How to Write a Killer Headline

A headline as real as if we were there. Source:

“Unless your headline sells your product, you have wasted 90 percent of your money.“

— David Ogilvy

That quote is in stark contrast with the following:

“Your headline has only one job — to stop your prospect and compel him to read the second sentence of your ad.”

— Eugene Schwartz

But both are right and point out the importance of that one line. This article is published on Medium behind the paywall. Its goal is to make you click and open the page of the article. If you are a member than the headline and your action will bring the author a few cents. Of course, the body copy has to fulfill the promise of the title, otherwise, it does not sell. In the case of Medium, the author is paid in applause and a following.

You would click that, wouldn’t you? Source:

The whole nine yards with headlines

Emanuel Haldeman-Julius published a series called Little Blue Book in the first half of the previous century. He published classical literature in an affordable fashion for poor people. He advertised his books with sensational claims such as “At last! Books are cheaper than hamburgers!” He not only is a pioneer in guerilla marketing, but he also wrote a book on how to sell mail-order books. The following table shows titles of books he sold. When he wasn’t satisfied with the sales he rewrote the book titles with great success:

Who’s your clickbaiter now? Source: twitter: @edyong209

What sells is a desire. Finding that is science

Advertising author Drew Eric Whitman pointed out, how the basic human desires resonate in titles.

  1. Survival, enjoyment of life, life extension.
  2. Enjoyment of food and beverages.
  3. Freedom from fear, pain, and danger.
  4. Sexual companionship.
  5. Comfortable living conditions.
  6. To be superior, winning, keeping up with the Joneses.
  7. Care and protection of loved ones.
  8. Social approval.
That’s how that economy works. Source: thoughtcatalog

Think of your audience when writing the headline

Ad-man Bruce Barton said: “How can the headline be changed to be more interesting or appeal to more people?” Countless articles have been written about target group segmentation. When it comes to headlines, let’s focus on examples. Here Barton on selling a correspondence-school advertisement:

Question is if he won the case? Source: Thoughtcatalog

Words make the headline — start with the right one

John Caples has not only condensed desire into just four qualities, but he also gave us words that are good to have in a headline.

“There are four important qualities that a good headline may possess. They are 1. Self-interest. 2. News. 3. Curiosity. 4. Quick, easy way.”

— John Caples

Caples’ words:

  1. FREE
  2. NEW
  3. AT LAST
  4. THIS
  8. NOW
  9. HERE’S
  10. THESE
  11. WHICH OF
  13. LOOK
  16. HOW
  18. DO YOU
  20. CAN YOU
  21. IF YOU
Shit happens. Source: thoughtcatalog


I started with Drew Eric Whitman — CA$HVERTISING — How to Use 100 Secrets of Ad-Agency Psychology to Make Big Money Selling Anything to Anyone. Now that is a title! He boils down the great ad-people of the past into simple recipes. I then looked at his sources:

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Writer, tech startup founder, MBA candidate. Communication strategist. Software Dev (worst coder ever)

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Marcell Nimfuehr

Writer, tech startup founder, MBA candidate. Communication strategist. Software Dev (worst coder ever)