A mere 6 to 12 words stand between you and a lower bounce rate.
A mere 6 to 12 words stand between you and a higher click-thru rate, a higher task completion rate, and even a higher conversion rate.
What are these 6 to 12 words? They’re the words that comprise your home page headline. David Ogilvy told us that 5 times as many people read the headline as the body copy. Robert Stone taught the same. So did Eugene Schwartz and Gary Bencivenga – both insanely brilliant marketers. A/B testers prove time and again that headlines are critical, as this headline test, which resulted in a 10.4% lift in conversion, showed. And every direct response and CRO copywriter has found this to be true: the first headline your visitor sees is the most important copy you’ll write.
6 to 12 words. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Deceptively simple.
But you already know it’s not that simple. If it were, headlines like “Welcome to ABCcorp.com” would be extinct, as would “AmazingProduct Saves Time & Money”.
Writing a great home page headline isn’t simple… but it’s not rocket surgery, either. In fact, there’s a straightforward process you can follow to move from no headline or crummy headline to optimized headline. The kind of headline that will grab visitors by the collar, pull them in close, and tell them in no uncertain terms what’s in it for them if they stick around.
I’m not talking gimmicks. I’m not talking overhyped promises. I’m talking about a logical approach to writing headlines that will actually take you from [cliché alert] zero to hero in exactly 9 steps. Starting with:
STEP 1. STOP THINKING ABOUT COPYWRITING AS “WRITING”
Our traditional view of writing is crafted by what our high school English teachers told us great writing was all about. They taught us stuff like this: great writing should be creative; it should be grammatically correct; it should be very hard to do well; and an expert should be able to look at it and say, on gut alone, if it’s good or not.
That’s not what copywriting is at all.
So here’s the first step: Put the whole idea of “writing” out of your mind completely.
You don’t have to be a writer to compose a great headline. In fact, the more creative you are, the harder it may be for you to write a stellar headline. William Faulkner would’ve sucked as a copywriter. Throw creativity and cleverness out the window.
STEP 2. WRITE THE HEADLINE LAST
One of my copy heroes Brian Clark of Copyblogger recommends you write your headline first, but I beg to differ. You should write a headline first, but don’t put pressure on yourself to write the headline first. Instead, use a first draft headline, which your site visitors will never, ever see. This first draft headline will help guide you as you write the page.
Here’s what I do: I title my page with what I want to communicate in the page’s body copy. (In the great tradition of the “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” headline.) I’m the only person who gets to see this headline. It’s just for me. I use it as guidance while I write the page, like so:
“Smack Visitors Over the Head with an Awesome Demo and
Give Them 3 Unbeatable, Distinct Reasons to Sign Up”
And then, with that headline in place, I write a page that does exactly that.
When I believe I’ve written body copy that will lure my visitors to view the demo and convince them, without question, that they need to sign up, I know the page is done.
Now I can write the real headline.
So I put on some tea, crack my knuckles (actually, no – that popping sound creeps me out), and prepare to spend about 10 times as much time on the headline as I did on the whole freakin’ page.
STEP 3. WRITE A HEADLINE FOR THE 20 to 35% OF YOUR TRAFFIC THAT IS MOST LIKELY TO BE HAPPY WITH YOUR PRODUCT
Great copywriters know that you don’t write for 100% of your traffic. If you try to make everyone happy, you’ll make no one happy. Seriously.
Writing for 100% gets you conversion rates of 2% (which is why most Fortune 500s have such abysmal conversion rates).
Figure out the people your product or service is best for – whether small businesses run by moms or teenage gamers. You can find this out by surveying your existing customers with a tool like Survey.io. Your analytics can sometimes give you insights into this as well (e.g., referring sources).
The people you’re writing a headline for are people who are:
- Easy(ish) to attract to your site
- Likely to give your product a chance (even if an incentive or trial is required)
- Highly likely to find value in your product, making them happy customers
- Somewhat likely to spread the word among others like them
Speak to those people first. If you attract others, too, great! Icing on the cake. Campaign Monitor does a great job of this with their targeted home page headline:
STEP 4. DESCRIBE YOUR MOST HIGHLY DESIRED & UNIQUE FEATURE OR BENEFIT
When you know who you’re trying to speak to, you then need to know what exactly it is about your product or service that is both:
a) unique to you, and
b) highly desirable to your target visitors.
IMPORTANT: This information is the core of your headline. Do not skip this step.
Spend the majority of your time on this point. I recommend listing out:
- Your features
- Whether each feature is unique to you
- What pain each feature solves
- What the major benefit is of a feature
- How your target visitors would prioritize it against your other features
Keep in mind that a ‘feature’ can be more than just a tool in your product. It can also be how you do things, such as with clean design, interactivity, gamification, or other such elements that solve a pain or delight users and have associated benefits.
When you find the one – just one! – thing that is unique to you and highly desirable to your target visitors, write it down on a clean sheet of paper.
Don’t wordsmith it. Don’t get fancy. Don’t try to persuade.
Just write it down. You’ll be using this single statement as the basis for your home page headline from this point on.
If you need a few examples of headlines that highlight unique, desirable elements:
STEP 5. WRITE AT LEAST 25 HEADLINE OPTIONS – AND DON’T DELETE AS YOU GO
Now it’s time to take the line you just wrote and play with it. Shorten it. Lengthen it. Elevate the benefit. Try to come up with 25 variations on it. You’re turning it into the ultimate headline.
I know. Twenty-five versions of something is a lot.
But they don’t all have to be winners. In fact, most of them will suck. But write them out anyway. Don’t hold back. Don’t limit yourself to X number of words. And don’t delete a single headline – not even the half-assed, swearword-filled ones you write when the delirium of thinking too long about one thing sets in.
To get 25 variations on a single phrase, you can try:
- Swapping dull words for sticky ones: Get on over to Thesaurus.com! Plug your boring words in to find interesting synonyms. For example, in the super-overused headline “save time and money” (which I pray you didn’t land on during Step 4), you might take the word “save” and look for a more memorable, powerful verb: “seize”, “unshackle” or “shield”. Sure, those sound crazy now, but they’re memorably different, which is better than being safe and boring.
- Creating word pictures: This is a classic long-form sales writing trick made famous by Robert Collier. Your words can and should, where possible, create mental images. That may mean using an analogy, simile or metaphor. It may mean piggy-backing off power-packed images, like the American flag, a wizard, or a lost puppy. The idea is to create a sharp visual that will make your message stickier. Note: This is the only place you get to be creative in headline-writing… but keep in mind that it needs to be done clearly.
- Stealing from your “voice of customer”: Analyze survey responses, whether you used Survey.io or Hotjar to learn from your customers. I’ve found that there are usually a few gems in survey responses because your customers may be able to see things from a fresher perspective than you can.
- Stealing from PR and bloggers: Like stealing VOC, but this time it’s voice-of-media. Journalists and bloggers are skilled at getting to the point quickly and with memorable yet simple words and analogies.
- Plugging in data: Did someone recently do a study you can leverage? Did you? Take data from wherever you can find it – as long as it’s reliable – and make a few headline variations that incorporate actual numbers. Tip: Use numerals (i.e., 47) instead of written numbers (i.e., forty-seven).
- Playing with humor: If you try to be funny and it’s not funny, that will be really awkward for your visitor. But if you are one of the lucky few who can be funny on the page, go for it!
- Using headline formulas: Brian Clark has some great headline formulas. I have some pretty awesome ones. And Russ Henneberry of TinyAndMighty.com shared some goodies on CrazyEgg’s blog, too. Collect them all!
STEP 6. DELETE THE OBVIOUS JUNK
There’s a lot to be learned from the bad work you do, which is why I told you not to delete any of your ideas in the previous step. Bad ideas can be seeds for great ideas.
But sometimes crap is crap.
So go through your list of 25 headlines now, and yank out the real stinkers. Crummy headlines include:
Those that start with “We” or “Our” or anything that isn’t about your visitor.
Unnecessarily long headlines.
Unnecessarily short ones (which usually become meaningless or so generic that any of your competitors could easily say the same thing).
Those that are trying to be clever.
Those that require a decoder ring to understand.
Whittle your list down to about 10 pretty solid headline options.
STEP 7. EXPERIMENT IN THE CONTEXT OF THE PAGE
At this point, a few of the headlines should begin to stand out. Now take these top headlines and, if you’ve got a site already or a wireframe for your home page, plug them in. (Use Edit Current Website if you don’t have direct access to your CMS or code.)
Look at the headline in the context of the page – below the header, above the demo, introducing your hero-section bullet list, and 200 pixels above the primary call to action.
Now pretend you’re your target visitor arriving for the first time. Does the headline grab you? Even better, ask others who fit your target visitor profile if the headline is interesting enough to keep them around.
A few headline options will prove to be epic fails. Let them go.
A few will probably be too long, so try to edit them into more succinct versions of themselves.
But, by the time you reach the end of this step, be sure to have saved at least 5 high-potential headlines. And be sure that they’re not all mirror images of each other.
WARNING: It’s around this point that the reality of showing your visitors one of these headlines will start to sink in. OMG, is it too aggressive? Is it too specific? Does it only make sense to me? Pull yourself together! This is no time to freak out!
Don’t forget all the logical steps you followed to get to this point. Remember that the headlines you’ve written to this point address something unique about your product or service that is highly desirable to your target visitors and that is stated in a memorable, succinct way. Trust yourself and your work.
STEP 8. A/B TEST TO FIND A WINNING HEADLINE
It’s almost irresponsible today to launch a headline on your home page without testing it. Testing tools abound, and even the great ones are either free or dirt cheap. And there are 1000s of blog posts that teach newbies how to set up and run tests – so you can’t proclaim ignorance and depart the field.
That said, yes, testing requires a decent amount of traffic. So you may not be able to run a headline test with 5 variations – but try to do at least an A/B test.
Why? Because, in spite of your hard and logical work, you’ve actually made quite a few assumptions with these headlines, such as:
- Who your ideal / target visitor is
- What’s highly desired by your target visitor
- What sorts of words will resonate with them
Only your visitors can tell you what will work on them. And the only reliable way they can tell you is by “voting with their credit cards” (or with their email addy). A/B testing makes that possible.
TIP: To get a quicker read on how a headline is doing, you may want to make your success metric closely related to what you can do on the home page, such as a ‘micro-conversion’ metric like clicking-thru to the next page or signing up for a newsletter. If you make in-cart conversion / triggering of the receipt page the goal, the test will take longer to run.
STEP 9. USE SEO KEYWORDS LIKE A PRO
Is it weird that I’ve made SEO your last consideration in this process? Maybe.
But that’s because I believe you need to have a winning website that will keep traffic on it… instead of a lot of traffic that will bounce or exit when it lands on a crummy home page.
So I recommend finding the winning headline first via A/B testing… and then running another test in which you plug your primary SEO keyword phrase into a variation of that winning headline.
If the results of this second test prove that the SEO keyword phrase either doesn’t negatively impact conversion or positively impacts it, great! Winner winner chicken dinner. But if the SEO keyword phrase negatively impacts conversion, well, now you have to make a call.
This is sort of a chicken-and-egg thing, so do what feels right to you – especially if generating traffic is more important to you than increasing conversion or reducing bounce.
So there you have it. Nine mystery-free steps to writing your next home page headline. Follow these steps and feel free to share the results of your headline A/B test in the comments.
About the Author: Joanna Wiebe is a copywriter, a CRO consultant and the author of the Copy Hackers ebook series, which breaks the messy world of web writing into manageable pieces that startups and small businesses can apply ASAP. Get more of her writing resources for free here and follow @copyhackers on Twitter here
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