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Secrets Of Successful Headlines

by Michel Fortin

In directional marketing, the first and most important element that can help turn a website into a truly compelling, action-generating mechanism is the headline. A headline is more than a mere summary of the website.

For one, it is the first thing that people see in the section "above the fold", which is the uppermost portion of the front page that appears in browsers, without any scrolling. ("Above the fold" is a newspaper term, since front-page headlines, above the fold, sell newspapers.)

Unique visitors are often unaware of the sites they visit. If a headline does not instantly give an indication of not only what a site is all about but also the reasons why visitors should browse further the moment they hit it, it will actually deter prospects. In fact, headlines that do not communicate any benefit in navigating the site will dissuade visitors from browsing deeper, which is where most online sales are made.

Headlines That Capture's People's Attention

The true purpose of a headline is not to advertise the website or the business behind it. It's simply to promote the idea of surfing further. In advertising industry parlance, a headline is the "ad for the ad". For instance, a resume is not meant to land a job but to land an interview. A website headline is, in the same way, meant to land the visitor's attention and arouse their curiosity. If a headline does not achieve this quickly, efficiently and effectively, people will simply click away.

You may have heard of the famous "AIDA Formula" which is an acronym that stands for, in order:


Ads must follow this formula in order to be successful. They must capture the reader's attention, arouse their interest, increase their desire and lead them to take some kind of action. In truth, websites are no different.

The first part of the formula refers to the headline. If the website's headline does not command enough attention (or does not command it effectively and rapidly), then the rest of the formula will fail. People will likely leave at the click of a mouse. So in order to help you, here are a few tips on how to increase the attention factor in your front page's headline.

Usually, there is a gap between the prospect's problem and its solution (or a gap between where a person happens to be at the moment and the future enjoyment of a product's benefits). But many prospects either do not know there is in fact a gap or, because it is one, try to ignore it as a result. Therefore, a headline that communicates the presence of such a gap or one that widens it will likely appeal to those who can immediately relate to it—people within that site's target market.

Using a headline that immediately conveys either a problem or a potential benefit not only makes the reader aware that there is a gap but also reinforces it in the mind. After reading the headline visitors will want to know, by browsing further, how they can close that gap. Famous sales trainer Zig Ziglar said that people buy on emotional logic. In other words, they buy on emotion but justify their decision with logic. Therefore, emotionally-charged headlines also help to widen those gaps.

The wider the gap is, the greater the desire to close it will be. How do you achieve that? While a website should focus on the solution rather than the problem, adding a negative (or a potentially negative) situation to the headline is often more effective because it appeals to stronger emotions and motives. Granted, this might seem somewhat unusual or contrary to what you have learned in the past. So in order to understand this, let's take a look at how human needs and emotions work.

In the late 1960s, psychologist Abraham Maslow developed the hierarchical theory of human needs. In essence, Maslow stated that the foundation of all human needs is our need to survive. The next one in that hierarchy is our need for safety. After that, it's social needs (e.g. the need for affection, to be loved, to feel a sense of belonging). The need for attention, to feel valuable or respected are esteem needs. And finally, at the top, is our need for self-actualization.

A similar principle, based on Maslow's findings, is called the "pain-pleasure principle". In essence, it states that people want to either avoid pain or gain pleasure. In anything we do, we want to either move away from pain (i.e., solve a problem) or strive towards pleasure (i.e., gain an advantage). But when given the choice between the two, the avoidance of pain is the stronger motive, because our need to survive and to be safe takes over. The emotions attached to pain are far superior.

Therefore, a headline that communicates a problem (i.e. a painful situation or a potentially painful one that could arise without the benefits of one's offering) will have more emotional impact than a pleasurable one. It also instantly communicates to those who associate to its message and thus isolates the serious prospect from the curious visitor.

For example, when I work with plastic surgeons I often tell them to use as a headline, "Are you suffering from wrinkles?" Immediately, prospective patients who can instantly relate to the headline will more than likely read the ad further. They do so for two reasons. First, the headline appeals to those who have wrinkles. But second and more important, the headline appeals to those suffering from wrinkles (i.e. people who not only have wrinkles but also want to do something about them).

Therefore, think of a negative situation that is now present, or one that will occur without the benefits of your product or service. It would also be wise to add the main benefit of your website in the headline, following the gapper. By doing so you show the prospect that a solution does exist in the site, thus compelling them to read further. In other words, you reinforce a painful situation (i.e. capture their attention) and then highlight the solution (i.e., arouse their curiosity).

Headlines That Drive People's Actions

Incidentally, the last headline uses another readership-enhancing technique: It begins with a verb. In other words, it directs visitors and takes them by the hand. Other examples include headlines that begin with the words "learn", "discover", "find", "get", "read", "see", "earn", "visit", "surf", "join", "sign up", "order" and so on.

But go a step beyond that. Don't stick with mere verbs. Use action words that help paint vivid pictures in the mind. The more vivid the picture is, the more compelling the headline will be. For example, rather than saying "Poor management leads to financial woes", use "Don't let poor management suck money right from your bottom-line". People can picture the action of "sucking" more than they do "leading" (now you understand why we say "zoom" past the confusion).

Ultimately, don't let visitors guess what they must do or what they will get from your site. Tell them in the headline.

Headlines that communicate something worth visiting will cause people to surf deeper into your site—which, in most cases, is where online sales are made. But before your site instills a certain level of interest in your visitors, always keep in mind that the attention factor of your first page headline is the most important element of your site. You only have a mere few seconds to capture your visitors' attention.

People are extremely preoccupied these days. In our fast-paced society, their busy day-to-day lives are filled with thoughts and activities that either cloud their concentration or could very easily whisk them away at the drop of a hat. But when surfing the web, they are more so for a variety of reasons:

They are looking for something specific;
They are browsing until something piques their curiosity;
They are browsing another site in a separate window;
They are multi-tasking, such as reading or sending email and, by chance, they happen to glance at your site;
...And so on.

Your front page and especially its headline must grab people's attention, almost "by the collar." Therefore, while developing headlines for your website here's a thing to consider: Before you do, first try to create what is often called an "elevator speech" for your site. It's a brief introduction—almost a pitch—about your site and your business, and about what your company does or offers. Typically, it's about thirty words or less—very short, very brief and very concise.

In my hometown of Ottawa for example (the high tech capital of Canada, also affectionately known as "Silicon Valley North"), there was an interesting show once. Young, aspiring ecommerce entrepreneurs were given a soapbox (they stood on empty milk crates, actually), a microphone and thirty seconds to pitch their ideas to a crowd filled with venture capitalists.

That thirty-second limit was strictly enforced. If a speech happened to pass that limit, the microphone was immediately (and mercilessly) turned off. Nevertheless, as the crowd began to mingle after some twenty aspiring entrepreneurs pitched their ideas, one could instantly tell, by noticing where most potential investors were gravitating, who were successful.

While I could certainly appreciate the majority of ideas that were proposed during that event (in fact, I thought that about eighty percent of them were really good ideas), only a small handful of entrepreneurs were able to successfully attract investors. Why? Their elevator speeches were successful not by their messages but by the way those messages were conveyed.

Like with a person you've just met in an elevator, such as a potential client (or a potential investor, like the preceding example), you only have a few short seconds to make an impact until you or the other person finally leaves the elevator. The important thing to note is that your elevator speech must be good enough and concise enough to capture, in just a few short moments, the attention, curiosity and interest of the person to whom you're introducing your company.

In terms of your website however, your elevator speech signals to your visitors the main advantage they receive from it or at least in browsing further. Once you've developed your elevator speech, try to cut it down to a single sentence of five to ten words (or less). This may not be an easy task. Try to distill your speech to the very core essence of what you offer.

Think carefully. There should be only one important benefit that encompasses all others—something that immediately captures the essence of all that you are. But if you're stuck, look at all the other benefits: Is there a common thread? If not, even the nature of your site or company can be used in this case. At any rate, ask yourself, "What's the single, most important quality, benefit or characteristic of my site?"

Once you're done, those few words (between five and ten) with which you end up should become your front page's headline.

Sometimes, headlines need a little push. And it's true that certain words are proven, based on several studies (like those conducted by the Direct Marketing Association, for example) to increase the attention factor. In fact, countless studies have shown that a simple technique in advertising that can double and sometimes even triple the readership of an ad is the use of a single, four-letter word: That word is "free".

It's no different on the web. People are and will always be attracted to freebies. In an ad or on a website, the word "free" can generate a lot of response. But in a headline however, it can multiply the response rate exponentially.

If your site offers anything for free, and if it is clearly indicated in the front-page headline, your site will be more compelling to surf. Consequently, offer a free trial, sample, product, information kit or service of some kind. It could be a free download, online service, screensaver, chat room, email account, ebook, ezine subscription, script, membership, etc.

Inviting people to subscribe to a free newsletter or download a free tool, among others, should therefore appear in the web browser, "above the fold." Of all freebies however, the free report is my personal favorite. While adding more content does increase the "stickiness" of a site, people love to soak up new information for the same reasons expressed in the "gapper" (see above for more information on gappers).

Since learned experience is more cost-effective and less time- consuming than that which has been learned *from* experience, offering free information, particularly "how to" information, is always an effective motivator. Based on the pain-pleasure principle, people love free reports because they want to either avoid making mistakes or learn how to solve them.

Let's say you're a computer consultant to large offices. Your website headline can state: "Free report! The 10 biggest computer mistakes businesses make." Or you can use: "Browse this site and learn 8 surefire strategies on how to improve paperflow efficiency by 67% ... Free." Another is: "Are your computers bug-proof? Read my free article on ways to find out if the recent surge in computer virus."

Michel Fortin is a direct response copywriter, author, speaker and consultant. His specialty are long copy sales letters and websites. Watch him rewrite copy on video each month, and get tips and tested conversion strategies proven to boost response in his "The Copy Doctor" website today.


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