In his legendary 1932 book, Tested Advertising Methods, author John Caples says, “If the headline of an advertisement is poor, the best copywriters in the world can't write copy that will sell the goods. They haven't a chance. Because if the headline is poor, the copy will not be read.”
Studies in print and online advertising confirm that readers respond to an advertisement more because of the headline than any other element in the ad, including the design. No matter how flashy the images or compelling the body copy, headlines are the real workhorse of marketing and publicity. Some copywriters have been able to increase response by up to 400 percent simply by tinkering with a headline. Rarely can this be accomplished by rewriting the body copy or altering the visual.
And headlines are not just found in advertisements. These powerful devices are used in just about every type of promotional piece, including press releases, Web pages, e-mails, sales letters, postcards, brochures, and many others.
Your ability to write an effective headline, one that stops the reader in her tracks and gets her to read or at least scan the promotion, will have a lot to do with defining your success as a copywriter. So when you sit down to write a headline, make it a good one!
What is a headline? That may sound like a no-brainer of a question. A headline is that big block of text you see in an advertisement or on a Web page. However, headlines can also include:
Secondary headlines. Smaller headlines placed above, below, or beside the main headline
Subheads. Used to break up or organize the body copy
Subject lines. In e-mail campaigns
Section headers. In longer promotional pieces, such as catalogs or Web sites
Stoppers. Headlines positioned in unexpected places on the page to gain attention
Headline Writing Basics
How do you craft a winning headline? Fortunately, there are tried and true approaches to writing highly effective headlines that you can follow. You don't have to just sit there and wait for inspiration to strike.
There are two general types of headlines used most often in promotional pieces.
A teaser headline tries to do what its name suggests: tease you into reading the piece. A teaser headline can be a fun play on words, a joke, a puzzle, a curious statement, a witty remark, a riddle, or some other bit of creative inspiration.
An ad for an exotic and very expensive luxury car had this teaser headline:
No, we don't offer mortgages
The idea behind the ad was that the company was offering 1 percent financing on their luxury automobiles, which are priced at over $150,000. You don't discover this benefit until you read the body copy. The writer of this ad was hoping that you, the reader, would become so intrigued and curious to decipher the meaning of the headline that you just wouldn't be able to help yourself.
Do teaser headlines work? They do — sometimes. But it's a gamble. If the headline doesn't captivate the reader sufficiently, she won't bother to read the rest of the ad; therefore, she won't get even a gist of what the benefit of the product or service being promoted is all about. Teaser headlines often do not contain even a hint of the key benefit or information concerning the offer.
That's why a benefit-oriented headline is a lot less risky. It implies or expresses a benefit to the reader. In just a few choice words, it says loud and clear what the main benefit or offer is. So if you were to rewrite the above luxury car ad using the benefit-oriented headline approach, you might try this:
Now You Can Stop Just Dreaming About It!
1% Financing On All Models Until The End Of The Month
The headline in the second example may not seem as clever as the first. However, it certainly is more strategic. Benefit-oriented headlines stand a much greater chance of gaining reader attention. And even if the body copy of the ad is not read, the reader can still get the gist of the main sales message.
Headline Idea Generator
Here is a list of effective headline writing techniques.
Technique: Use the words how to
Example: How to save a bundle on your UPS imports. And save YOU a lot of work!
Technique: Use a customer testimonial
Example: “After over half a million hours of air using AVBLEND, we've had no premature camshaft failures.”
Technique: Put the offer in the headline
Example: Try Rogers Digital TV — One month free
Technique: List the reasons why
Example: Three good reasons why you should order the NEW 2007 Thomas
Technique: Offer a free gift
Example: Let's trade. Send us your business card and we will send you a sleeve of PRECEPT extra distance golf balls
Technique: Provide helpful advice
Example: 5 Proven Ways to Prevent the Onset of a Migraine
Technique: Give away free information
Example: FREE report: What other ASPs don't want you to know
Technique: Make an invitation
Example: You're invited to spend the evening with the most influential decision-makers in the software industry today
Technique: Use the word discover
Example: Discover a powerful and affordable desktop surfacing solution that works entirely within AutoCAD
Technique: Use the words last chance
Example: Last chance to introduce PaperPort to your OmniPage Pro OCE Software at reduced pricing
Technique: Make a seemingly outrageous claim
Example: Holds wood together better than wood does
Technique: Paint a picture of the benefit
Example: Can you picture your employee's faces when they see how smoothly their move went?
Technique: Simply state what the product or service is
Example: Surgical tables rebuilt. Free loaners available.
Technique: Mention an award
Example: Awarded the best lens by OptiMed Magazine
Technique: Quote a glowing review
Example: Voted #1 Family Minivan of the Year by Family Travels Magazine
Technique: Quote an expert endorsement
Example: “I recommend Silk Skin MDM to all my patients with problem rosacia.”
Technique: Put a great price or discount in the headline
Example: Subscribe to CB Business today and save 76% off the cover price.
That's less than the cost of a café latte!
Technique: Use the word announcing
Example: Announcing a new way to deliver flowers without water
Technique: Turn a perceived negative into a positive
Example: Buckley's Mixture tastes awful. But it works.
Technique: Ask a thought-provoking question
Example: If your e-commerce orders double, could your infrastructure handle it?
Technique: Differentiate from the competition
Example: You've never seen an 80kA surge protector this small
Technique: Agitate the problem
Example: So, you have to pick up the kids, make dinner, help with homework, and get your presentation done by tomorrow…
Technique: Say you're number one
Example: Presenter's #1 free-space mouse
Technique: Make a big promise
Example: Double your folding carton production uptime with Velocity
Technique: Ask if they need it
Example: Need a simple way to handle product returns?
Technique: Tell them what you're looking for
Example: We're looking for a few good distributors
Technique: Promise to turn a dream into reality
Example: We turn good writers into published authors!
When brainstorming headlines, create a list of as many candidates as possible. Don't worry if some are obviously not good. You'd be surprised how often a seemingly bad headline idea can be tweaked into something great. Once you have your list, circle those that have the greatest potential. Then whittle that shortlist to the top three. When you finally pick the winner, don't discard the rest of the list! You might need it again to revise the ad or create a new one, or put it in your swipe file of headline ideas.