Headlines You Can’t Ignore

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As a copywriter and a marketer, I’m fascinated by the crossroads of persuasion and language.

One of the things I’ve written about in the past is something I call the headline “persuasion trifecta.” Three elements that when integrated into a headline serve as such a powerful tease, you simply cannot blow past it.

Those elements: (1) Self-interest, (2) Curiosity that rises to the level of intrigue, and (3) News.

And, I love when I stumble upon examples of headlines that are potential “teaching moments,” especially ones that work as email subject lines. So, let’s take a look at this one that just hit my inbox a few days ago…

If You Use Sunscreen, This is Urgent Information You Must Have

If you saw this as a tease for the evening news…and you were the target market…you’d have to tune it. The audience is massive. And driven largely by self-interest…their health. For decades, we’ve all been told to wear sunscreen or risk cancer…and nobody wants that. Plus, it’s not just about us, there’s an evil (or philanthropic, depending how you look at it) subtext here.

Even if you won’t take care of yourself, you don’t want to expose your kids. So, if you’re a parent who slathers their kids up with sunscreen thrice a day from Labor Day straight through to Memorial Day, you’d be downright reckless to skip past this news, no?

Self-interest? check!

The words urgent information strongly imply your going to learn something new. There’s something big to add to your human database. And, while some of you will instantly sense you’re about to be sold something, many others fear of being sold will be assuaged by the use of the word information. Something like “breaking research” might’ve worked better, though.

News? check!

What about curiosity? The headline has peaked self-interest, peaked the desire for information, again, for the right person…then not given the answer. Your brain has been primed, your not being overtly sold something, but rather offered information.

Now, granted, a certain percentage of you will also be repelled by the headline.

That’s supposed to happen. A strong headline will provoke a strong reaction…on both sides of the desire spectrum. It’ll draw in the small percentage of readers who are “buyers in waiting” and send everyone else away, either nonchalantly or running.

The worst thing a headline can do is…nothing!

Anyway, end of today’s mini headline-writing lesson.

UPDATE: This headline just hit my inbox –

Snails on Methamphetamine: Memories Formed by Snails Under Influence of Meth Are Harder to Forget

Now THAT got my attention…but only because I couldn’t stop wondering who funds this stuff? LOL!

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17 responses

17 responses to “Headlines You Can’t Ignore”

  1. yogober says:


    A balance must be stuck between having integrity, and being a fulltime salesman and schill.

  2. Jean Sarauer says:

    Yep, I clicked the headline. Although I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to die if I didn’t read this, I was 100% curious as to where you were going with this. Plus, I already know you tend to be worth listening to. If I saw the same headline in my email from a stranger, the odds of clicking would have plummeted.

  3. So much about it it’s really human psychology…

    Have often wondered to what degree to take what generally appeals to me and say: If I found it effective, then others might also…

    Granted Jonathan, testing is the life force of Marketing success, but I was just wondering what your take is from a generalized perspective.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      It’s all psychology and human nature. For me, the challenge has always been to create headlines that are compelling but also smack of truth. At least when it comes to writing that is associated with my own name. But, I also have to tell you, I’ve written for products for clients or products not associated with me where the goal is pure ROI and I’m sometime amazed at how well headlines that so many people say are old-school, tired, shouldn’t work test. And, in the world of copywriting, for most people, it ain’t about pretty, it’s about money in the bank. Like I said, when I write for my own personal brand, that’s not true, but for many other products, it is.

  4. Of course I clicked on the headline! And I smiled in doing so, thinking “Okay, Jonathan, you’ve got me!” as the cute dog faces beckoned me to read further. Thanks for the smile…and for the mini headline-writing lesson woven in.

  5. MikeTek says:

    I didn’t click the headline until you asked about it – and, after clicking, my thinking was, “reminds me of an acai berry offer.” A sales page with 6,000+ words trips an alarm for me.

    But I would call it one of the more convincing long-form sales pages I’ve seen.

  6. The headline’s good and I clicked on it, but one look at the landing page and I clicked away. But I think that since I buy a lot of natural products, I’ve already heard news about the dangers of sunscreen before and therefore didn’t feel like I’d learn anything new by reading.

    • Ivan Walsh says:

      Yeah, I thought it was pretty weak. The word ‘Information’ doesn’t hit any emotional triggers for me.

      For me, the best biz/finance headlines come from the BBC.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Great point, it’s one thing to get a person to click, but then it’s another to deliver on the promise of the headline. And, what’s interesting is that you said you buy a lot of natural products which means you were very likely a member of the broader target market, enough that it got you to click. But, you’re also more educated about the topic, making the landing page less effective for you.

      So, what we’re seeing is, the persona this is written for is someone who cares about their health, is interested in natural products, doesn’t want to being doing something dangerous to them or their kids AND is not already very well educated about the chemistry of sunscreen.

  7. Brian Yamabe says:

    I didn’t click on the headline. I’ve become immune to this type of stuff. I assume it’s either a sales pitch or some new study with a vague “link” between a product and some illness.

  8. Mick Morris says:

    I resisted the temptation to click on the headline link, and glancing at the comments already made probably did myself a favour. However, the points made about the headline and how they can be used is interesting and valuable… I guess the trick is then to match it with quality content.

  9. Flora says:

    You must be joking! lol This is a jaded, lame, boring 1950’s headline.

    It’s only your panache in this space that makes it seem kinda cool Jonathan. (Celebrity endorsement! lol)

    If a senior copywriter presented this to any creative director at Saatchi’s, Ogilvy or any other international agency they would be laughed out of the agency. Then fired.

    Offline, people are so used to headlines like this they don’t even see them! Their potency diluted decades ago from over-use and over-promise leading to disappointment over the past 50 years!

    If you saw that teaser on an envelope today:

    “If You Use Sunscreen, This is Urgent Information You Must Have”

    you’d bin it!

    However, you raise a point that has been bothering me lately.

    Why are these ancient, albeit benefit-orientated headlines and their equally lazy “7 ways to [benefit here]” and “25 reasons you …[benefit here]” working so well in the online space?

    Every time I see these headlines online I cringe. And yet, online people love them.

    I suspect these tired, over-used headlines are working online not because of the usual reasons: benefit-orientated, self-interest, intrigue, news – but rather because they paradoxically feel ‘safe’ and ‘familiar’ in the new online space.

    The media changes the appeal of the message.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Hey Flora, just like I mentioned in the post, some people will be repulsed, but others will be drawn in. Few will have no feeling about it. The reason these “lame 1950s” headlines keep being used is because they still test better than anything else. As much as they repel some they attract others. Not entirely my style, but I get why it works and why the person using it has built a very substantial biz around this and similar headlines. It’s not just online, too, human nature is human nature.

      And, you’re right, too, big agency copywriter guy may well have said pshaw to this and the hundreds of other headlines emailed by this client every year…and promptly lost the client millions of dollars. Old school direct response and big firm advertising have never played well (except for the days when Ogilvy was a copywriter and most the firm’s work was direct response), but guess who’s consistently raked in a ton a “measurable” ROI year after year?

      • Erik Proulx says:

        Why can’t headlines both serve the purpose of ROI and not feel like a shill? Isn’t it a copywriter’s job (a good copywriter’s job, anyway) to sell the product and make me feel something good about the brand in the process? I agree with you, Jonathan, that if I saw that line on the news, it would intrigue me to watch that news segment because the news (in its purest form) is informative and not trying to sell me something. But if I saw that headline in an email or a DM piece, I would immediately trash it because I there’s a hard sell on the other side.

        Yes, I know about the research and the ROI. Yes, I know it’s impossible to deny its effectiveness. But there’s a higher ground here. It’s harder to do. Much harder. But ROI and entertainment don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

  10. I think many self employed professionals shy away from this kind of headline because they don’t want to seem pushy. But if we were to assume that the motive behind such headlines is to serve, not just to make money, I think they would land differently.

    The challenge for the heart-based small business owner is to choose language to evokes self-interest, curiosity, and news value while also communicating caring. And it occurs to me that the element of caring underscores the legitimacy of self-interest.

  11. I was suspicious of the headline but cautiously clicked, after checking out what it was down below. Just seeing that guy on the video immediately confirmed my suspicions lol

    Your point is well-illustrated, and I know why this headline works for a lot of people. I wonder what percentage of readers know it’s likely to be hype, though? Seems to me that serious research wouldn’t have a headline like that, and of course there wouldn’t be a guy like that on a video (sorry if you know him or something). So, while it makes me wonder what it’s about, I’d probably run off to google to do some scouting around for something that appears more credible.

  12. Fuzz says:

    Of course I clicked it. How could I not. I would have had to log on again later and do it otherwise. First reason: I am a naturally curious person, (suspicious too) especially when it comes to hidden harms in modern products. Second, it is the origin, or the perceived origin of the message. I like your blogs, you’re on the same page as me ethically (I’m guessing), so there is a high chance I wouldn’t be wasting my time. I was right, I have so many hats I don’t wear, and I always lose my sunglasses. Think of the savings!!! Cheers