Headlines on Deadlines (Part 1): How to consistently write effective headlines without working late


There’s a lot written about headlines. Most of it is fluff. A little of it is true, or at least based on solid evidence. But I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that actually helps marketers write effective headlines in the fury of the daily grind.

When you’re working on a project or a campaign, the last thing you need to do is sit around and wait for the creative muse to strike. You need to be able to write headlines (and copy for that matter) quickly and efficiently.

This post is my attempt (with a lot of help from Flint McGlaughlin) to give you a methodology to diagnose and solve the problem in a workman-like fashion, just like a plumber or mechanic would, for example.

After running several headline tests (one example), MECLABS has developed a methodology for writing headlines.

And unless you are a headline genius and you can nail your headlines on the first try every time, a methodology is exactly how you can make your headlines consistently successful in a timely manner.

So how can you write an effective headline on time, every time?

To answer that question, I sat down with our Managing Director, Flint McGlaughlin and worked on a few headlines for our previous Web clinic. The process he laid out is essentially four steps and based on the discoveries we’ve made through our research.

Step 1: Write a few headlines

This step is fairly easy. Go ahead and write a few headlines, keeping in mind that a headline must communicate enough value to get the reader into the first paragraph. This will give you a baseline to start with. Usually, I propose three headlines to our editorial staff to brainstorm around for each clinic. For our previous one, I started with these three:

  • Top Optimization Lessons of 2011: What worked, what didn’t, and what we learned from 12 months of experimentation
  • The Year in Optimization: The top insights and transferrable principles from 121 tests in 2011
  • Optimization in 2011: The key insights and learnings for the evidence-based marketer in 2011

It’s important to note here that each of these headlines has a slightly different focus. The first is focused on 12 months of experimentation. The second is 121 tests. And the third is for the evidence-based marketer.

When you’re getting your first headlines on paper, we’ve found it’s helpful to have a few different angles to work from.


Step 2: Underline the noun phrases

Once we’ve written up a few headlines, it’s time to start analyzing them. And we start with the noun phrases. We do that because the noun phrases are essentially what the audience is going to get. They communicate the basic value of the entire product (in this case, a Web clinic).

For the purpose of focusing this post, I’ll take one headline from above to use as an example throughout.

The Year in Optimization: The top insights and transferrable principles from 121 tests in 2011


Step 3: Evaluate the force of the separate noun phrases

This step is a little tricky. We evaluate the force of the noun phrases (the same way we measure the force of a value proposition) around four key elements:

  • Appeal: How attractive is the phrase to our ideal reader?
  • Credibility: How believable is the phrase?
  • Exclusivity: Can anyone else credibly claim to have what is offered in the phrase?
  • Clarity: How easily can the reader understand it?

So to begin, let’s evaluate the noun phrases in the headline. Please note that these evaluations aren’t exactly scientific. I’m mostly going with my gut.


“Year in Optimization”

Appeal: Medium. The year in optimization implies a year’s worth of information. By and large, a lot of something good is appealing. Of course, it may not be all that important to the average marketer to get a year’s worth of optimization information.

Credibility: Medium. It’s hard to fit a year’s worth of optimization information into anything. Especially an hour-long Web clinic. But it’s harder to fit 10 years worth of information into one. So at least we’re being somewhat specific here.

Exclusivity: High. I’m going to rate this high for exclusivity because I don’t think many organizations can claim to have access to a year’s worth of optimization information.

Clarity: Medium/Low. I personally don’t think the word “optimization” is very clear. It generally gets confused with Search Engine Optimization. Also, it takes a second for the reader to understand the term “optimization” here is a field of study rather than the usual act of optimizing.


“Top insights”

Appeal: Medium. Meh. Top insights is a little appealing. Not great, but OK.

Credibility: Low. Any credibility related to “top insights” is probably a result of brand recognition. Everyone is offering “top insights” and most people aren’t delivering on it. We could also be more specific about which top insights we’re talking about to improve credibility.

Exclusivity: Medium. Because we say “top,” there is the possibility of a reader interpreting a certain amount of exclusivity. It implies that these insights are the best of the best. As Flint McGlaughlin would say, it has an “only-factor.” However, everyone else is also offering their top insights this time of year. And, we’re not the only ones with insights.

Clarity: High. “Top insights” is fairly clear. It’s relatively easy to understand what you’re getting.


Transferable principles

Appeal: Medium. Transferable principles are principles that can be transferred to your own marketing generally to get a lift. Moderately appealing, but not as appealing as, say … a lift in and of itself.

Credibility: Medium. The academic tone of the phrase adds a little bit of credibility. However, who is to say these principles are actually transferrable? Why should the reader believe it?

Exclusivity: Medium/Low. As far as I know, no one else uses the term “transferable principle.” But it’s essentially the same thing as a “key takeaway,” which everyone and their mother claims to offer.

Clarity: Low. It takes a good second for the average reader to digest this phrase … if they understand it at all. The traditional MarketingExperiments audience is used to this phrase, but an outsider may have no idea what we’re talking about.


“121 Tests in 2011”

Appeal: Medium. 121 is a lot. But testing in general doesn’t have very wide appeal. Not many marketers are testing their pages, so they may not know the true value of testing.

Credibility: High. The specific numbers here lend a lot of credibility to the phrase. “100s of tests” would be less credible. And just “tests” would be the least credible way to phrase this.

Exclusivity: Medium. Again, the numbers here add to the exclusivity of the phrase. It could potentially imply that these tests are coming from a source that only we have access to. Then again, it could just be a random assortment of tests that everyone has access to.

Clarity: High. Not much to note here. It’s clear what is being communicated. There may be some confusion over the word “test” but we’ll let it slide assuming our readers are mainly marketers.


Now that you see the problems with the original headline, let us know what changes you would make to improve the headline in the comments. And, come back Wednesday to learn how and why I changed it to help get 1,781 registrants for this Web clinic.


Related Resources:

Headline Optimization: How testing 10 headlines revealed a 3-letter word that improved conversion more than major changes — Web clinic replay

Optimizing Copy: The 7 most common copywriting mistakes we see marketers make

Value Proposition: How headlines helped lead to a nearly 29% conversion boost

Headline Optimization: 2 common headline mistakes and how to make them work

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  1. Peter Hobday says

    Paul – there is a much easier headline method. Here is a demonstration using your article above. I have replaced your headline with mine:

    ” How to write effective headlines in the fury of the daily grind”

    Your opening paragraph is much better than you think!

    Test it – could be interesting!


  2. Paul Cheney says

    Thanks Peter. 🙂

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