Top 5 Characteristics of Great Headlines

Table of content
1. Simple to understand.
2. The right length.
3. Emotionally compelling
4. Targeted.
5. Vetted.

Three seconds.

That’s about how much time you have to grab your reader’s attention. Fail at this and you lost your first and greatest opportunity at making a sale.

Just how important are headlines?

A strong headline is the cornerstone of any sales promotion. According to Jim Ackerman of Ascend Marketing, Inc., your headline accounts for up to 80 percent of the success of a promotion. That’s why successful online marketers say they spend a full 30 percent of their total promotional time on writing, testing, and tweaking their headline copy.

Incredible, considering what a tiny percentage of the total copy a headline comprises.

Of course, direct response legends of past were the first to understand the power of headlines to sell. Advertising great David Olgilvy said the headline is the most important part of an ad.

In fact, studies indicate nearly five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. If people don’t like the headline, they stop reading…period.

Legendary copywriter and advertising executive John Caples agreed…

“If the headline is poor, the copy will not be read. And copy that is not read does not sell goods.”

So, how do you grab attention with your headline?

Previously, I’ve written about the 4 U’s of marketing copy for grabbing your prospect’s attention, loyalty, and business. They apply to headlines as well.

But in addition to those, here are the..

Top 5 characteristics of great headlines

These headline traits guarantee you grab your prospect’s attention. So, headlines must be:

1. Simple to understand.

Headlines should help your reader to immediately understand the main point of your sales message. So, you want to be certain you introduce only one big idea. That means, no competing ideas piggybacking on your main idea at all.

Experts say you have a winner when someone reading your headline can easily repeat it to a friend from memory.

2. The right length.

Meaning, not too short and not too long. In fact, headlines that are 80-100 characters or 14-18 words long seem to perform best. At least, according to this Outbrain study and this study by James Brausch.

Feel you need more words to get your big idea across? Consider putting them in the eyebrow or deck copy. Review my previous post as I explained these two headline components in greater detail.

3. Emotionally compelling.

If I had to pick one, this is probably the hallmark characteristic of a winning headline. The headline must introduce an idea so compelling—so emotionally-charged—that it stops the reader in his tracks.

One way to do that is to join the conversation already going on inside his head. The last thing your reader will expect from you is to understand his current predicament. You can show him you do by relating to his greatest emotion around the topic you are writing about.

4. Targeted.

Headlines should not try to sell to everyone. In other words, don’t use your headline in an attempt to grab the attention of every reader. Focus only on those readers who have a strong emotional tie to your big idea.

Said another way, use your headline to qualify your audience. So, for example, the headline “7 Ways to Rebuild Thin Eyebrows” screens out all readers who are not emotionally charged by the topic of “thin eyebrows”. The inverse is, you have more strongly captured the attention of those readers who feel their thinning eyebrows is a serious problem in need of a solution.

5. Vetted.

Therefore, write as many headlines as you can. I suggest a minimum of ten for any given promotion. And feel free to “steal” template winning headlines and substitute copy specifically related to your product, service, or company as a starting point.

From there, you can compare headlines against each other, and tweak until you have created the strongest one possible when measured against the previous characteristics above. Plus, you could consider using unused headlines as subheads in your body copy providing they are strong and move the conversation forward in a compelling way.

There you have it. The top 5 characteristics of great headlines that guarantee you grab your prospect’s attention.

Think I missed a key characteristic that makes a headline great? Please tell us in the comment section below.


About the author: Jerry Bures

Jerry Bures

Jerry Bures is a direct-response web copywriter and marketing consultant. Since 2010, he has helped natural health, self-help and business opportunity clients—as well as local small businesses—become more visible, credible and profitable online.  Read more.

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1 reply
  1. Michael
    Michael says:

    I’m still trying to reconcile ‘not too long’ with ’14-18 words’. You can’t be serious? I’d say 7 words max.

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