5 Landing Page Headline Formulas Tested

By , July 24th, 2013 in Landing Pages | 29 comments
Bill Nye - Which Headline Formula Works Best for Landing Pages?

Headlines are a science. Put the artist on the back shelf. Image Source

While there is no shortage of articles that list different headline formulas that you can use on your landing pages, there really isn’t much research available on how these formulas actually perform in real life on real landing pages.

Over the last 4 years I’ve performed about 300 copy-related split tests, and a great many of them revolved around headlines. In this article we are going to look at 5 common headline formulas and how they perform in real life. These 5 formulas are: loss aversion, asking a question, focusing on benefits, and being super creative.

**This article deals exclusively with landing page headlines – not titles for blog posts, etc.

Benefits vs. loss aversion vs. questions

I’d like to start off showing you three case studies that examine the effect of three often used headline formulas, the benefit headline, the loss aversion headline, and the question headline.

Case study 1:

The first case study revolves around a series of headline tests I ran on BettingExpert.com – an online betting forum where tipsters can share experience and tips. The goal of the page is to get prospects to sign up for a membership.

  • Control headline (Question): “Passionate about Betting – We are Too”
  • Treatment one (Benefit): “Make More Money on Your Bets – Get Free Betting Tips”
  • Treatment two (Loss aversion): “Stop Losing Money on Your Bets – Get Daily Betting Tips”
Landing Page Headline Formulas Tested

Case study 2:

The second case study revolves around a series of headline tests I ran on Freemake.com’s landing page for their YouTube converter. The goal of the page is to get prospects to download the converter software.

The control headline was benefit-focused, but the wording made it more of a statement headline: “Free YouTube Mp3 Converter”

I tested the control variant against three treatments:

  • Treatment one (Benefit): “Get Your Free YouTube Converter”
  • Treatment two (Loss aversion): “Don’t Waste Money on Expensive MP3 Converters”
  • Treatment three (Question): “Need a Free YouTube MP3 Converter?”
Landing Page Headline Formulas Tested

The benefit treatment performed a little better than the control, whereas the two other treatments underperformed.

Case Study 3:

This is an example from a series of headline tests I ran on the Mxchange.dk, a Danish portal through which you can buy and sell used cell phones. The page is targeted at prospects that want to sell a used cell phone, and the goal is to get them to set up an account.

  • Control (Benefit): “Make Money on Your Used Cell Phone” (Direct translation of the Danish original)
  • Treatment one (Loss aversion): “Avoid Losing Money on Your Used Cell Phone” (Direct translation of the Danish original)
  • Treatment two (Question): “Need to Sell Your Used Cell Phone?” (Direct translation of the Danish original)
Landing Page Headline Formulas Tested

In this case, both treatments performed worse than the benefit headline.

Observations From All Three Cases Studies

All though the experiments were conducted on three completely different websites with three completely different target audiences, and across different languages, the results were very similar.

In all three case studies, the benefit headline performed best while loss aversion came in second place, followed by the question headline that came in last. These were just 3 case studies with an accumulated sample size of a little over 50.000 visitors. However, the results are representative of the overall pattern I see, when I perform landing page headline tests: a clear headline that focuses on a benefit generally performs best.

I think it has to do with the fact that online people are usually looking for a solution to a specific problem. They are in research mode and want answers. A clear headline with a relevant benefit usually confirms that they have found the right solution.

Loss aversion often falls short because this type of headline has a tendency to become a bit difficult to decipher. Your mind has to process it and translate it into a tangible benefit.

I mostly see loss aversion work in cases where the prospects have something very specific that represents a tangible value that they are afraid of losing.

Here’s an example where loss aversion worked well.

This landing page pitches an SEO tool locates and helps website owners locate and resolve duplicate content issues. As you probably know, duplicate content is an issue that can lead to lost rankings and therefore also rankings and revenue.

Traffic, rankings and money represent a tangible value that any website owner would be afraid to lose, and the loss aversion headline turned out to ne the right solution.

Landing Page Headline Formulas Tested

According to my research, questions rarely work well in landing page headlines. I think it has to do with the simple fact that people are looking for answers and solutions – not more questions. While questions can spark curiosity, they can also be the source of a lot of unsupervised thinking – which is not what you are looking for.

I see questions perform well in cases where they facilitate a massive and resounding, “YES PLEASE!” in the mind of the prospect.

What About Super Creative Headlines?

In the more classic marketing and advertising world, there seems to be a consensus that the most creative headline is automatically the best one. While super creative might be the right approach for offline marketing, I have seen very little data indicating that this assumption holds water in online marketing. In fact, I have yet to see a creative headline beat a clear headline in an A/B test.

Let’s go ahead and look at another case study.

This is an example from a test I ran for one of my clients, Fitness World, a large Scandinavian chain of gyms. In this case I tested a headline variation on a PPC landing page that sells gym memberships.

I challenged the control headline “You Work Out Smarter at Fitness World” (literal translation of the Danish original) with probably the most uncreative headline I’ve ever presented to a client “Group Training & Fitness at Your Local Gym” (literal translation).

Most creative copywriters would probably laugh at my treatment and tell me to go back to marketing school. But the fact is that when we tested the two headlines against each other, my boring treatment outperformed the sexy version and sold 38.46% more memberships.

Landing Page Headline Formulas Tested
Click for full-size image

From a creative or aesthetic perspective, my treatment sucks! But that doesn’t really matter, because the goal wasn’t to write sexy copy – it was to sell more memberships.

In online marketing, the more creative headlines have a tendency to backfire because they often become so clever or advanced that regular people have difficulty understanding them.

I’m not saying that you should never go down the creative route. If data from tests and customer research tells you that the best solution is the creative one, then by all means – go for it!

Landing page optimization is really all about optimizing decisions. Therefore It’s important that you can leave the “artist” on the shelf for a while, so you can assume an analytical approach and focus on giving your potential customers what they need in order to make the right decision.

Conclusion

In my experience, from four years of testing and optimizing landing pages, the clear benefit-focused headline generally performs better than ones that focus on loss aversion, creative messaging, and asking questions.

But hey, online marketing isn’t an exact science, and I can’t give you any definitive universal answers. It’s all about finding out what works on your landing pages and on your specific target audience. And the best way to do that is through vigorous testing.

In the words of the awesome Dr. Flint McGlaughlin:

There are no expert marketers; there are only experienced marketers and expert testers.”

See you in the comments!

– Michael Aagaard


About The Author

Photo of Michael Aagaard

Michael Aagaard is the Senior Conversion Optimization Consultant at ContentVerve. When he’s not preaching the CRO gospel as a popular international speaker, he spends his time helping clients improve conversion rates in wonderful Copenhagen. Follow him on Google+, Twitter or get his new free ebook: 7 Universal Conversion Optimization Principles.
» More blog posts by

Comments

  1. Hal Wechsler says:

    Pulitzer Prize quality research. Your knowledge will make any company RICH. When you do an email blast to 1-million, choosing the wrong Subject-Line is a ‘suicide-pill’. If you ever get to the States, I have a Free one-day workshop for you, we teach at
    Columbia University. It’s called SpeedReading101 for executives. [Call me for Free TIPS!] Hal

  2. Very good post, MIchael.. It clearly proves your hypothesis about benefits being more powerful than others.

    Of course each marketer needs to test their own formulas, but starting with testing benefit headlines can get you to a higher level of performance faster it seems :)

    PS. The danish direct translations were wonderful..

  3. Sadha Kaif says:

    Thank you Michael for working hard and researching on this and sharing such a wonderful article with us..

  4. A really good article! I think it’s very interesting knowledge about the difference between “questions” and “benefits” i headlines and I agree with you: questions does not work as well as the benefits when you make a headline.

    And thank you for the free e-book :) I can really recommend it for those who hasn’t read it yet.

  5. Nolen says:

    Well, I just went and tweaked all my headlines. Haha. Good, conclusive evidence here, and a prime example of good use of A/B testing.

  6. Hugh says:

    I’m really glad that you were able to put some numbers behind the conclusions…very interesting. For some reason, my natural inclination is to use question headlines, but your post has shown me that I should use that as a third or fourth headline option.

  7. Amanda says:

    Great study that confirms what I already predicted….people are looking at what you have to offer them and how you will positively impact them. If you can’t make that be known within a few seconds, you have potentially lost a client. You don’t have a second chance.

  8. la liga says:

    PS. The danish direct translations were wonderful

  9. Paul Murray says:

    Michael check out the legs on that gym lady sitting on the big bouncey ball!

    On a more relevant note, this is a great post. I’ve been reading a bunch of headline info recently from Copyblogger etc. However for me theres overkill in so many articles.

    You’ve presented a quality theory with evidence and expressed clearly. Mega thumbs up. I’m off to write some benefit headlines :)

  10. This is an excellent case study that I’m glad I clicked on at Inbound.org. I’ll be trying my own now that I’ve read your research and see what happens when I make changes.

  11. travis says:

    You did some good work here, but not really done well. Alot of your loss aversion really just make no sense logically… i.e. “how to not lose money on your used cell phone”

    Also your traffic ranking example is correct, one is by far ALOT better than the other. You just came to that conclusion incorrectly.

    Let me explain.

    You potential customers are looking to solve a problem, that problem being that they are losing rankings. The solution would be to get rid of duplicate content.

    Basic sales dictates (credit Dov Gordon) that buyers buy based on the simple fact: you can solve a problem they don’t want, or you can enable a result they don’t have.

    When you can break it down like this, you can see why the one landing page is alot better than the other.

    Also if somebody knows about the negative effects of duplicate content, they probably are smart enough to know how to resolve the issue… most times.

    • Hi Travis – Thanks for the comment.

      Let me quote my main point about loss aversion from the article above:

      “Loss aversion often falls short because this type of headline has a tendency to become a bit difficult to decipher. Your mind has to process it and translate it into a tangible benefit.”

      Your confusion as to the logic of the examples in the article supports that point perfectly – so thank you ;-)

      Thanks for the elaborate interpretation of the DC finder case study. The fact remains that the loss aversion headline did best in the test ;-)

      – Michael

  12. Giles Farrow says:

    In my experience results will be very different if you are selling to a business.

    Safety, security, not making a mistake are more important for employees buying with company money.

    Consumer purchases like your first 3 example are more impulse buys. Benefits help them move forward quickly.

    Business buyers are usually much more considered and put much more research time before making a decision. You can grab their attention by making them aware of potential problems they should be considering.

    Consumers probably adopt behaviour that is more risk-averse when buying insurance, security, financial products, homes, cars

  13. Adam Kielich says:

    That is really good information and concisely presented. I’m still working on developing a landing page so this was very helpful.

  14. I do alot of split testing headlines with my website too and i must admit, this is some good info for writing headlines that work – and work well.

  15. Adam says:

    The simple example with DC finder let my brain make a brainstorm. Joe Vitale was right in his books – simple words can change the entire situation

  16. We are an online marketing agency in Spain and agree completely with you in your study.
    We have been conducting email marketing campaigns for years and we have come to the same conclusion: Clear, understandable messages which is understood and clearly see the benefit of acquiring that service. The questions, the negative headlines and the headlines too “poetic” don’t work.
    Congratulations for the post

  17. La liga says:

    In my experience results will be very different if you are selling to a business.

  18. Hi Michael, I’ve tried a lot of headlines, probably tried to hard. With time I learnt to think about who I’m targeting and to simply solve their problem. A simple headline with a message that lets a visitor know what I do in 1 second is what I try to aim for.

  19. What’s the fifth common headline formula?

  20. myp2p says:

    We are an online marketing agency in Spain and agree completely with you in your stud

  21. Awesome article Michael. I must say your findings surprised me. So many great copywriters (e.g. Bob Bly and Dan Kennedy) highly recommend problem-orientated headlines. Thanks for enlightening us!