Headlines on Deadlines (Part 2): How to consistently write effective headlines without working late


Writing an effective headline takes time. It’s arguably the most important part of your copy, and skimping on the time investment usually produces skimpy results.

When will inspiration strike? What will be your muse? As Douglas Adams said, “Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.”

Unfortunately, as a marketer, you don’t have the time (or goatee) of a creative writing master’s student. However, you do have to write.

Your goal isn’t different though. It’s not art; it’s income. So you don’t have time to produce perfect headlines for every piece of copy you generate. And you can use a reproducible methodology that gets you in the ballpark of effective, conversion-driving headlines (and testing will take you the last mile).

So the question is this: how can you (a time-strapped marketer) write effective headlines in a relatively short amount of time?

In part one of this series, I proposed a methodology for getting headlines done quickly. It involves a methodology for evaluating and refining raw headline drafts. When you have a method for a task, it automatically becomes more manageable. In this case, you can write headlines the same way a plumber fixes a pipe.

However, I only gave you the first part of the methodology for evaluating your headline drafts.

For those who didn’t read Monday’s post, let me quickly fill you in.

I first wrote three headlines for our December 7th Web clinic and chose one to evaluate:


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


In Step 2, I underlined the noun phrases as these generally communicate the core value or what the audience will get.

Then in Step 3, I evaluated the force of the noun phrases 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?

This second post highlights the part of the methodology for refining your headlines into a finished product.

So without further ado, I’ll continue with Step 4:

Step 4: Replace original phrases with better ones.

For step 4, all you need to do is replace the noun phrases in the original headline with phrases that communicate more value.

Of course, it’s much easier said than done, so I’ll jump straight to the examples on this one.


“Year in Optimization” >> “Increase Conversion in 2012”

The first noun phrase to change was “Year in Optimization.” While there is generally some value communicated in the phrase, it could be improved because it is not clear what the reader gets out of this phrase. We had to ask ourselves the key question, “Why does my reader care about the ’Year in Optimization’?”

Then we hit on what we were really trying to say – what we learned in the past year can help you increase conversion this year. So to improve the overall appeal we changed the phrase to “How to Increase Conversion in 2012.”


“Top insights “>> “Top discoveries”

There were two main problems with “top insights.” One was everyone can have an insight. And the second was a general lack of appeal. It may be a little exciting if you have an insight, but, by and large, no one really cares.

“Top Discoveries,” however, are a little more exclusive and appealing. Only people who truly search and experiment can make a discovery. And when it happens, it’s fairly big news.


“Transferable principles” >> “Key takeaways”

“Transferable principles” isn’t clear. It’s a term that we (for the most part) created and use internally. It’s not well known by the marketing community at large. To make it clearer, we changed it to “key takeaways,” which is a more well known term.


“121 tests in 2011” >> “the past 20,000 hours of research”

Changing the last phrase in the headline was a little tougher than the others. The biggest problem was the word “tests.” In our experience, there aren’t many marketers that truly see the value of testing. It’s easier for them to understand the value of research.

So to increase the appeal, we turned the phrase to focus on research. When we did the math, we came up with a conservative estimate of 20,000 hours and decided it was big enough to leave an impression.

After all that, the resulting headline was:


How To Improve Conversion in 2012: The top discoveries and key takeaways from the past 20,000 hours of research


Overall, we improved the appeal and clarity of the noun phrases and relied mostly on the MarketingExperiments brand to do the heavy lifting on the credibility and exclusivity front.

But we still weren’t done. The headline needed more work. So this time, instead of looking at the individual phrases, we thought about the headline as a whole and tried to get to the bottom of what we thought our readers really wanted from this Web clinic.


Step 5: Evaluate the force of the entire headline

When we took a step back, we concluded that the overall appeal, exclusivity, credibility and clarity were still lacking.

The big thing we noticed was the second half of the headline was a lot to take in. It was damaging our clarity. And it was all because of a little word in the middle: “and.”

Essentially, we were using “and” to compensate for the fact that we couldn’t get our point across in the first noun phrase. So we had to add to it with another. Then, there was a prepositional phrase at the end to further modify our original phrase.

The headline needed work.


Step 6: Consider a radical redesign

A radical redesign is a category shift in the design of a website or page. Sometimes, you need to get out of the categories you are working in and rethink the entire strategy of the page. In this case, however, we were working on a headline.

What we needed to do was go back and ask ourselves the fundamental value proposition question for the Web clinic: “If I am the ideal customer (time-strapped marketers), why should I buy from you (attend your Web clinic) rather than any of your competitors?”

When we dug down, we realized that this Web clinic offered a lot of research (20,000 hours) delivered to the audience in a short amount of time (an hour). And we were missing this key element of value in the past iterations of the headlines. It was appealing to the time-strapped marketer who wanted to get a quick overview of our research from the past year.

With that in mind, we came away with our final headline:


How to Increase Conversion in 2012: The last 20,000 hours of marketing research distilled into 60 minutes


It was as appealing, credible, exclusive, and clear as we could make. And it brought us to our last step …


Step 7: Push it live

Human beings aren’t perfect. And as a result, we’ll never write the perfect headline. The only thing we can do is get it as good as we can in the time we have. If you really looked at the above headline, you could probably come up with several ways to improve it.

But that’s not the point. The point is, it’s currently working for us and drove 1,781 registrations for our previous Web clinic. And we wrote it within our deadline.

And that’s all we could have asked for.


Related Resources:

Value Proposition: Revealing hidden value in your products Headlines on Deadlines (Part 1): How to consistently write effective headlines without working late

Value Proposition: Revealing hidden value in your products and offers

Headline Optimization: How would you make this title better?

Do You Have the Right Value Proposition? – Marketing Experiments Web clinic replay

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