How to write snappy headlines that make sales

August 16, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

write headlines that sellJoshua Black has been leaving comments on this blog for a while. And pretty smart ones too.

So I got curious, visited his blog, and found so much cool stuff, I decided to ask him if he would share some of his copywriting know-how. Fortunately for all of us, he said, “Yes.”

So here for his Pro Copy Tips debut is Joshua with his take on writing headlines.


Now, before I get any further, I want to clarify that no headline in the world is going to close the sale on its own unless it is “free money, click here” or something close to magic.

However, the headline is the critical piece of the puzzle between grabbing your reader’s attention and eventually closing the sale. Even more critical, it is the difference between having your sales piece read and having it clicked off or tossed in the trash.

Most people read the headline first, then the price of the item (if they can find it), and if that combination satisfies them, they will start to dig into your copy.

Headlines are the workhorse of your copy. They make friends with the reader, drawing them in, emblazoning a question in their brains. Headlines take the prospect by the hand on a dive down the rabbit hole and into your copy. That is their sole purpose, to grab attention and get the prospect to keep reading.

How important is your headline? Well, if you can’t jar your reader out of their pre-installed anti-marketing filter, the rest of your ad will not get read … so it’s pretty friggin’ important. Capisce?

We use headlines in almost every type of copywriting. Whether you are writing a blog post, an email that you want opened, a sales letter, a post card, or even a radio ad, headlines are the stop sign that gets the reader’s attention.

Does every sales letter need a headline? Nope. The two most successful sales letters in history did not contain headlines at all, but you are probably not Martin Conroy or Gary Halbert (especially since they are both dead).

So for the most part, you are gonna wanna to stick with headlines on most of your copywriting, because they seem to work for the rest of us.

Here are a few tips that you can use when crafting headlines to make sure that they pack the biggest punch possible:

They pose a question in the reader’s mind. You don’t want to give away your whole offer in the headline unless it is a name-brand product that the reader is very familiar with. Instead, you are going to want to create headlines that leave a question. Here, the reader will be so curious that they want to keep going further into your copy to find out more.

They offer a benefit to the reader. This is not the time to toot your own horn. You want to show the reader that you have something very important inside that is going to be of HUGE value to him/her.

They get to the point FAST (every word is critical). There is a scary trend, especially in web copy, where the writers are creating paragraph long things that are just going to scare the reader away. Keep it under 14 words or so (there is no magic number) in order to make sure that EVERY word you are using counts towards pulling the reader in. You only have 2-3 seconds to draw them in, so there is no time for anything paragraph-sized.

They communicate to one person at one time. As with all direct copy (hence the word direct), you are having a personal conversation with just one person at one time. The trick here is that you want to use the word “YOU” a lot.

They cure a pain for the prospect. People will pay A LOT more for pain removal than they will for adding pleasure. They will also have a higher urgency to make the purchase if you are providing pain removal.

The pain that you are removing is not just physical, it can be mental, spiritual, and monetary pain as well. You can remove crabgrass, earn the customer more money, make them skinny, uplift their spirits, and even help with arthritis. Pain removal can take MANY forms.

When you are writing headlines for your next sales letter or ad, you are going to want to write a LOT of ‘em. I like to get around 100 before I pick my favorite. Some of you will be fine with 50, some might want to create 300.

What do you think? Comment below with a little trick that you like to use when creating headlines for YOUR projects.

Joshua Black is the head cheese over at The Underdog Millionaire Blog for small business, where you can sign up for his FREE wealth pack and Tip Sheet. Josh writes copy, consults with growing small businesses, and occasionally can be found playing fetch with his dog.

Related posts:

  1. Do your headlines pass the critical 4-Task Test?
  2. How to write the perfect sales letter
  3. How to write “hot button” sales copy in a recession
  4. 60 powerful offers proven to make sales
  5. 117 tested advertising headlines that made money

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Smart Comments

17 Comments on How to write snappy headlines that make sales

  1. Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire on Aug 16th, 2010 9:05 am
  2. Thanks for the great intro Dean. I appreciate the opportunity to chat with your audience.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  3. Charlotte on Aug 16th, 2010 9:28 am
  4. Great piece, Joshua – thanks.
    The best piece of advice I ever had about headlines was: if you put just the headline and your contact details, would people phone you? A headline has really got to grab the reader by the short-n-curlies and get him/her to act NOW or you’ve lost the moment.

  5. Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire on Aug 16th, 2010 1:07 pm
  6. @ Charlotte,

    Very good point! I heard that one a long time ago as well, but totally forgot about it. You can also offer to give your product away for free for a very short time. If you don’t get enough interest that way, then there is a good chance that people aren’t going to pay for it either.

    -Joshua Black

  7. Melanie Kissell on Aug 16th, 2010 2:13 pm
  8. Stepped away after reading this fantastic post to visit your blog, Joshua. Awesome-o-matic! Looking ahead to finding some really cool daily copywriting tips magically appearing in my inbox.

    Crafting headlines can be pain in the patootie sometimes. I have a genuine love of language arts and consider myself to be a pretty skilled writer. However, the pressure is really on when it comes to finding just the right words to grab someone by the collar.

    You’ve offered up some exceptionally good suggestions as a guideline!


  9. Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire on Aug 16th, 2010 2:30 pm
  10. @ Melanie,

    Thanks for the visit and the subscription. Yep, headlines will give you a sore backside. However, if you give yourself a great swipe file to start from, you can stand on the shoulders of giants without starting from scratch.

    …and as always, with headlines… less. is. more.

    -Joshua Black

  11. Melanie Kissell on Aug 16th, 2010 2:36 pm
  12. Whoa – you’re speedy, Joshua! Thanks for your response.

    Yep. I’ve got more swipe files than you can swipe a stick at! :)

    Love your “less is more” tip. I’ll tip my hat to that!

    Write On,

  13. Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire on Aug 16th, 2010 3:11 pm
  14. @Melanie,

    I’m beating Dean’s comment section to death here, but I thought of one more as well… make sure that you don’t ask a yes or no question in the headline if you can avoid it.

    If the prospect thinks the answer is “no” they won’t even read your copy, even if the product may benefit them.

    Plus, I really despise the “who else wants to…” headline that is really beaten to death on the internet.

    You never want your audience to come back with crickets chirping and the answer being “no one.” I like to pose a mental question without actually asking one if I can help it.

    -Joshua Black

  15. Melanie Kissell on Aug 16th, 2010 3:34 pm
  16. Somehow I don’t think Dean will mind. :)

    Of all the blogs on the net, I read a post not too long ago on Brian Clark’s “Copyblogger” that suggested using “Who else wants to” in a headline. CRINGE! I’m a big fan of Brian’s blog but I’ll have to disagree with that particular piece of headline-writing advice.

    I’m with you. If I have to see that one just one more time, I’m going to spit nails. Way too beaten into the ground and not creative in the least.

    Good idea — don’t ask “yes and no” questions in your headlines. Far too risky.


  17. Laurie on Aug 16th, 2010 10:43 pm
  18. Thanks Joshua – great tips! I find using “you” particularly helpful, and I always talk about “easing the pain” with regard to cover letters in a job search. A lot of similarities between copywriting and job search, actually!

    I do think asking a yes or no question can sometimes work, but only if you include more than a very specific target audience, like “Are you looking for a job, or do you know someone who is?” Who doesn’t know SOMEONE who’s job hunting these days??

    My personal reaction to a headline that includes “who else wants to…” would be “not me, buddy!” But then, not everyone is as contrary as I….

  19. Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire on Aug 17th, 2010 11:43 am
  20. Thanks Laurie,

    You make a really good point about ambiguous questions. There will probabl be a person in their lives that can relate to them. However, I like to turn it up a notch and make sure that I am going right for the jugular with the person’s emotions.

    What is the best headline that you can write that will shake the person out of their anti-marketing coma? That’s the kind of stance that you need to take in order to get the attention your business deserves.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  21. Paige Jeffrey on Aug 18th, 2010 1:33 pm
  22. I come from a radio background, and it’s amazing how often I run into the exact same rules for online copywriting as I do for radio copywriting.

    Use. Every. Word. Be precise. Use your verbs. Never open with a close-ended question.

    The “lead line” in radio is essentially the same thing as a headline. If you can’t hook them on the first line, chances are, the rest of the commercial is going to flop.

    Great article! Heading over to your blog to see what else I can find. :)

  23. Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire on Aug 18th, 2010 1:52 pm
  24. @ Paige,

    Copy is copy is copy is copy… It’s really funny how so many people tout “internet marketing” as something special.

    …it’s just like using the “new economy” as an excuse to throw out investing principles.

    Just like the old addage says- it’s the message, not the medium that”s important. Thanks for stopping by.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  25. Dean Rieck on Aug 18th, 2010 3:51 pm
  26. @ Joshua: Too many people distinguish internet marketing from everything else. But that’s mostly coming from people who have no experience in traditional media, such as direct mail or print. There are some differences in how you must approach the message between media. Writing a direct mail package is not the same as writing a micro site. But the underlying motivators and psychology is the same.

    @Paige: Right on. If you study copywriting long enough and carefully enough, you will start to see how every medium is related to every other medium. It’s better to become a “direct response” expert than a radio expert or an online expert or whatever. You learn transferable skills and concepts.

  27. Michelle Wood on Aug 23rd, 2010 9:40 pm
  28. After beating my head on a few keyboards, I learned that saving the headline (or the Home page) for last helps immensely. Drives my clients nuts because that’s pretty much what they always want to see first, but when I cave to this (random emotionally based) request they’re rarely happy and it ends up rewritten in the end. Waiting until the rest of the copy is more or less in shape means the headline is more likely to jump out at me.

  29. Joseph on Sep 7th, 2010 2:13 pm
  30. Joshua,

    I really like your tip on not tooting your own horn. It seems like it would very easy in a direct mail piece to tell people how awesome you are when really you need to convince people why they need what you have. Thanks for the tip!

  31. Ntarugera François on Sep 14th, 2010 4:25 am
  32. Joshua:

    If headline is the critical piece of the puzzle between grabbing your reader’s attention and eventually closing the sale. Then we are writing at risks . Writing a snappy headlines for your readers needs a flexible thinking because you need to sneak in to their expectations and fully navigate from it because it is not always ethical to write every thing that comes by. I maybe right or wrong just let me know….

    ntarugera François( Independent journalist)

  33. Belinda on Oct 9th, 2010 9:04 pm
  34. Great piece Joshua. I am always looking for ways to improve my headlines and will take any advice *shameless I know*.

    I have found a useful way to check the specificity of a headline is to ask if it could be applied to something else… another product, another offer, another business. If a range of solutions spring to mind, I try and narrow the focus a little more.


    PS. Great to see you’re also a fan of the Pomodoro Technique!