    November 15, 2011 Reply

Lishiel @ Alrayes Web

Tested classic headline works best. They are effective not only in marketing but also in sales pitch. Thank you for giving us more idea on what to consider in our headlines. Great content and helps a lot of writers.

November 15, 2011 Reply

Russ Henneberry

Thanks Lishiel! I appreciate your comment!

November 16, 2011 Reply

Michael D Walker

Hi Russ,
Outstanding article that really hit home for me when you mentioned reading the magazine headlines in the checkout lane.
The women’s magazines have far more compelling headlines than the men’s magazines, in my opinion.

Keep up the great writing!

Michael
Change Your Mindset

November 17, 2011 Reply

    Russ Henneberry

    It’s true but Outside Magazine and Men’s Health have some good one’s too.

    Thanks for the compliments Michael!

    November 17, 2011 Reply

Abs

Always good to find an online marketer who can provide sound examples and explain things clearly.

Thanks Russ

January 18, 2012 Reply

Alberto Villalobos

This article is amazing, thank you for all the formulas of headlines, now is time to test them in my sites

July 30, 2012 Reply

Zulhilmi Zainudin

I like this sharing. Everytime I get a new magazine, I will stay at the front page for a while to analysis the copy. Now, I get more understanding of the formula used by them. Keep sharing! :)

August 7, 2012 Reply

Sudarto

I am happy reading your post. It is a great guide how to make headline that awesome. Thank you.

November 27, 2012 Reply

Steffen

at first i thought [UNdesired result] + [mysterious solution] was a writing error. but then i got the message, it’s about avoiding pain again. but i guess it works with a desired result aswell (maybe not as good).

December 2, 2012 Reply

Fiona Scrymgeour

Some great simple techniques to create attention grabbing headlines – love the formula approach!

June 23, 2013 Reply

John Brennan

Nice advice, Russ. I visit this website because Neil (quicksprout.com) give me a recommendation to make a great headline….

December 23, 2013 Reply


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