How to use subheads to improve your copy

We form impressions quickly.

Like, really quickly.

Guess how long you’ve got before a website visitor decides whether to stay or go…

1 minute?

45 seconds?


No. No. And close, but no cigar.

Try under 15 seconds.

According to a ChartBear study, one in every three visitors spends less than 15 seconds reading articles they land on before clicking away.

Kind of a bum deal for us online biz owners, right?

You spend hours writing value-filled copy you know your readers will love. And all they’ll give you is 15 seconds?

Well, don’t drag your latest blog post draft to the trash can just yet. Because while this is a bummer of a fact, we don’t have to fall victim to the 15-second click-away.

There are plenty of reasons why readers will leave your page. But there’s only ONE reason why they’ll stay: they want more.

So our challenge becomes this:


How do you make readers hungry for more?


Well…you just experienced it. And if I did my job right, you won’t have even realized.

Because this is a sneaky little strategy.

And it involves a copywriting element called subheads.

Subheads are short phrases that act as mini-headlines within your copy. In this case, the subhead was “How do you make readers hungry for more?”

Subheads rouse curiosity and act as the literary next handful of Spicy Thai Kettle Chips
— where you just want one more…and then one more…and then, okay, just one more.

Subheads pique interest and keep readers moving from one paragraph to the next…to the next.


The #1 way to make readers bounce

“Thick copy” is the term I use for pieces that don’t utilize white space, or breathing room. You know the type — it’s just word after word, sentence after sentence, paragraph after never-ending paragraph.

When readers land on a web page with thick copy, they get intimidated. It’s not fun or easy to scroll through a web page full of smushed-up 10pt words.

It’s more like trudging across a lake of molasses. Sure, you can get through it if you force yourself. But why would you want to?
{ Read more: 5 Ways to Make Your Emails More Readable }
Subheads are the antidote to thick, molasses-y copy. They visually break up your page into short, interesting, manageable chunks.

They’re like stepping stones leading a reader across the lake.

By injecting compelling subheads, we give readers little jolts throughout the copy to keep them intrigued.

Subheads also give skimmers a way to see what’s in store. When your subheads promise a fulfilling read, readers will stick around rather than bounce.


6 ninja subhead tricks

When it comes to keeping eyeballs on your website for more than 15 seconds, subheads are your best friend.

Keep these best practices in mind to use ’em like a pro:



Nobody will buy the copy cow if you give away the milk for free. (That’s how the saying goes, right?)

Your subheads should give readers a tease — not the punchline.

Don’t simply summarize what the section is about. Weave a thread of mystery with your subhead. Make it enticing!

Above, I used a subhead of “The #1 Way to Make Readers Bounce” rather than “Dense Copy Makes Readers Bounce”. See the difference?

The first rouses curiosity to keep reading. The second already gives you the answer in the subhead itself. Why would you read more if you already know the answer?



Psych nerd fact: humans have fixed action patterns that subconsciously make us answer questions in our heads.

That’s what makes questions so effective to use in subheads — especially if the answer in a reader’s head is “I don’t know.”

My subhead “How do you make readers hungry for more?” made you ask, “yeah, how DO you make them hungry for more?” And to find the answer, you needed to keep reading.



Don’t make subheads an afterthought, haphazardly sprinkled after you’ve written your piece.

Make them part of the plot!

Plan your subheads early, when you’re writing your outline or first draft. This will help give your writing a robust shape and keep your messaging on track.



Each subhead must be different than what came before.

Don’t summarize what readers have already read, but present something new and intriguing to spark them to keep going.

If your subheads feel too stale or repetitive, readers are likely to click away.



Style your subheads in a different font and a larger size. Try ALL CAPS or a different color.

If your subheads don’t stand out, they can’t catch a reader’s eye. And if you can’t catch a reader’s eye, the subheads can’t do their job.



Above all, make sure your subheads are easy to understand. Don’t get fancy to the point that your subheads lose their meaning.

To quote advertising guru Victor Schwab, “Remember you are not creating a work of art. You are creating a work of business.”

Your litmus test? If you think your subheads could confuse a reader, it’s time to rephrase.

Subheads are a great way to give your writing structure. To keep reader interest. And to give scanners clues that they should stick around.

In short: they’re too good to not include in your next blog post!

Your mission — if you choose to accept it — is to include 3-5 subheads in your next post. Find the natural breaks in your copy and think of a tantalizing subhead to pique reader interest.

Trust me, once you go subhead, you never go back. 😉

join the convo

Do you regularly use subheads in your writing?

If so, what’s your process? Do you write the subheads first and then plan your piece around them? Or do you write your piece (sans subheads) and then add them where there are natural breaks?

What other tricks do you have for injecting copywriting catnip into your posts?

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© Whitney Ryan LLC

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