While it would be an exaggeration to say that headlines are 100% responsible for content that goes viral’, it wouldn’t be entirely off-base either.

David Ogilvy the Father of Advertising, famously quoted:

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as they read the body copy.”

Whether it’s for a weekly email newsletter, a sales page poised to meet a high-revenue target, or a blog post such as the one you’re reading right now, headlines have a lot riding on them.

Nothing’s worse than producing valuable, relevant and thoughtful content only to be dismissed by your audience due to a dull headline.

Headlines that stop you dead in your tracks, freeze the scroll in your Facebook feed, open an email in your inbox and compel you to keep reading…

……are the reasons for content that gets shared, forwarded, liked and followed.

Non-copywriters and copywriters alike, struggle with this and spend considerable hours coming up with the final (winning) version….often realising it’s not perfect. And that’s okay.

Your headline is never going to be the epitome of perfection. It can (and should) ALWAYS be improved.

You don’t know what is ‘good enough’ until you test it. So publish your content with a reasonably good headline (preferably your 30th headline draft) and see how it performs.

So, how do you come up with an attention grabbing headline that commands your prospect’s attention to stay on your site and not hit X?

The Headline has ONE job…and ONE job alone

  • Email – Get reader to click open the email in her inbox
  • Sales page – Get prospect/lead to read the next line
  • Landing Page – Get prospect/lead to read the next line
  • Blog post – Get reader to read the next line
  • Video – Get viewer to hit play on video

When you look at the table above, you can deduce two things:

A headline’s obvious job is to get the reader to simply read the next line. And the line after that. And so on. In the case of video content, that would mean taking the obvious step of hitting the play button.

A headline doesn’t influence likes, sales, shares, comments, email responses etc. Or put in a different way, that’s not a headline’s job.

Let’s unpack the 8 persuasive elements that take your headline from ‘meh’ to “OMG! I gotta read/watch this”.

Element # 1: Rooting for the Underdog

People love rooting for the underdog. Whether it’s in the movies, competitive sports or just life in general. It’s our natural tendency. The more obstacles and challenges the underdog faces and the more he/she is ridiculed by a person, group or a larger entity in power, the more we want the underdog to triumph.

Headline formula: “They didn’t think I could ________, but I did”

Original: “They laughed when I sat down at the piano – but not when I started to play!”

This headline above made its appearance in an ad by John Caples. Created in 1926, it went on to become one of the most popular and successful ads in history.

Here are examples of how you can tweak the headline for your copy.

⇒ “They scoffed when the salsa dancer pulled me on the dance floor – but their jaws dropped in amazement when I started to move to the beats!”

⇒”My mother didn’t think I could make 5-figures every month working from home – but her disbelief changed to admiration when she saw my last month’s income statement”

Element # 2: The How To of Anything and Everything

The classic and straightforward ‘how to’ headline has your back especially when you fall short of ideas or have the perceived writer’s block.

This headline works because people are naturally wired to look for hacks, tips, hints or anything that will give them the roadmap to a desired outcome. There’s already too much information floating, and if a concise plan organizes the information in a predictable order, people want it.

Here are a couple of ways the  this headline works:

Headline formula # 1: The ‘How to _________’ , paired with a desirable benefit works well.

For instance:

  • How to Lose 10 Pounds in 2 weeks
  • How to go from Zero to Fully Booked in your Dental Practice
  • How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days (Hollywood vouches for the How To headline’s versatility too)

Headline formula # 2: The ‘How I ________’ headline alludes to a first-person story. Adding a desired outcome or benefit at the end of the headline provides the attention grabbing appeal.

For example:

  • How I Made 6-figures as a freelance copywriter – And how you can too
  • How I Got Front Row Seats At the Opera – Without Paying ‘Front Row Seat’ prices

Element # 3: Create a Pattern Interrupt by Being Paradoxical

A paradox induced headline causes you to freeze the scroll and do a double take.

It stirs curiosity because your mind’s going ‘How is that possible?’ And it compels you to read/watch/hear the rest of the content to close the loop in your brain.

  • Homeless man wins the Nobel Prize
  • Notorious robber turns into a local village messiah
  • Dyslexic man writers the NY times bestseller

For example:

Element # 4: Remove Objections and Limitations

My husband Nirmal’s a tough nut to crack and the most difficult person to sell to. He’s not easily impressed and is a sorta SME (subject matter expert) on a variety of topics. If you’d pitch him a product or an idea, he’ll pinpoint credible objections and spell out the limitations.

Similarly, when you have a tough crowd to please, you want to address their objections from the get go, in this context your headline.

Here’s how:

  • Learn how to create a WordPress website even if you don’t have a technical bone in your body
  • Learn how to create a stunning WordPress website without learning a single line of code and paying a designer thousands of dollars

The use of ‘even if’ and ‘without’ squash objections.

Element # 5: The FOMO Factor

People have an inbred fear of missing out on things and experiences. I am not too fond of using fear as an emotion to motivate people to act, but if used in moderation and especially during a promotional period in business, it boosts sales conversions.

For example:

  • You’ll never find this and over 20 styles of hand stitched Italian leather shoes at 50% off the original price after March 31st.

Element # 6: Ask a question

Asking questions and using them as headlines work great. But you’ll need to flex your copywriting muscles to come up with questions that make the reader think beyond a yes or a no answer.

Here’s what I mean.

Example: “Do you want to make more money as a freelance copywriter?”

What’s good about this is that it’s specific about the audience.

It’s targeting freelance copywriters.

Will some freelance copywriters click on this to read the article? Absolutely!

And I’ll bet it’s probably newbie freelancers who are looking for as much information as possible to get started.

That means, the headline could be more audience specific by going one level deeper and target, freelance copywriters starting out or new freelance copywriters.

But, if you aim to attract an established freelance copywriter who’s consistently booking clients but has hit an income plateau, she would skip this article without a second thought.

There are a couple reasons why a yes or no headline won’t be as effective.

#1 Your competition is doing the same. Be different.

Consider this headline rewrite: “Want to score well paying freelance copywriting gigs even if you’re just starting out?”

Here’s another: “Are you making these 5 mistakes as a freelance copywriter when presenting client proposals?”

#2  It’s not positioning you as the expert you are. 

You want to demonstrate to your audience that you’re well-versed in your subject, that they can benefit from your experience, that they should like trust, respect and of course like you.

Element # 7: Comparisons

You can use the comparison tactic for writing headlines in three ways:

  • Compare two unexpected things.
  • Compare your product or service’s core benefit to that of the competition’s.
  • Compare your product to something commonly known.

Here’s how each of these work.

Compare two unexpected things:

⇒ How Chocolate is 2x better than Chia seed For Reducing Heart Disease

People won’t expect you to recommend chocolate over superfood chia seed. The general population loves a supposedly unhealthy food over a healthy option, and if the food of their choice gets them a desired outcome, then you’ve got their attention.

Compare your product or service’s core benefit to that of the competition’s:

⇒ The SuperSud Facial Lotion Bar weighs ½ of what traditional moisturizers weigh – And provides 5 times more skin protection against winter

Compare your product to something commonly known:

⇒ CoolSculpting is like Liposuction…But Without the needles, pain and anesthesia

⇒ Carry a thousand paperbacks in a Kindle without the weight and tired shoulders

Element # 8:  Command Your Audience

Sometimes your audience just needs to be told what to do. And if you can pair what to do with a juicy benefit even better.

The most effective command headlines start out with action verbs.


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Final Tips on How to Craft your Winning, Attention Grabbing Click Worthy Headline:

  • Start with one or two original headlines from your swipe file.  These could be headlines that have been written by famous copywriters or experts in your industry. 
  • Note: A swipe file is a collection of emails, blog posts, any digital content you collect and store for reference and inspiration.
  • Or you could pick a headline formula from this blog post for help.
  • Whether you choose 1 or 2 from above (or both), it’s now time to roll up your sleeves and start the writing process.
  • Write a total 20-25 headlines. For example, 10 headlines using the original swipe headline and another 10 using a formula.
  • Avoid periods at the end of headlines. The only punctuation acceptable is a question mark or an exclamation point.
  • Use action verbs wherever possible.
  • Choose 2 or 3 headlines from the 25 and check for specificity, clarity and curiosity. You may not hit all three in one headline, and that’s okay.  
  • Write your headline AFTER you’re done writing your content and not before.
  • Test, test, test.

Your understanding and connection to your audience supersedes all formulas and swipes.

When you write down your headline (or any content that you produce), keep your audience in mind, read your draft out loud and question: “Will they get it?”