Writing effective headlines

Using your Words Carefully: Part 2 – Headlines

Last week, we talked about the value of serving your customers the content they deserve. We also outlined that smart copywriting, which include the following tips:

– Gets to the point quickly
– Uses active verbs
– Is concise, clear, and consistent
– Anticipates and answers questions
– Has a distinct voice
– Puts customers (or others) first

Today, let’s take a closer look at writing headlines, supporting copy, and microcopy that follows these six rules we have already listed. Lastly, we will look at some real world examples and how they apply in a business setting. I’d also like to highlight a handful of design best-practices guaranteed to give your words an even greater impact.

Improve Your Headlines

Let’s rank the following headline iterations:

1. SD is the source for free writing tips from industry experts (Meh)
2. Our industry experts offer free writing tips online (Ok)
3. Get free writing tips instantly from industry experts (Better)

Although headline 1 is informative, the text is lengthy and doesn’t speak to anyone. Headline 2 is less wordy and includes a less passive verb, but still leaves out the customer. Therefore, headline 3 is the best option because it invites customers to participate, introduces the active verb ‘get’ and keyword ‘free’ right away, and adds one more incentive: time. But wait, can we trim even more?

Get free expert writing tips now (Best)

Landing page headlines arguably have the greatest impact on bounce rate because customers are likely to skim the headline’s text and stop reading when they find the information they came for (or leave if they can’t find it). Headlines must captivate, impress, and satisfy a customer — all in under a second. No biggie, right?

Your want to write headlines that are direct, helpful, and empathetic:

– Place actionable keywords up front
– Expose problems and offer solutions
– Recognize how customers might feel before coming to the site

Invision.com HomepageInvision’s Homepage headline is active and inclusive.

Handy.com Welcome MessageHandy’s welcome headline reassures customers above all else.

AirBnB.com HomepageAirbnb engages customers to interact and incentivizes it.

Copy writing expert Dane Maxwell suggests combining these three key elements for writing an effective headline:

– The result (What the customer wants)
– The period (When the customer wants it
– The objections (What happens if the customer doesn’t get it when they want it)

While there’s no fail-proof method for writing an engaging headline, Maxwell’s formula is a strong foundation because it’s structured, expresses urgency, and prioritizes the benefit to customers.

Trim Your Body Copy

When you text your friends, you’re likely sending as few words as possible (or not even, because the laughing crying face emoji says everything) and you probably aren’t typing full sentences on where to meet for coffee. Like texts, the supporting copy on your site should express both your personality and the customer’s mood and desires in just enough words to avoid confusion (‘Let’s meet the one on St. Marks w/ the tall (Canadian flag) barista’).

Supporting copy too often focuses only on marketing goals like boosting SEO and appeasing stakeholders, which is helpful for robots, but is not for the real people who want your products or services. Effective supporting copy packages the necessary keywords, legalese, and product details into brief, useful, digestible units.

Try these dos and don’ts when writing meaningful supporting copy:


– Rely on it to explain workflows
– Dumb it down
– Write complete sentences or paragraphs
– Exhaustively list product features


Make it easy
– Design an intuitive UX first. Smart headlines, calls to action, and User Interface (UI) interactions allow customers to move through workflows even without supporting copy

– Respect your customers’ time, circumstances, and intelligence. Get to the point quickly with the simplest language possible. Keep in mind that efficient copy makes a big difference to customers who access the site from small screens, use screen readers, or require translation.

Break it up!
– Break copy into bulleted or numbered lists, setting reasonable limits on the number of list items. Be willing to cut any text that doesn’t directly serve customers.

What’s in it for me
– Highlight the benefits. Describe what a product’s features will mean to your customer.

One more tip: Some of the world’s most recognized brands use a writing principle called the Rule of Threes. That’s because three is the smallest number required to make a pattern, and as humans, we’re wired to memorize them. When we bucket key takeaways into groups of three — and keep them brief — they are more likely to stick with customers.

Capser.com Homepage Casper pairs three benefits with icons for extra punch.

AllBirds.com Homepage Allbirds backs up a personal story with three related product features.

WealthFront.com Homepage Wealthfront includes not one, but three main headlines on their homepage to reinforce exactly what they do.

Maximize Your Microcopy

Imagine rushing to make a connecting flight in an unfamiliar airport. You listen for announcements, look for gate numbers, follow the flow of passengers, and eventually make it to right terminal. But if those cues are communicated in a foreign language you don’t understand, what do you look for? First, don’t panic! You most likely will scan the crowd for customer service agents, look for corridors with signs that feature iconography and subtitles in multiple languages. It’s the smallest details that put you at ease and get you where you need to go.

Likewise, microcopy is the unsung hero of website content. However, it goes largely unnoticed, yet these seemingly insignificant snippets of copy do a great service. Accounting for buttons, links, form placeholders, instructions, error and success notifications, tooltips, loading messages, and more, microcopy shows customers where they are within a workflow, drives conversions, and assures them that their private information is secure. To better meet customer expectations, plainly outline your expectations of them.

Write compelling microcopy that:

1. States exactly what to do
2. Reassures customers
3. Catches attention
4. Reinforces site tone
5. Clearly labels icons and forms

If auditing the microcopy on a site, focus on Calls to Action (CTAs), which are sometimes one-word and too generic (e.g., ‘Submit’, ‘Send, and ‘Go’). Not only do vague buttons and links lack personality, but they can also confuse and frustrate customers. Temper their concerns by specifying what will happen when they click (e.g., ‘Complete Your Registration’, ‘Send Your Comment’, ‘Get the Newsletter’).

Casper.com Calls to Action Casper’s buttons specify the product page they lead to. (Also notice the ‘magic’ number of buttons).

Lulu Lemon Shop  Lululemon’s promotional banner and footer forms feel personal, using microcopy to relate to the customer.

WildFang.com Homepage Wildfang’s Calls to Action matches the young, spirited brand voice.

Design for Content

Have you ever reviewed a design mockup and wondered what ‘Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit’ means? It’s ok if you flunked Latin, we’ll translate it for you: ‘You and your design team aren’t on the same page about content strategy.’

Avoid waiting until the design phase to start collaborating and compiling sample copy. In fact, it’s impossible to gauge how a site will authentically look and feel, or how much content the client will need to add or trim, if populated by dummy copy. Build a content library in advance containing copy that is representative of the brand voice.

Now let’s say you’ve handed over that perfect, polished site content to the design team. Well-written, targeted copy will fall flat if not organized within a visual system. Designers can enhance good copy by applying the following UX and UI design best practices:

– Starting with the smallest screen sizes in mind
– Establishing a consistent visual hierarchy that prioritizes content based on font size, weight, color, and orientation
– Left align copy vs. center align
– Setting the maximum number of characters per line to 45-75
– Distinguishing primary CTAs by size and color
– Reserving certain colors within a palette for clickable objects only
– Meeting minimum accessibility color contrast ratios
– Stacking forms to follow common eye patterns

A few examples:

Apple.com Example Apple prioritizes headlines, distinguishes supporting features in a digestible way, and highlights CTAs using a single color.

CuratedKravet.com Product Page Curated Kravet’s Product Detail page buy form has a strong type and color hierarchy and is aligned for fastest completion.

MaddieStyle.com Mobile ExampleMaddieStyle.com Mobile Example Maddie, like all SD ecommerce sites, was designed mobile first.

Test Your Copy

At this point, we’ve given you a comprehensive checklist of copywriting tips, we need to re-emphasize that ‘Customers Come First’ is the most important rule of all. Scribble it on a note and stick it to your monitor, write it in magnetic poetry on the office fridge, get it tattooed like a cheat sheet on the palm of your hand (ok, maybe don’t do that one).

How can you ensure that your copy not only appeals to your customers, but also keeps up with your customers’ needs? Always A/B test. Using tools like Optimizely, you can compare variations of headlines, body copy, and microcopy being served to customers against a conversion metric to get real-time, data-driven feedback. As a result, you will Display the ‘winning’ variations — the copy that gains the most traction — and continue to refine it over time as your customer base grows and/or changes. A/B testing your copy helps customers help you.

Kickoff time is now! Your project team is formed and you’ve assembled an audience. It’s time to draft a game plan for headlines, supporting copy, and microcopy for your site. Uncap your red markers and circle these three key copywriting plays on your dry erase board, captain:

1. Keep it real. You succeed if your customers succeed.
2. Keep it short and sweet. Say what you mean, in your voice, in the simplest language possible.
3. Keep it fresh. Prioritize copywriting from the start, test it, and refresh it over time.

Copywriting strategy starts and ends with your customers. So, if you follow our tips and write smart, both you and your customers win big.

Gina Angelotti

Gina is inspired in and outside of work by her capoeira community. When she isn’t Brazilian fight-dancing, she’s likely riding her bicycle and falling in love with New York over and over again on two wheels.