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Persuasive Online Copywriting: Which Headlines Work Best?

Write less but create powerful headlines

Which of the following headlines do you think will perform better?

A. The 19 headline archetypes that every copywriter must know

B. Why formerly dependable copywriting techniques may be inadequate for 2013

C. When copywriters feel blocked, this is what they do

D. How I raised myself from mediocrity to success as an online copywriter

E. The new science of persuasion in a short-attention-span world

F. If website copywriters had their own bubble gum trading cards, his would be worth collecting

Okay, the truth is, we haven’t tested any of these headlines yet. If you’re a copywriter, you’ve probably guessed why. We’re still kicking around ideas. But all of these are awesome headlines: They arouse curiosity, convey a promise of powerful information and do it all quickly. (Though if I were the editor, I’d kill F — too long! It would work as a subhead in sales letter copy, but not as a headline.)

Does all this sound like a lot to do in just a few words? Well, of course! Persuasive online copywriting is hard work.

Or as sportswriter Red Smith once famously said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and just open a vein.”

I began my career 32 years ago as a journalist. I didn’t know it then, of course, but that training would turn out to be a blessing in the 1990s as I switched to marketing, the Internet came along, and persuasive online copywriting was suddenly the new skill writers had to have. As a journalist, you’re trained to write compelling headlines, “write tight” – get to the point quickly – and never, ever bury the lead.

These golden rules serve me well when I try to create persuasive online copywriting: Web surfers have even shorter attention spans than newspaper readers!

In 2013, there’s a whole new science of email copywriting and SEO copywriting for blog posts, text ads and online sales letters. Headlines are more important than ever, and now they serve more than one purpose.

Persuasive online copywriting requires awesome headlines

The headline is where the copywriter shines…where she grabs the reader’s attention…where she does her most creative work.

Persuasive online copywriting mandates that if you can’t write an effective headline, you’re wasting your time.

Headline writing is the core skill of persuasive online copywriting that supports every media format from Facebook, to tweeting, to email marketing, to landing pages, to blog posts.

Years ago, experts told us that in print ads, 75-80 percent of all buying decisions are made by reading the headline alone. It’s still true today. That means that a full three-quarters of your sales or conversions are the result of an effective headline.

If the headline isn’t engaging and persuasive, the contest is over and you’ve lost. Only 25 percent of your audience will read any further.

Now throw in the online requirements of search engine optimization and, for email subject lines, character limitations, and you may feel you don’t stand a chance! Despite all this, you still have to capture the reader’s interest, make a big promise, and summarize the offer.

Additionally, the online copywriter must master the art of shorter headlines, paragraphs and even sentences. Email subject lines limit you to roughly 55 characters. They need to be engaging and benefit-oriented, and introduce the content of the email.

Once inside the email, the headline should match or at least reflect the subject line, and while you’re no longer limited to 55 characters, you still have that statistic burning into your brain: 75-80 percent of buying decisions are made by reading the headline.

Rules for persuasive online copywriting in headlines

For us, the most critical things you must do in a headline are:

  1. Tell the reader what’s desirable about the product or information you’re offering: convey benefits, not features.
  2. Tell the reader what it’s about and why he should care.
  3. Arouse curiosity or the desire to know more.
  4. And do all this while being succinct and getting straight to the point.

Of course, the reason we test these things is because the rules are sometimes made to be broken! Here’s an example of persuasive online copywriting headlines from Which Test Won [2], Ann Holland’s entertaining and educational website.

For the US Supercar Tour:

Drive 5 Supercars: The US Supercar Tour

Life Is Short. Just Drive 34% more leads

While you might think that specifics including the benefit in the first headline would win, the non-specific but compelling image conveyed by the winning headline is certainly appealing!

Now let’s look at some really fun headline tests from USA Today, as reported on The Next Web [3]:

Reporting from the Olympics:

Brennan: Is sluggish Phelps past his peak?

Brennan: ‘Crappy’ Phelps race stunning 194% increase click-through rate

Wow! The first headline follows one of our top strategies: Arouse curiosity with a question. But the second also arouses curiosity by positioning two opposing adjectives to describe swimmer Michael Phelps – and far more readers were interested in learning how Phelps could be “crappy” and “stunning” at the same time.

Ledecky, 15, wins 800 free, sets American record

15-year-old wins 800 free, sets American record 47% increase click-through rate

Fewer people cared about the swimmer’s name than they did about his age, and it was easier to see that age at a glance – and remember it’s all about glances in persuasive online copywriting! – when it was spelled out in the second headline.

And finally, here’s a test from the website Business 2 Community [4].

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No surprise here: The benefit-driven headline – or at least more compelling benefits that “getting access” to something – won hands down. Besides conveying the benefit, it was also shorter.

We’ve spent a lot of time writing effective headlines, subject lines and copy and testing the results. You can learn what we’ve learned about persuasive online copywriting in several of our free white papers, including Email Copywriting Basics: Tips Every Email Copywriter, Editor or Publisher Should Learn to Maximize Email Conversion Rates [5]; and The 17 Best Email Subject Lines: Using the 17 Mequoda Email Subject Line Archetypes to Improve Your Average Email Open Rates [6].

Remember: Write tight, convey benefits and intriguing information, and always, always test! Of course we’re always eager to see your results, so we can all learn! Let us know what’s worked for you — and what hasn’t.

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Originally published on 3/2/2011