Headers and Your Call to Action

TL;DR: Distill your product/service down to a one sentence description and use it as your main header or sub header. The header/subheader combo must summarize the core components of your business, while also tapping into a deep desire or pain point of your potential customers, leading them to engage further with the page. Each landing page should be built for one purpose and have a specific CTA.

It still comes as a surprise to many people, but design is, in fact, a lot more than making stuff pretty. Design is, at it’s core, about communication. When you use a certain type of font or a certain color scheme, you are communicating something specific about a product. Maybe you want to inspire a sense of warmness and trust in your viewers. Maybe it’s authority. Maybe you want to wow them with your sleekness/beauty/zen artisanship.

Whatever it is, that core feeling or identity should define how you design your website (or software, or print media, or building, or object, or whatever it is that you are designing). It’s why designers ask you so many questions in their design brief, even if the project they’re working on is very small. A designer must understand both the small details and the big picture in order to effectively communicate a client’s identity to the (potential) customer.

It’s therefore fascinating, and quite frustrating, that a large percentage of websites, SaaS, and applications (including those built by talented designers) give little to no thought to the copy on the page.

If you spend 20 minutes finding the best possible font for the words on the page, you better damn well make sure the words you use are getting the job done.

But people on the internet don’t read...

This phrase gets tossed around pretty frequently; I’m guilty of using it myself quite a few times--but it’s not true. People on the internet DO read. They just read differently. They scan, like a high school student cramming for quiz they forgot about. On the internet only the most important information is relevant, and any hint of tangential info could lead viewers to skip the section, or worse, close the tab and move on.

Writing headers: the Cosmo headline

The hardest thing you can ask a writer to do is make a header. Whether it’s the main headline of a website, a blog post title, or just an h3 for a chunk of copy, it must communicate the core aspect of a giant idea in one sentence (if not shorter), while also grabbing the attention of passersby and directing them to engage with the copy underneath it.

About 90% of viewers usually read headlines, but only about 10% move on to the first sentence of the copy, and there’s exponential decay from there. The famous saying in copywriting is that the point of the headline is to get the first sentence read. The point of the first sentence is to get the second sentence read, etc. etc.

The problem is, that leads a lot of online marketers to write so-called “Cosmo” headlines like:


Come check out this comic book shop that has absolutely nothing to do with Star Wars.


We’re a company that is trying to sell you something really hard.


  1. Be awesome at cultivating a following.
  2. Post things that people care about and want to read.
  3. Check your page every day and respond to people.
  4. Post lots of photos.
  5. Make your page pretty.

I don’t want to completely trash Cosmo headlines. They are effective for certain markets, and the people who write (actual) cosmo headlines get paid an absurd amount of money, because, well, they grab the attention of the masses quite effectively. But if you’re trying to get everyone’s attention, you’re going to sound very spammy.

Writing Headers: the engineer headline

On the other end of the spectrum, we have what I like to call the “Engineer” headline:

“pip 1.3: SSL cert verification, https default for PyPI”

“SSL + CNAME + static files hosting on GAE: almost free”

“Name of a product: here is a feature which I have abbreviated to 2-5 letters + I might tell you something else about it but probably not”

In essence, the engineer headline is a succinct summary that does not mince words or try to engage the reader in any way. It directly contrasts with the cosmo headline because while the cosmo headline focuses only on getting a viewers’ attention with disregard to any subsequent content, the engineer headline focuses only on content and features, and completely disregards any explanation as to why those features are noteworthy.

To be fair, each type of headline can work depending on what the target audience is. I stole the “engineer” headlines from Hacker News, where this is an acceptable, if not preferred, method of communication. Authors whose headlines fall on this end of the spectrum defend them because the headline makes sense to the target demographic. It’s true that you want to cater to your target audience when crafting your messaging, but it doesn’t mean you neccessarily have to exclude everyone else at the same time.

Let’s say hypothetically that I am writing a headline for an Xbox banner ad. If it said “CoD II + FFXIV + FIFA ‘13: $75 until Jan 1st” the target demographic would likely understand what was going on: Call of Duty 2: Black Ops, Final Fantasy 14, and FIFA soccer 2013 are 50% of when bought in a bundle, this deal ends January 1st. However, if I wrote, “50% off 3 top-selling games of 2012, just in time for the holidays” not only should I get the target gamer demographic curious enough to click on the banner and come to Xbox.com, I will also hit other demographics (e.g. parents, friends, and relatives of the target demographic looking to buy presents) who may not have understood the vocabulary used in the first headline.

How to write a header

Unbounce is in the business of building high-converting landing pages, so hopefully they have some well-written headers we can learn from. Here's their home page:

Unbounce Landing Page

There are a ton of features that Unbounce could talk about. They do a lot of really amazing things, but notice that Unbounce talks only about WHAT they do on their landing page and in their copy, not all the tiny details about how they get it done. Also notice that “what” they do is actually a subheader. The main header targets why anyone should care about them in the first place, and it does a great job of getting people’s attention.

This is key. Your headers need to tap into a potential customer’s pain point, or a deep-seated desire. This can be tricky to do without falling into Cosmo-mode, and this is where copywriters earn their living. Unbounce is focusing on their customers’ desire to make more money, and the subheader tells us they can do this without the help of I.T., which is a major pain point that customers deal with. The small infographic under the header simplifies the process down to it’s core components. We don’t know how we’re going to build a page, how we’re going to publish it, or how we’re going to test and optimize it, but within 10 seconds of arriving on the page we know exactly what unbounce does, and why we should care, and we’re still a bit curious about how the whole process might work, and this leads us to engage further with the page.

That’s where the B.O.B. (big orange button) comes in. This is the only CTA (call to action) on the page. I don’t really want to build a high converting landing page right now. I just want to learn more about how it works, but it’s big and orange and in the middle of the page and everything is directing me towards it.

If I am discerning enough, I might notice the features/examples/templates tabs on the nav bar at the top of the page. The good news is, the people who need that level of information before they take any action (that’d be me) are going to find it anyway, so Unbounce has made a smart decision in making the primary focus of the page to get prospects signed up right away.

Your CTA

You should have one single CTA on your landing page. Too often landing pages have a button to sign up for the newsletter, to download an ebook, to check out the latest product, to follow the company on social media, and a million other things. It’s over-sensory stimulation, and it usually causes visitors to bounce. Sure, you can put newsletter signup in a sidebar, or a follow button in the footer, but make sure these aren’t competing with your main CTA for visitors’ attention. If you are catering to two types of customers (say prospective employers vs. prospective employees if you're a recruiting site) you can have separate CTAs for your different customers, but make sure they are located in the same area, and don’t compete for visitors’ attention.

Your main CTA will vary depending on the type of product or service you are trying to sell (or if you are selling anything at all). Do you want to get people to try your product first? Probably, if you are a SaaS company or if the product is really expensive. Maybe you want them to learn more about your field, or get them to view a gallery of products. Whatever it is, know what the main goal of the page is, BEFORE you start designing and writing copy, and make sure every part of that landing page contributes to that goal.

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