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The 4 U Rule to Writing a Great Headline

Posted by Carole Mahoney on 11/17/10 2:15 PM

Headlines have always been a topic of spirited discussion in the marketing world. Long before there were websites, emails, landing pages, banners and pay per click ads, headlines played a major role in selling everything from Coca-Cola to Chevrolet.

Talk to a hundred copywriters about what makes a great headline and you’re liable to get a hundred different answers. But many seem to agree on the principle of “The 4 U’s.”

  • Urgent
  • Unique
  • Ultra-Specific
  • Useful

Not all headlines incorporate all four legs of this stool. But the most effective and compelling ones incorporate at least 3 of them. And, of course, headlines by their nature tend to be brief.

One of my favorite headlines of all time is not only brief, but also manages to incorporate all four elements in just eight words. That headline reads…

“7 Foods Never to Eat on an Airplane”

 Let’s run through the checklist...

1. Urgent: Well, if you’re flying that week, I’d call that urgent.

2. Unique: It’s certainly not a subject you come across everyday.

3. Ultra-specific: The number “7” takes care of that.

4. Useful: Who wants to get sick on a plane?

So, now that we’ve established a few basic guidelines, let’s talk about how to apply them to the Internet. The good news?

All of the principles of persuasive offline headlines still apply to Internet headlines.

However, in the brave new world of Internet marketing, search engines like Google and Yahoo play a huge role in how headlines are composed.

Nowadays, so many people start their shopping search by entering key words (e.g. “Hawaiian Vacations” or “Hawaiian Hotels”) into their search engines. Therefore, it’s important for every marketer to understand how to capitalize on these keywords. You can ignore this at your peril.

You may have just built the better mousetrap, but if no one can find you on the Internet, those mousetraps will just collect dust in the warehouse. It’s like that tree falling in the forest that nobody hears.

So, how does SEO relate to headlines?

Simple... Search engines “search” all the copy on your web page for ranking purposes. They also place increased emphasis on your headline. So, it’s imperative to incorporate into your headline the key words that consumers are typing into their search engines.

Let’s take the examples above: “Hawaiian Vacations” or “Hawaiian Hotels.” 

The headline, “Hawaii on $87 a Day” may be a gangbuster headline in a magazine or newspaper, but it’s virtually invisible on the Internet.

But “Hawaiian Vacations on $87 a Day” or “Hawaiian Hotels from $87 a Day” will skyrocket your placement in the search engines. Even better? Incorporate both phrases into your headline.

“Hawaiian Vacations: Hotels from $87 a Day”

Incorporating all 4 U’s into an Internet headline may prove a bit more challenging, since the search engine element needs to be addressed. You just need to accept the fact that a slam dunk headline in print may need to be modified to accommodate the search engines. At times, you may be trading impact for placement. It’s a profitable tradeoff.

Our Internet headline, “Hawaiian Vacations: Hotels from $87 a Day” is still a very strong headline. Add in the words, “Ends Today” and voila! You’ve incorporated all 4 U’s, kept the headline relatively short, and fed the search engines some red meat.

One final note... Have fun with your headlines. Treat them like a crossword puzzle or a game of scrabble. Research the most relevant keywords. Google’s free Keyword Tool is a good place to start. Then write 10 or 20 headline variations until you come up with that killer headline that just stops your readers dead in their tracks!

Do that… and the world will beat a path to your web page.

Topics: copywriting