5 Tips for Writing Life-Altering Email Headlines

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Content Marketing
Email Marketing

What does it take to write attention-getting headlines that convince your email reader to convert? Composing headlines can be one of the most rewarding parts of being a writer. It’s your opportunity to show off your skills by packing a lot of meaning and benefit into a (hopefully) short space. But it’s also very difficult to get it right.


Many, many words have been written about the art of composing powerful headlines. From the earliest days of newspapers to the modern Buzzfeed-worthy attention getters, the headline often takes up most of the copywriter’s time. And with good reason… according to popular wisdom, people spend 80 percent of their time looking at a headline and only 20 percent reading copy.

But writing an attention-getting headline is difficult, especially when it comes to email. People are busy, and it’s easy to hit close – or delete – if the headline isn’t engaging. In an email, the subject line has already gotten their attention, and so the headline must create a natural progression from it – and from the preheader as well. If you ask a question in your subject line, the email headline should answer it. If you present a thought-provoking problem in the subject line, the headline (and email body copy) should solve it. It should also relate to any photos or imagery in the email. But most of all, your headline should somehow convince the reader to keep reading, and that can be the biggest challenge of all.

Getting Attention – and Keeping It

The copywriting trainers at American Writers & Artists recommend the following approach to writing headlines:

  1. Be USEFUL to the reader
  2. Provide a sense of URGENCY
  3. Convey how the benefit is somehow UNIQUE
  4. Do it all in an ULTRA-SPECIFIC way

The headline, like the subject line, is a hook. It must grab the reader’s attention – fast. And like the subject line, it should also give them a good idea about what’s in the body of the email. It needs to be specific and compelling as well as attention-getting.

Here are five tips for powerful headlines:

  1. Provoke their curiosity: When you make a headline mysterious enough, the reader will want to read more. That’s why you see emails and banner ads that promise “One weird trick for longer hair” or “Banks don’t want you to know this.” Your mind instantly wants to know what it is, even if you don’t really need hair care tips or reduced interest rates. Likewise, subject lines and headlines are often posed in the form of a question. But if you make it too confusing or cagey, you can risk alienating your reader.
  2. Shock them a little bit: If you want to get someone to read an email about the benefits of a desk that raises and lowers, you could write a headline that says “Stand Up at Your Desk for Better Health.” Or you could get scary: “Is Your Chair Killing You?” Use this tactic with extreme caution. Your terrifying headline could murder conversion rates. You can also bring it down a notch and provide a sense of urgency using time limits (“Offer Ends Soon”) and scarcity (“Get One of Only 10 T-Shirts Left”)
  3. Use humor (sparingly): Before you dive in to being funny, consider how it reflects on your brand. Is this a laughing matter? Are you at risk of offending someone? By all means add some wit and humor into your copy, but do it carefully. It’s very easy for a joke to fall flat or offend someone.
  4. Unpack your adjectives: When you’re trying to write short copy, sometimes adjectives get the axe. Don’t let it happen! They’re the frosting on the subject-verb cake. In the examples below, we don’t just promise you healthier skin. Your skin will glow. We don’t just offer plain old cleansing tips. They’re from professionals. Adjectives are hard to argue with, but you should also base them in reality. Notice we didn’t say “healthy” skin. That’s hard to promise. But it will probably get “healthier.”
  5. Focus on the benefit: When in doubt, remember to focus on the benefit to the readers. Why should they care? What’s in it for them? Many writers (and I’m certainly one of them) sometimes jump in and start creating clever headlines without really thinking about what matters to the people reading it.

For example, I remember writing copy for an email promoting a new, super-fast color printer. I came up with a couple of options, including “Meet Your New Prints Charming” and “Someday, Your Prints Will Come.” I thought they were clever. (I was wrong, by the way.) But the real benefit to the reader was nowhere to be seen. I finally ended up with “Share Colorful Photo Memories, Faster.” Not very poetic, but it got to the point—and it got results.

Pulling a Headline Rabbit Out of Your Hat

rabbit in a hatThere’s no magic trick to creating a great headline. But there are some basic formulas:

  • (What they want) + (when they want it)
    Example: Get Healthier, Glowing Skin in 7 Days
  • (What they don’t want) + (How to avoid it)
    Example: Prevent Acne with 7 Professional Cleansing Tips

You get the idea. But since every person is different, your approach needs to be different as well, depending on your audience. Start with the formula, but test your execution. Once you’ve figured out what works, you can segment your audience based on their preferences and past behaviors and send them the headlines that are most likely to resonate with them.

Finally, remember to test out headlines along with every other aspect of your email content. Subject lines tend to get a lot of the attention when it comes to A/B testing, but trying out different combinations of subject lines, headlines, calls to action and design elements is an important part of developing a successful email campaign. For example, MarketingProfs ran a six-part blog where they tried out multiple combinations of their own email elements. When they looked at headlines and subheads, they discovered that benefit-driven headline/subhead combination delivered 28% more conversions than a product-focused approach.

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