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How to Write Headlines That Pull Customers In.

The headliner, also known as the H1 or title of your website, is the first thing customers see, and most often it’s the only thing your customers read. Anecdotally a lot of bloggers will tell you that 8 out of 10 people read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest of your website. Therefore you should proportionally spend 80% of your time on the headline.

Your primary goal is to make a sticky headline. Something that will keep online visitors on your website longer, or be memorable enough to bring them back later. You don’t need to be a writer to come up with a great headline (but it helps). You do need to flex your creativity, put a lot of thought into it, and probably re-write it twenty times or more before you find the right one.

The best headlines hit readers on an emotional level

A recent study of internet virality uncovered that headlines with an emotionally charged message, whether positive or negative, led to more opens, clicks, comments and shares overall. And within the category of “emotionally engaging,” positive messages beat out negative or distressing ones. So something like “Kitten Struggles Then Triumphs In Escaping Slippery Bathtub” performs better than “Teen Delivers Emotional Eulogy After Classmate’s Car Crash.” (This example refers to news articles but also applies to website copy.)

A quick lesson in connotation

Finding the positivity and emotionality in a headline has everything to do with your word choice. The term “denotation” refers to the dictionary definition of a word, whereas “connotation” is your overall feeling of what the word means, including all of the associated things it brings to mind. Consider the nursery rhyme:

Mary had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow.

Now let’s replace the descriptor “snow” with something that’s also white:

Mary had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as bone.

Yikes, we just jumped from a nursery rhyme into a horror story, right? In this case, the connotation of “snow” encapsulates innocence, purity, softness. Whereas the connotation of “bone” is harsh, horrific, ominous. Even though snow and bone are both white in color. The surface meaning is the same, but the overall feeling changes dramatically.

The key to writing a positive headline lies in choosing words that have positive emotions built into them.

Memorability also matters

When consumers need something, they’ll log onto Google or Yelp and queue up four or five different search results in their browser. Which means your potential customers are reading and comparing your website with several other businesses in just a short span of a few minutes. This is where the memorability of your headline comes into play. Memorability ensures that customers will come back to your website even if it’s no. 2 or 3 in the queue.

Mnemonic devices are the repetition of sounds that help us remember things. The most common example of a mnemonic is the rhyme – as in, you’ll often find it eye-catching, when ends of clauses are matching. I don’t like rhymes in headlines because it looks like you’re trying too hard.

A more subtle form of mnemonic is alliteration, which is the repeating of sounds at the beginning of several words in a row. Alice avoids dark alleyways on her way home. That kinda jazz. Usually it’s enough to alliterate two or three words in a sentence to give your headlines just enough memorability while still sounding natural.

Tying it all together

Let’s say I have a salon in Portland that I want to build a website for. The easiest, bare-bones headline would read “Portland Salon.” It may be spartan, but it’s definitely not sticky. If I wanted to add some alliteration, I might revise that to read “Cuts by Cassandra.” That’s better, but if I employ all the tricks up my sleeve, then we’re looking at something like:

Cuts that make you feel confident, from the heart of PDX.

If we deconstruct this H1 we’ll see a couple of things: 1) there is a subtle pattern of alliteration between “Cuts” and “confident” that makes the phrase more memorable. 2) The headline evokes the emotional root of what someone wants out of a good haircut, which is a feeling of confidence. 3) the word “heart” is connotatively rich, conveying passion, centrality, and warmth.

One more thing: don’t shy away from length. You don’t have to limit yourself to a two or three-word headline. A well-written sentence that tells a story is going to be far more effective at capturing your reader’s imagination and their interest.

A journey of a thousand headlines…

There’s a lot we didn’t cover, such as using SEO keywords and optimizing through A/B testing, and other considerations like creating a sense of urgency or differentiating your service. But for right now, just focus on writing positive, emotionally charged headlines. Remember: trust your feelings and make it sticky.

– The Setmore Team

Additional reading:


by Cassandra

Writer, editor and scheduling product expert at Setmore Appointments.

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