Write Better Headlines Than the Onion


Published: June 2, 2021

“The best headlines are those that appeal to the reader’s self-interest, that is, headlines based on reader benefits. They offer readers something they want—and get from you.” – John Caples

Some of us remember the days when The Onion was a fun print newspaper you would pick up on trips to one of the 17 cities they used to distribute to. Then, in 2013, they killed their print edition and began focusing on the web.

The reason for the print edition’s success was always its headline writing. You could get the entire satirical emphasis of the piece just by scanning the paper’s headlines. The move to digital in 2013 was brilliant, because the same draw the headlines produced in print became viral fodder online.

Image via The Onion

The Onion headlines are satirical and funny. However, I think what they do best is paint a vivid picture that readers can connect to immediately. They do it all in the headline alone.

For most content marketers, you only have a headline’s worth of attention to pull your reader in. The ability to craft headlines that paint a clear picture and make your reader want to read the content is probably the most vital part of the content process. A great piece of content with a bad headline is less likely to get the attention it deserves.

Image via The Onion

I wrote recently on how to craft great sales copy. I argued that great sales copy is created through emotional triggers and crafting a worthy hero and villain. We will leave the hero and villain creation for the body of our content, but the emotional trigger is even more important in the creation of a headline. Emotions create actions. Clicks and reader engagement are actions.

The Psychology of a Great Headline

“Five times as many people read the headline as the body copy. When you’ve written your headline, you’ve spent 80 cents of your dollar.” – David Ogilvy

A great headline is judged by whether it can get someone to take the next desired action. Crafting a terrific headline can make a suboptimal piece of content stand out, and a suboptimal headline can make a great piece of content die on the vine.

Getting that action takes us back to Plutchik’s wheel of emotion, which I referenced in our sales copy newsletter a few weeks ago. 

In a more sinister example, we can look at the issues with fake news submissions on Facebook. Often, these posts are crafted to enrage or terrorize a very specific set of users who don’t understand that what they are reading is not factual.

Emotional headlines are powerful. Knowing how to use those emotions is critical.


Maslow’s hierarchy of needs gives us a pretty good understanding of how humans approach their decision-making. Baseline needs must be met before a person will focus on the next level up. For example, a person who has nothing to eat is less interested in the fact that they haven’t been on a date in a while.

Unlike Plutchik’s wheel of emotion, we aren’t looking to move readers of our headlines to a certain area of the hierarchy. Instead, we are looking to key in on one level in our headline writing. If you are writing headlines for alarm system copy, you are focusing on “Safety Needs.” If you are writing luxury fashion headlines, you are focusing on “Esteem Needs.” By pairing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with Plutchik’s wheel of emotion, you have a strong psychological basis for a winning headline.

Breaking Down Great Headline Structures

Let’s take a look at some example headline structures that are often shared and why they worked:

1. “How To” Headlines

We are starting out pretty vanilla here, but “how to” headlines simply work. That is because they meet the self-actualization level of Maslow’s hierarchy. “How to” headlines and articles represent an ability for a reader to become better. Let’s pair this basic Maslow-focused headline with an emotion:

  • How To Create a Brand Using Tesla’s Playbook

Tesla for many people creates either a feeling of admiration or loathing. Either of these emotions give us the extra punch we need.

2. Now You Can Have [something desirable] [great circumstance]

This headline structure, and a few others we will look at, come from Here are a few examples they give:

  • Now You Can Meet Smart Singles Online Without Spending a Dime
  • Now You Can Own a Cool Mac and Still Run Windows

These headlines are interesting because each one leverages two of Maslow’s needs.

For example, in the first headline, the writer is focusing on both the reader’s need for belonging and love and their need for financial security, a safety need.

In the second headline, the writer is focusing on both the reader’s esteem needs, which are met by having the newest “cool Mac,” but also their safety needs by relaying to them that they will not have to give up the security of running programs in Windows. Further, this headline uses “admiration” of the Apple brand and Mac products to create an emotional trigger.

The [something desirable] and [great circumstance] in the headline should be written to focus on differing needs, essentially widening your reader net.

3. Have a [or] Build a [blank] You can Be Proud Of

This template again comes from the linked article.

Some examples include:

  • Have a Smile You Can Be Proud Of
  • Build a Professional Network You Can Be Proud Of

This is another example of a headline hitting on multiple needs in one shot.

Having a great smile and being proud are both meeting the esteem needs we possess. However, the reader can go deeper than this initial trigger when they begin to think about their own “poor smile.” They begin to see how it is keeping them from reaching their belongingness needs, and if belongingness and esteem needs aren’t met, then obviously self-actualization is off the table. We also have another emotional trigger in these headlines. Specifically, the smile headline can produce fear and sadness over the current state of the reader’s “smile” and it can cause joy at the idea of having something to be proud of.

Other Winning Headline Tips

  • Understanding the psychology of the reader can get you pretty far in headline writing, but great headline writers just start there. Here are some other things great headline writers do:
  • Write multiple headlines: Write and write some more until you have a winner. Share them with colleagues and get feedback.
  • Use specific numbers in your headline: i.e., How to Make $9,790 in the next 30 days.
  • Use a quote or testimonial: Sometimes your customers relay the value of your product better than you do, because they understand the personal value more.
  • Ask questions: Specifically, this is great for articles written with a focus on organic search results.
  • Put a call to action in there: Don’t be afraid to make a command to your reader or create a sense of urgency.
  • Collect data: Repurpose your winning headlines and reuse their general structure.


The Onion built an entire publishing business around headlines. Advertising and sales copywriting greats have done the same. Great headline writing can truly separate the strong from the weak. A fantastic headline is a cornerstone to a successful content marketing campaign, and thus, it deserves that level of attention and thought. By implementing psychology and basic headline writing techniques, you can turn your blah headlines into WOW headlines.

For more information on headlines that make a strong impact on your readers, check out our eBook titled How to Create Effective Titles and Headlines.


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