If your readers only read one thing on your page, it’s the headline. In fact some 80% of people reaching any given page will only read the headline.

Here’s a guide to the fundamentals of writing truly compelling headlines that will hook your readers into reading your content.

‘How to…’

Make it clear to your readers that there’s something great to read. Something that’s worth them spending some of their time on.

There are few better headlines for many sites – including this one, where you’ll see I often use ‘How to…’.

Play on fear

Taking action when we feel fear is hard-wired into us – psychologists call it the fight or flight response.

If we as copywriters tap into fear in our readers, it is a lot easier for us to get them to take action.

Headlines like:

Five warning signs your business could be in trouble

Ten foods that could cause cancer in your child

Choosing the wrong tyre brand can increase your stopping distance by 104%

25 SEO mistakes that will bring you a Google penalty

can be highly effective.

Be specific

This is a rule that applies to any headline you write. The more specific you can be, the more likely you’ll get people to read your content.

And, in the case of the above headline about tyres, using a specific number makes the claim more believable.

Using specific headlines is strangely like choosing highly relevant key phrases for better returns from SEO. The closer your claim is to the readers’ needs, the more likely you will engage with them. Being general is a recipe for missing the point with an impressive huge number of people!

Copy the masters

Picasso was reputed to have said “Amateurs borrow. Professionals steal” (actually, I believe he was misquoted, but that’s an argument for another day). But we’ll steal the inference here.

Professional writers know what they’re doing. They realise that what they do is a craft, refined over years of practice. Copywriters go one step further, knowing that there’s more than a little bit of science in what they do – what kind of headline leads to this kind of outcome?

Grab some direct mail next time it comes through your door and study the headlines. If it’s from a big mailer, you’ll be seeing copy that’s been tested, measured and refined over years. Learn from it.

Have a good look at big e-commerce sites, too. Look for ones that don’t just use the product names in their headlines, and for headlines that are obviously constructed just for SEO.

I’d still look at direct marketing, though. Even with great measurement tools available to all of us on the web, the direct marketing industry culturally spends more time on measuring and refining than many of us do online.

When you find some good headlines, grab them. Put them in a file or scan them in if they’re on paper. Clip them into Evernote, if they’re online. Review what you’ve got. Learn the patterns and start using them in your writing.

What do you think makes a good headline? What has been your most successful headline?

Thanks to rjp for letting me use the image of the headline from The Sun.