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How to Create Effective Headlines and Web Copy


marketing writing bootcamp certificate completion Greg Elwell

Here are some guidelines, tips, best practices and expert advice for creating web copy that resonates with your site visitors (reader personas) and meets your business objectives. The source of this information comes from the Marketing Writing Bootcamp presentations sponsored by MarketingProfs.

The information was gleaned from notes, slide decks and transcripts and  includes 3 of the 12 classes that was centered primarily on web copy and headlines by: Ginny Redish on The Changing World of Marketing Writing; Linda Bustos on Copywriting for Clicks and Conversions, and Heather Loyd-Martin on SEO Copywriting that Google will like and People will Read.

It’s presented in no particular order and there may be some repetition of thoughts and points.

Marketing Writing Bootcamp was presented in May of 2012 as part of MarketingProfs University. For more information or to take the course, visit

How people consume online content

Think of your web site as a channel for having a conversation with site visitors, not as providing them a file cabinet full of information they’ll need to rummage through and read to find what they’re looking for.

  • Your web site is more like a phone than it is a file cabinet
  • Site visitors start the conversation with a question, task or goal

Plan before you write. Think first, write second. Web site and web page planning questions to answer:

  • What do I want my site/this page to achieve? (your purposes)
  • Who are my ideal site visitors?
  • Why do they come to my site, what conversation do they want to start?

Guidelines for developing your purposes:

  • Align them with your overall business strategy and goals
  • Specific and measurable
  • Focused on your site visitors/readers/personas

Shift your thinking from…

  • Selling services to have people choose us for the service they need
  • Informing the world about….to answering people’s questions about…
  • Getting subscribed to our white papers to having people feel so engaged with us that they subscribe to our white papers

Think about when and why people come to your site…

  • Why have they come?
  • What questions do they have?
  • What words do they use?

Web content must meet your business goals and your site visitors’ goals and the realities of their lives. The reality is people skim and scan quickly for the information they came for. Not to read large amounts of text.

When and Where Marketing Online is Most Effective

Your entire site is marketing your business. Yet site visitors determine what they read. Be conversational, respectful of their time and make your site easy to use and navigate.

Capture marketing moments:

  • First satisfy what your site visitor came for
  • Figure out what they want, what questions they have
  • You market best online by satisfying their needs
  • Don’t miss marketing moments – provide a way to continue the conversation to the next logical step or CTA
  • Make calls to action clear and action oriented
  • Don’t have any dead-end pages that serve to cut-off the conversation

Guidelines for Writing and Presenting Online Copy

1. Cut! Cut! Cut!

  • Think “less is more”
  • Write to make your points, not to make them read
  • A usable web site is one where your site visitor (a) finds what they need, (b) understands what they found and (c) is able to act on the information
  • Visitors must be able to find, understand and act in the time they think it’s worth
  • Make your key points with half as many words using short sentences and short paragraphs
  • Remember, your web site will also be read from mobile and tablet devices – all the more reason to create tight, easy to read copy
    • 15-20 word sentences
    • 40-70 word paragraphs
    • Sub-headlines
    • Bullet statements
    • A good amount of white space
  • Think and create stories and pictures, they’re most powerful to capture and hold someone’s attention and persuasive for taking action
  • Goal is to use the least amount of words possible to convey your message.

2. Make the copy scan-able

  • Always answer the 3 planning questions relating to purpose, persona and conversation
  • Great marketing doesn’t have to be in sentence form, can be in fragments with visuals, links and testimonials
  • Use headlines, bulleted lists, bolded text

3. Write how you’d talk on the phone

  • Talk with your site visitor not at them
  • Use of 'if/then' can be an effective content structure, so long as you maintain a conversational voice. For example: “If you want to learn how to play songs without learning scales, subscribe to our newsletter.”

4. Layer your information in a “bite, snack, meal” format

  • Bite – the headline, a  kernel of the message
  • Snack – the most important message/benefit, first sentences, summary. The one thing you most want the reader to know should be in the first paragraph
  • Meal – the entire meal, easily digested (can be on another page if it makes sense to take the conversation there)
  • Use CTAs throughout

5. Each page should communicate one central theme or idea – one main point – centered around one primary keyword

  • Sell the solution, not the product/service
  • Clearly communicate the value to the reader/persona
  • Focus on customers and how you’re making their lives better
  • Address their challenges, pain points, dreams and desires
  • Romance features and benefits as solutions
  • Avoid lists of what you do
  • Connect on an emotional level by painting a picture of how life can be improved

6. Create content for your customers, not Google

  • Research the keywords and phrases your target market searches
  • Research the questions customer commonly ask, and trending topics for your industry
  • Create content that your audience needs and wants to read

7. Capture visitors with a clear headline

  • Headlines as questions work well if it’s a question that resonates with the visitor
  • Headlines as statements of key messages work well if people understand them
  • Headline research reported by Kelly Reeves indicates:
    • Thumbnail image with headline = 27% higher click-through
    • 8 words in headline = 21% higher click-through rate
    • Odd number headlines (“7 keys to…”) got a 20% higher click-through
    • Colon or hyphen in the title – indicating a subtitle = 9% better than headlines without it (also good for use of SEO keywords before punctuation)
    • Headlines with question marks performed nearly twice as well as all other punctuation marks

8. Use informative headings

  • Headings and sub-heads: break up the content, provide visual separation and white space, make the information more manageable, draws the eye, provides context so people can make sense of the flow
  • Informs writers on creating what they have to say
  • Should use your site visitors’ keywords
  • Headlines are the turns your site visitors use to progress through the conversation and find what they’re looking for
  • They should support the visitors’ scanning and reading behaviors

9. More on Headlines/Page Titles

  • Should clearly communicate the value for the reader (value proposition)
  • Should be stated in active tense, be compelling, persuasive, direct
  • Avoid using product names in headlines
  • Tell reader what they’ll get, not what to do
  • Focus on customer, not “us” or “we”
  • Numbers work well (e.g. “Four Steps to Clear, Healthy Skin”).
  • Reflect what you’re really selling – the benefit and experience they get
  • Avoid trust disruptors, like “the best”, #1, etc.
  • Avoid jargon unless it resonates with them
  • Avoid flowery marketing speak
  • For titles, aim for 60 characters, including spaces

10. Appeal to all 4 buying modalities

  • Competitive types – want to know what makes you superior
  • Spontaneous types – want to know how working with you will make their life easier
  • Methodical types – want to know how you do business/how stuff works
  • Humanist types – want to “meet” your executive team and see customer reviews

11. Hear the conversation as you write

  • Signal the context first before dropping in new information
  • Move from what is known to the unknown

12. Focus on action – verbs, not nouns

  • Marketing is about verbs
  • Talk directly to people with verbs

13. Use your site visitors’ words

  • Jargon may be appropriate when you are marketing to a specific group, and they are familiar with the terminology
  • Also use images they will identify with

14. Help your site visitors ‘grab and go’

  • Use simple words and cut out unnecessary words
  • Instead of commence – start
  • Inquire – ask
  • Retain – keep
  • At this point in time – now
  • In order to – to

15. Read your copy out loud

  • Read to yourself and others – ask them what the message is
  • Ask them to read it to you – does it sound right, understandable?

Anything you would add to this list?