You must write to SELL

April 19, 2024

Recently, I received an email from a business owner, asking for advice on why his website was not making many sales. This business owner had been using Google Ads to drive traffic to his website. He contacted me in desperation because he was losing money on his advertising.

So, what should he do? Should he change his logo, or the colours of his website? Should he put some cool rotating effects at the top of the page, to catch people’s attention?

I had a look at his website. It was nicely designed and I couldn’t really fault its appearance. But it was pretty clear to me why his site was not making many sales. At the top of the page was a ‘headline’ (if you can call it that):

“Welcome to (Company Name)”

Yawn. What a waste of space. Many visitors to the website wouldn’t bother to read any further.

This site is selling a service, for which there is a huge potential market. The first thing I suggested was to try a new headline. We came up with a few headline ideas and decided to test them for a couple of days each, while continuing to run the same Google ads.

We put the first new headline up, and he emailed me excitedly the next day to say he had got 7 leads off the site that day. (That might not seem like a huge number but he had previously been lucky to get 1 lead per day – and each lead in his industry is potentially worth quite a bit of money).

The second day, we added an exclamation mark after the headline, to test it. This resulted in 8 leads the next day! This guy has not looked back since!

Here’s an important fact you should know

Fact: 80% of visitors to websites don’t read beyond the headline. They take a quick look around, gain an impression of whether they like the look of the site and, if the headline grabs their attention, they will read on.

If the headline doesn’t interest them, they won’t read any further. They will simply click away.

“If the headline doesn’t stop people, the copy might as well be written in Greek.” – John Caples

A good headline alone will easily double or triple the sales from your website. In fact, one of the world’s top copywriters, Ted Nicholas, claims to have increased response by up to 1800% just by changing a headline on a web page.

Yet despite this fact, headlines are one of the most neglected areas most websites.

One of the most successful websites I built early on in my web marketing career, was for a company selling kitset homes. Most of the rival companies in the same market had very boring headlines on their websites, or even no headline at all.

I came up with the following headline:

“At prices like this, why wouldn’t you build your own home?”

It worked so well, the owner of the business could hardly keep up with the enquiries com¬ing in off the website every day!

Do you think visitors would have been so interested in reading the sales page if it had said at the top: “Welcome to (company name)”

But the headline: “At prices like this, why wouldn’t you build your own home?” speaks directly to the emotions of the person reading the site, who is looking for a way to build a home at an affordable price.

The 80/20 rule applies to headlines

Given that most people will click away from your website if the headline doesn’t interest them, it makes sense to spend a substantial amount of time on choosing the right headline!

Good copywriters spend hours, sometimes days, just writing headlines. You should do the same. If you’re serious about selling from your website, you need to put some blood, sweat and tears into coming up with a winning headline.

Ideally, you need to come up with several headlines, which you can test, to see which achieves the best result. (I will talk about how to “split test” your headlines and other aspects of your website later).

Chances are, your first headline won’t be your most profitable. Testing to find the “winner” could substantially boost your profits.

One of the most successful headlines of all time was written by John Caples in 1925, to sell a course of piano lessons. Caples’ famous headline read:

“They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano, But When I Started to Play!-”

This headline is pure genius. It speaks directly to the feelings of someone who would like to learn the piano to impress their family and friends, but thinks it is far too difficult. And furthermore, this headline doesn’t sound like an ad! If you wanted to learn the piano back in 1925, do you think you’d read that ad? Of course you would!

Here’s another great headline, which Caples wrote for the Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Company. His ad pictured a smiling man, in his sixties, looking straight out at the reader while happily sitting in a rowing boat, holding a fishing rod and reel. Under the photo, the bold headline said:

“To Men Who Want to Quit Work Someday”

This headline is targeted directly at the emotions of men who are approaching retirement age and are worried about how they will afford to live.

How well did this headline work? As reported in the book The 100 Greatest Advertisements by Julian Watkins, this one ad quadrupled the volume of sales of life insurance policies by Phoenix Mutual Life!

The 7 most successful types of headlines to use on the Web

Here are seven types of headline that are proven to work effectively online. One type is not “better” than the other. It really depends on your website and your market.

1. Promise a major benefit.

This is the most common type of headline. For example:

“How to lose weight without starving yourself”

This headline offers a clear benefit to the reader, promising they can lose weight with¬out going hungry.

2. Ask a question.

This is also a commonly used type of headline. For example:

“Looking for an easier way to manage your accounts?”

3. Offer a solution to a problem

For example: “Quick relief for tired eyes”. If someone is suffering from tired eyes, this headline speaks directly to their need.

4. Cite a testimonial

Looking at some of your strongest testimonials can be a great way to come up with a winning headline. For example:

“My pimples have disappeared since I started using AcneCure and three girls have asked me out this week!”

5. Give a warning.

Tell your reader they face a serious risk if they don’t keeping reading. For example:

“Don’t even think about a career in real estate until you’ve talked to us first!”

6. Call out to your target customer

If you are selling a product for a certain type of customer, you can speak directly to them in your headline. For example:

“Attention, beauty salon owners”

This will immediately attract the attention of beauty salon owners, whom your prod¬uct is aimed at.

7. Make a news announcement

Everyone is interested in the latest news, especially if it relates to a problem or need they have. So write your headline in the style of a news announcement. For example:

“Christchurch accountant tells how to beat the tax department at its own game!”

What do these seven types of headline all have in common?

Notice a common feature of all these headlines? They are all “you” centred. They are not “me” centred.

Here is the cold, hard reality. The only person who is interested in your company and your products and all their technical specifications is you …and maybe your closest family (if you’re lucky). No one else is even remotely interested.

All they are interested in, when they arrive at their website is “What’s in it for me?”

People will only give you their time and money if you offer them something that will solve their problem, or benefit them in some way. Sad… but true.

How to write headlines like John Caples

Let’s look again at John Caples’ famous headline for a course of piano lessons.

What sets it apart, and made it so successful?

To answer that question, let’s start by looking at what most copywriters would do when thinking of a headline to sell a course of piano lessons. They’d come up with a straightforward benefit headline, such as:

“Master the Piano at Home in 30 Days – Without a Teacher!”

That’s not a bad headline, and it’s better than you see on a lot of websites.

But Caples demonstrated his genius by going beyond what average copywriters do. He tried to get inside the mind of a person who wants to learn the piano. What is their true motivation? (Remember, this was the 1920s, when the piano was the most popular form of home entertainment.)

The real answer, he concluded, is that people want to play the piano to become more popular, to be envied and admired by their friends.

So, he realised the true product he was selling was not just piano lessons. They were just a means to the real end, which was to become more popular.

But Caples then went even further. He could have written a headline along the lines of “How to Be the Most Popular Person at Any Party!” That would have been a reasonable headline by most standards.

But instead, Caples went straight for the heart strings. He told a first-person story of a young man, who no one ever thought would be able to learn the piano, and how he left his friends spellbound when they actually heard him play!

And he summed up his story in just one short and brilliant headline.

John Caples’ five rules for writing great headlines

1. First and foremost, try to get self-interest into every headline you write. Make your headline suggest to the readers that here is something they want. This rule is so fundamental that it would seem obvious. Yet the rule is violated every day by scores of writers.

2. If you have news, such as a new product, or a new use for an old product, be sure to get that news into your headline in a big way.

3. Avoid headlines that merely provoke curiosity. Curiosity combined with news or self-interest is an excellent aid to the pulling power of your headline, but curiosity by itself is seldom enough.

This fundamental rule is violated more often than any other. Every issue of every magazine and newspaper contains advertising headlines that attempt to sell the reader through curiosity alone.

4. Avoid, when possible, headlines that paint the gloomy or negative side of the picture. Take the cheerful, positive angle.

5. Try to suggest in your headline that here is a quick and easy way for the readers to get something they want. In using this last suggestion – as mentioned previously – be sure to make your headline believable. Here is the headline of an advertisement that was tested by a correspondence school:

‘To Men and Women Who Want to Work Less and Earn More’

This seems to sum up in a few words what people have wanted ever since the world began. Yet the advertisement did not bring many replies, probably because the head¬line was unbelievable. It seemed too good to be true.

Think emotion, emotion and MORE EMOTION!

Writing sales copy is a “right-brained” emotionally based activity. Some people are naturally better at it than others. If you are an engineer or a technician, or an accountant, you will probably struggle to write powerful, emotive sales copy. Why? Because you tend to focus on the facts and use a strongly left-brained, rational approach.

Even though you might get excited about the technical features and facts about your product, this is not what is going to primarily motivate people to buy. Sad, but true. A lot of women, for example, will buy a product simply because they like the colour. They don’t really care about the technical features.

A strong element of every customer’s motivation to purchase one product or service over another relies on emotional factors. This has been proved time and time again.

Think about some of the best television ads for four-wheel-drive vehicles or utilities. They don’t bore people with the technical details of the vehicle. They have a macho guy driving through mud or over rough country, with a big smile on his face.

And why do ads for sports cars so often feature women standing next to the car? Because men believe that buying one of these cars will make them more attractive to women. You get the picture.

The principle of scarcity

Introducing an element of scarcity into your advertising is a time-tested means of boosting response.

If people know that by delaying a purchase they risk paying a higher price, or missing out altogether, it creates an added impetus to buy now.

Here are some examples of headlines that indicate scarcity:

“20% off until June 30 only, then the price returns to normal”

“Hurry, only 3 left in stock. When they’re gone it’ll be 6 weeks before we get a new supply.”

Use your imagination in constructing limited offers. Don’t give a bland ‘Limited time offer.’ Rather, be specific with the date and time.

“Limited offer expires at the stroke of midnight on July 31”

Above all, your headline must be BELIEVABLE

Having given you a list of tried-and-true headline ideas, you must be careful to avoid your headline sounding clichéd. Some marketers over-use “power words” in their headlines (and the rest of their marketing). This is huge turn off.

I simply re-iterate the message that runs throughout this handbook. Above all, everything you write must be BELIEVABLE.

Never make a claim in your headline that you can’t back up with proof.

People are increasingly sceptical today. Whenever they see any kind of advertising claim, the first thing they ask is, “Is it believable… or typical advertising hype?”

Don’t treat your prospects like morons! People in the modern world are absolutely bombarded with advertising messages. They can spot a phoney claim instantly.

That’s why you need to back up everything with proof, proof and more proof!

Without belief, nobody buys. Belief is the element of advertising that most people, even professional copywriters, too easily overlook.

Use the ‘yeah, right’ test

After you’ve written a headline, or any other type of sales message, put yourself in your sceptical reader’s shoes and be absolutely ruthless. Say, “yeah right” after reading what you’ve written. Ask yourself, “What proof would I need to persuade a fair-minded jury beyond a reason¬able doubt that my copy rings true?”

If you follow this principle of backing up all your advertising claims with proof, proof and more proof, you will be amazed at how powerfully and consistently you will be able to boost response to almost any advertisement.

Use sub-headings and bullet points

On the internet, you need to break up your text into small paragraphs, with sub-headings to make it as easy as possible for people to read.

Break up your copy every few sentences with sub-headings. And if you have several points to make, that you might normally separate by commas, try to use bullet points instead.

Bullet points are easier to read, people can scan them more quickly and the reader actually absorbs more information.

Or let me put that another (better) way.

Bullet points are:

  • easier to read
  • people can scan them more quickly
  • the reader absorbs more information

But don’t make your list of bullet points too long. That’s just as daunting for the reader as long sentences. About five or six bullet points at a time is enough.

If you need more bullet points, break them up with a line or two or text.