4 characteristics of headlines that make sales

One of the TV shows I’ve been catching up on lately is Newsroom. It’s a deep drive into modern media capitalism, with a lovable grump for a news anchor named Will McAvoy.

It’s also a fascinating watch for anyone who has or wants to have an audience. There’s lots of issues raised which are poignant far outside the newsroom. Like Shakira.

characteristics of headlines

For example:

– Intern.
-Come on over.
This is the overnight book.
The night crew puts together every story and every press release from everywhere.
Go through this and separate it into four piles– knew that, didn’t know that, don’t care, and Shakira.
But that one’s just for me, all right?

In this conversation snippet, one of the staff, Neal Sampat, explains a key newsroom process to an intern. The staff filters incoming breaking news notifications. They’re old school. They use printouts of the newswire. Given that she’s handed a stack of paper about a foot high, all she’s likely to read is the headlines. The four piles sort out news stories which are geniunely new and important. Everything else is de-priortized.

For a newsroom, this is critical. Their audience depends on them to share the most relevant news which impact their lives. After this first cut, the staff meet to plan the order in which the news will air that night.

Your headline needs to have the same effect on a new reader. Would it make it into the “didn’t know that pile”? You know, the pile which also doesn’t include the “don’t care” pile.

Why is specifically the headline so important? According to Copyblogger, 8 out of 10 people will read the headline, but only 2 out of 10 will continue reading. That means your headline is the singlemost important part of your copy. It requires the most effort to get right, say about 80% of your time…especially in persuasive content. Do you see why interviewing your customers and knowing what they want is so critical?

This has always been the case. Direct marketing legend John Caples analyzed high-performing headlines in his classic Scientific Advertising. He found four critical elements to headlines that pull sales:

  1. Self-interest
  2. News
  3. Curiosity
  4. Quick easy way

Self-interest is pretty much a pre-requisite in every case (it’s why features aren’t enough). Without a hint of self-interest, you’ll lose your reader’s attention almost immediately. Beyond that, some combination of the other three will help interest the reader enough to read the next sentence.

And hook in your reader you must.

That’s the sole purpose of your headline.

To turn the browser into becoming a reader.


And if you want to learn more, check out Launch Tomorrow, my book on landing page and headline testing for early stage founders.

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