Copywriting
7 Psychology Tactics to Write Better Headlines
Make your headlines more persuasive using emotional triggers

This article will help you understand and use principles of psychology to quickly improve your headline optimization. If you are a small business, solopreneur or a business with limited marketing resources this article is designed to give you seven straightforward actionable tactics you can implement today to improve your headline copywriting.

 

We are only focused on headlines in this article. If you are interested in full landing page design check out our article on Landing Page Design Framework.

Seven newspapers rolled in half all lined up. You can't read the headlines, but the effect is of many headlines
“the purpose of the headline is to get you to read the first line. The purpose of the first line is to get you to read the second line. And so on.”
“the purpose of the headline is to get you to read the first line. The purpose of the first line is to get you to read the second line. And so on.”
-Joe Sugarman

Intro

Intro

Headlines are arguably one of the most important aspects of your website or ad copy. You have about 0.5 seconds to capture someone’s attention and it turns out most of us do judge websites by their cover. Legendary copywriter Joe Sugarman is credited with saying “the purpose of the headline is to get you to read the first line. The purpose of the first line is to get you to read the second line. And so on.” The purpose of having people read any of your copy is to build trust and send them further into your sales funnel.

Luckily there is some science behind writing a good headline.

Each of the seven tactics below uses principles developed in academic psychology to maximize the persuasiveness of your copy. Each tactic is described in detail with specific examples and suggestions for further reading.

Boost Clarity

People are biologically wired to conserve calories. If your copy is hard to understand or takes extra effort to understand people not only tend to form negative opinions about what you are saying, but they often won’t even read it. The first three tactics will help boost clarity in any headline copy.

Tactic 1

Tactic 1

Use Positive Frames

Positive frames are tangible and easy to understand. Negative frames describe what is not happening and require more metal resources to process. Having to use more mental resources results is increased incomprehension and a degradation of your message.

Example:
Our greenhouse automation software won’t keep you up at night wondering if it is working
Our automation software will let you sleep at night
Our greenhouse automation software won’t keep you up at night wondering if it is working
Our automation software will let you sleep at night

Psychological Principle

Tactics 1-3 use “processing fluency.” Processing Fluency suggests that complicated copy leads to negative perceptions or feelings.
See AL Alter and D. Oppenheimer , “Predicting short-term stock fluctuations by using processing fluency,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2006: 9369-9372.

Tactic 2

Tactic 2

Use Metaphors

Metaphors cement abstract ideas in your reader’s mind. They also stand a better chance of connecting with your reader emotionally.
Metaphors tap into emotions and bypass rational thought processes.

Example:
Our greenhouse automation software is powerful
Our automation software gives you Zeus like powers
Our greenhouse automation software is powerful
Our automation software gives you Zeus like powers

Psychological Principle

 “metaphor effect” The metaphor effect suggests we connect and remember metaphorical language more easily because it activates our imagination
See George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

Tactic 3

Tactic 3

Transform Generic Claims

Add specific values to statements to make them concrete. Transforming a generic claim into a specific value shows how your product or service solves problems rather than just telling people it solves problems.

Example:
Our customers love us
2678 greenhouse growers use our software
Our customers love us
2678 greenhouse growers use our software

Psychological Principle

processing fluency.” Processing Fluency suggests that the easier it is to understand something to more likely we are to have a positive opinion towards it.
See AL Alter and D. Oppenheimer , “Predicting short-term stock fluctuations by using processing fluency,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2006: 9369-9372.

Tactic 4

Tactic 4

Self-Generated Meaning

Indirect claims leave room for the reader to interpret meaning. When readers generate their own inferences the brain places more trust in the source.

Example:
Our greenhouses will grow great plants.
The productivity of spring year round.
Our greenhouses will grow great plants.
The productivity of spring year round.

Psychological Principle

indirect persuasion”  suggests indirect metaphorical claims make consumers more receptive to multiple positive inferences by brands.

See Edward McQuarrie and Barbara Phillips, “Indirect Persuasion in Advertising: How Consumers Process Metaphors Presented in Pictures and Words,” Journal of Advertising 2005, 34(2): 7-20.

Agitate the Problem

You product or service should always alleviate some sort of pain. If you want to highlight your solution it is helpful to remind readers of their pain. Agitate the underlying problem, why is it important they solve this particular problem?

People are biologically structured to avoid pain and by focusing on their pain they are more likely to be receptive to your solution when reminded of its impact. Tactics five to seven focus on agitating the problem.

Tactic 5

Tactic 5

Emphasize Disdain

Instead of leading with your benefits, lead with the negative emotions associated with the problem. This will build trust with your reader by showing them you understand their pain. If you lead with your solution you don’t build as much empathy.
Example:
Keeping your greenhouse productive is important
An unproductive greenhouse costs you money
Keeping your greenhouse productive is important
An unproductive greenhouse costs you money

Psychological Principle

valence-framing” suggests that people resonate with being defined as “opposing something” rather than “supporting something.”
See George Bizer and Richard Petty, “How we Conceptualize Our Attitudes Matters: The Effect of Valence Framing on the Resistance of Political Attitudes,” Political Philosophy 2005, 26(4), 553-568.

Tactic 6

Tactic 6

Demonstrate an Impact on Others

Impacts on others can be a more powerful motivator than self interest especially when the impact is negative.

Example:
Washing your hands regularly is important to your health.

Wash your hands often to protect our customers.

Washing your hands regularly is important to your health.

Wash your hands often to protect our customers.

Psychological Principle

People tend to be overconfident in their own immunity from harm. By refocusing the threat to other members of the community it is easier to convince people to take action to protect that community.
See Adam Grant and David Hoffman, “It’s not About Me: Motivating Hand Hygiene Among Health Care Professionals by Focusing on Patients,” Psychological Science, 2011, 22(12): 1494-9.

Tactic 7

Tactic 7

Label Visitors with a Noun

Subtle changes to a sentence structure where the emphasis is on nouns and not verbs can create the impression these attributes are more strong and stable. People described with noun labels (David is a gardener) are considered stronger and more resilient identities than descriptive action verbs (David gardens a lot).

Example:
David gardens a lot
David is a gardener
David gardens a lot
David is a gardener

Psychological Principle

“essentialist linguistic labels” can impact attitudes towards the preferences of others and the self. This principle suggests attitudes are plastic and can be shaped with subtle constructions of language.

See Gregory Walton and Mahzarin Banaji, “Being What You Say: The Effect of Essentialist Linguistic Labels on Preferences,” 2004, 22(2): 193-213

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