By all intents and purposes of today’s “Guides to Successful Headlines” (given their own merits) — this title doesn’t work.

The funny thing though is, you clicked on it.

So it must be a “successful” title, right?

It worked, it achieved its goal — it interested the reader. Right?

So why? Why given the information that we “know to be true” about headlines now-days did this title work — even though it was not a “3 things you really care about”, or a “how to be what you want”, or even a “why you should so-and-so”?

  1. It is intriguing — you want to know why it doesn’t work.
  2. It is odd — why would I say my own title doesn’t work?
  3. It hints at some sort of teaching — you want to know what makes a successful title.

I’ll give you a hint. It is a successful title because of the psychology of it. Not because it’s a plain list, because it’s something you don’t know, or because it’s something you need to learn — it’s because it captured your attention.

There are a ton of articles today that inundate us with information about what makes a “successful headline”—so why did you click on this?

It’s a popular topic. If you’re consuming information on a subject on a regular basis, you’re far more likely to click on content about that subject. That’s one reason “Success begets success.” The interesting thing is that this approach to the topic is fresh, it’s on the other side — it’s on the degrading side. I’m not telling you how to “write a headline” that’s been done a million times. (actually more like 59,100,000 times).

Yeah, that’s a lot of articles.

See, this approach is taking the same approach DDB took when bringing Volkswagen into the forefront of the American market in the 50's.

DDB’s “Lemon” ad.

This was one of the most successful ads of all-time. The headline was absolutely genius, and pivotal to its success. It was conceived by Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) when their creatives were joking about how they should just call the Volkswagen a “Lemon” (which as everyone should know is absolutely taboo when you’re trying to market a car).

The ad features a new Volkswagen front and center with the one word headline, “Lemon.”

What? Why the hell would anyone call their own car a “lemon”? Why would they advertise that? Are they saying that they are having trouble with their cars? Are they calling out the competition in this ad? What are they getting at? I’ve got to read more.

You’ve got them. Right there.

The point of this headline was to get the viewer to read the copy, to engage in the ad. That’s it. The subliminal genius of this headline is without reproach. If you read on, in the copy it actually speaks to the quality of pre-sale testing at Volkswagen, and how they do produce lemons just like anyone else — but you’ll never drive one, because they test every single VW to the best of their ability.

You’ve been enticed, you’ve engaged, you now have more trust in the brand, you may even purchase a VW = successful ad from an extremely successful headline.

This simple sleight-of-words led to this becoming one of the most successful ads ever made, pushing Volkswagen to the forefront of American consumerism and solidifying the company’s market share in the United States.

Case-in-point — a brilliant fucking ad.

So what are the key points of a “successful” headline?

  1. First and foremost, to get the viewer to read the copy (now to “click” on the link)
  2. Secondly, spreading the word — talk about the ad and tell your friends about it (now, its share-ability on social networks)
  3. Thirdly, discoverability — what used to be throwing it on the largest ad spot you can find (now more about making it search-friendly and trying to get it featured on the strongest publication you can)

These can all be accomplished in far more ways than just a 5 item list, or a “how you should” or whatever it may be. You just need to be creative.

The third point is a little harder to accomplish with a title like the one I used. In terms of “search-friendliness” the headline of this post blows. That’s why most headlines have changed to lists or “how-to” over the years. As this is what search engines are most likely to represent. But is that what you should be focusing on? If you get enough people to do the first two points — 1. Read the copy & 2. Spread the word — you should have enough referring traffic that you don’t need search engines. If the copy is good enough people will read the post, if the topic is intriguing enough, they will share the post. In my experience of 5 years as an SEO consultant (search engine optimization), when you get enough traffic from referrers, and have enough share-ability to be linked to and shared on multiple networks — the rankings will come.

So how do you get your headline that works as well as DDB’s “Lemon” tagline? First ask yourself some questions:

  1. What problem are you solving?
  2. What’s the angle?
  3. What’s the value?
  4. What are you looking to get out of it?

Answer all of these and work from there.

It’s funny how many titles there are that won’t come to you without answering these questions. They’re worth asking.

Also keep your approach fresh.

“The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible.” — David Ogilvy

With how many lists, how-to’s and “why you should” titles out there, a unique approach will stand out that much more.

Your headline is the most important part of your copy, it’s the backbone and it’s going to make-or-break your writing. The greatest copy in the world is worth jack-shit if no one reads it.

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” — David Ogilvy


Spend it wisely.


I’m a content marketer and SEO consultant, having worked with brands like Best Western, Holiday Inn, MFG, Bidsketch & Olo to boost revenue through clever content and organic search. I’m also a consultant for hire.

Coffee Time

Short, quickly digestible, thought provoking reads for the coffee break. Productivity, design, and growth focused. By @snsmth

Thanks to Heather YamadaHosley and Lean Luxe (on Medium)

    Sean Smith

    Written by

    Co-owner @SimpleTiger. Writing words on TNW, 99U, Moz, Copyblogger & more. Making marketing better with quality communication.

    Coffee Time

    Short, quickly digestible, thought provoking reads for the coffee break. Productivity, design, and growth focused. By @snsmth

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade