The 5 C’s Method for Selecting a Winning Headline

Summary: In this training episode Steve Slaunwhite explains some techniques you can use that will significantly increase your chances of picking a winning headline (or subject line.)

Here's a scenario you've probably faced more than a few times:

You're working on a creative project for a client – a website, email, brochure – and you dream up a list of headline ideas, and then can't decide which ones to recommend to your client.

research and developmentThis is a common challenge faced amongst many of the creative business owners I meet, as well as in my own freelance practice.

Selecting a winning headline seems like picking the right horse as a racetrack. It's a bet!

But it doesn't have to be. At least, not entirely.

There are some techniques you can use that will significantly increase your chances of picking a winning headline (or subject line.)

In fact, I use a methodology that works pretty well for me. It's not fool-proof – not by a long-short. But it does help in evaluating whether or not a headline is going to work well.

I teach this method in my copywriting seminars. I call it The 5 C’s Method.

Here's how it works.

Say for example, you’re a copywriter. And you're writing a web page to describe and promote a new service you’re offering. You know the headline is crucial, so you dream up a list of possibilities. Which one will likely work best? Using the 5 C’s method, you would ask these questions:

1. Does it COMMUNICATE a benefit?

The best headlines communicate a benefit of some kind. They imply, at the very least that you’re going to learn something, solve a problem, gain a new insight, save money, get a specific result, etc.

I often make the mistake of trying to be too clever with a headline. I once wrote the following headline for a magazine column: Fall In ‘Like’ With Prospecting. The editor disagreed with that approach and changed it to: 4 Steps To Prospecting Success. She was right.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with a clever headline. In fact, a clever headline can work very well – so long as it also communicates a benefit.

2. Is it CLEAR?

The more clear your headline is, the better. The last thing you want is your target audience struggling to figure out what you’re trying to say. In most cases, they won’t bother.

If possible, show your headline ideas to someone else – preferrably someone not involved in the project. Ask them to explain to you what they headline is saying. If their explanation fits with what you want the headline to say, then you may have a winner on your hands. If not, go back to the drawing board.

3. Does it CREATE a sense of urgency?

This is optional. Your headline doesn’t have to convey urgency to work well. But if there is a genuine reason why the reader should act quickly, consider saying so in the headline. It’s no surprise that email subject lines that begin with “Last day…” get such high open rates.

A benefit-focused headline, or one that focuses on the prospect's problem or pain, can also convey a sense of urgency. For example, a subject line that reads, "Need a new client this month?" might work well (if, indeed, you provide a service that can accomplish that.)

4. Is it CREDIBLE?

It’s easy to get carried away and craft a headline that promises the world. I’m sure you’ve seen your share of over-the-top claims in headlines! But saying “Double Your Client Base In 5 Days – Guaranteed” just isn’t believable. (Sure, we want it to be true, but there is an influential part of our brain that’s saying, “This is B.S.!”)

The best headlines have a ring of truth to them. Because they ARE true!

In fact, the more accurate your claims are – especially in headlines – the more likely it is your prospects will believe you next time. Accurate claims lower prospect skepticism over time.

5. Is it CREATIVE?

Your headline doesn’t need to be clever or “wow”. But if it is interesting – and perhaps a bit different than what your target audience is used to seeing – then it stands a better chance of gaining their attention.

And when that happens, your (or your client's) web page, email, sales letter or other marketing piece is more likely to get noticed, get read, and get responded to.

So that’s my 5 C’s method for evaluating headlines.

Like I said, it’s not foolproof. But it does increase the likelihood that you’ll pick a winner.

I find it handy to use a scoring form like this one:

Headline Tester

1 = Poor. 2 = Fair. 3 = Good.

Communicates a benefit?     Score: _______

Clear?                                     Score: _______

Creates urgency?                   Score: _______

Credible?                                 Score: _______

Creative?                                 Score: _______

Try the 5 Cs method on your current or next creative project with a client.


steve slaunwhiteSteve Slaunwhite is the author of many books on copywriting and freelancing. To receive 2 FREE workbooks on how to write copy & how to get clients, visit his copywriting training center here.