FEATURED OCT 6 - WRITTEN BY Martin Liu

How To Write Great Headlines

Great Headlines

Headlines are so important I think they deserve an article to themselves. And they’re everywhere: subject lines, envelope messages, banner ads, landing pages, book titles, training course titles. Although most copywriters will tell you they find writing headlines the hardest part of any job, sometimes they just seem to arrive out of the ether. One of my own favourites in this category is from a subscriptions renewal letter I wrote for Top Gear magazine. The headline reads:

People who think dolphins are cleverer than McLaren engineers want to ruin your fun

Jeremy Clarkson

Presenter - Top Gear

The letter was signed by Jeremy Clarkson, the lead presenter for the Top Gear TV programme, who also has a monthly column in the magazine. It captures his trademark tone of voice and style and does, I think, contain a clear appeal to the reader’s self-interest. Namely, not having their enjoyment of cars spoiled by do-gooders. How long did it take me to write? There are three answers. One, about 15 seconds, the time it took me to type it out. Two, about five minutes, daydreaming about fast cars. Or three, 35 years, which was the time I’d spent watching Top Gear on the television and internalising the brand values of the show (and, latterly, the spin-off magazine).

How To Write Great Headlines

However, that was a rarity.

Most of the time, I’m like all the rest, sweating over headlines, finally coming up with a good one, then paralysed by fear that as I send it off to a client, maybe one of the rejects would have outperformed it. In the end you just have to step up to the plate and swing. It might work, it might not, but you can’t second-guess your list.

So let me ask you a question. What do you think is the purpose of the headline? Here are a few possible answers:

Though they would never admit it, many copywriters – both in-house and agency/freelance – are clearly motivated by a combination of a), b), f), g) and h). This type of writer frequently, though not always, works in an above-the-line role, where measuring results from specific executions or campaigns is difficult if not impossible. (But grinning broadly as they drive by a 96-sheet poster with their headline on it is effortless if not mandatory.) Writers working below-the-line, where everything is measurable (and testable) tend to opt for a combination of c), d) and e). (Though not always.)

Winning the battle for eyeballs

If you need to make money from your marketing campaigns, your headline is your first and biggest weapon in the battle for eyeballs. Get it right and you have a (temporarily) captive audience and the possibility of winning orders. Get it wrong and you have a funny picture for your office wall.

So where do we start? You can roughly divide headlines into three categories:

1. Those promising news.
2. Those arousing curiosity.
3. Those offering a benefit.

When Ogilvy & Mather tested headlines, they found that benefits out-pulled news, which out-pulled curiosity. A combination of all three was the most responsive of all. This is bad news for writers who favour headlines like this:

Have you discovered Acme toner cartridges yet?

But excellent news for writers who like lines like this:

Fighter pilots: how this everyday vegetable can help you see better at night

(Unfortunately, I’ll never use that one, but you get the idea!) This should be simple then. After all, you know your product inside out, don’t you? You know what it does for your customers. You know what makes it special and different. All you have to do is get all that across in a dozen or so words. Oh yes. That. That’s what makes writing good headlines so infernally hard.

In case of emergency, break glass

If you find yourself staring into space for more than ten minutes, it’s time for emergency action. You’re busy. You have too many other things to do to be just sitting there. Here’s a way to get something down on paper. It might not be your final line but it will free the wheels and let you get on with the rest of your copy.

E.g. My product helps my customers because it saves them money when they buy their next new car.

E.g. Saves them money when they buy their next new car.

E.g. NOW: an easy way to save money when you buy your next new car.

Not bad. Could be better of course. But this only takes a few minutes. And it will be better, much better, than 90% of the headlines you see around you every day.

Practical help

There are no fixed rules on the best format for headlines. But I’ve always found that ‘How to’ headlines work well a lot of the time. Openings like these:

  • How to save £35 a week on your family’s food bill
  • How to impress even the most sceptical ballroom dancing judge
  • How to win friends and influence people (oops – sorry, not one
    of mine!)

If you want to add a sense of newsiness, the simplest trick is to add NOW: at the beginning of any headline. And remember, FREE almost always works well in a headline. Don’t be shy in business-to-business (b2b) contexts either. Everyone likes getting free stuff.

Try to keep your headlines as short as you can. Under 16 words is good. Ten is better. (But there are also plenty of examples of control-pulverising headlines longer than either of those numbers.) Remember, you’re not trying to write the whole pitch, just enough to get your reader interested. And if you feel drawn to words like ‘communication’, ‘effective’ or ‘significantly’, try ‘talking’, ‘better’ or ‘much’ instead.

As a general rule, headlines should be on a single line, two at a pinch. If you really feel the need to keep going, use a subhead instead. Like this:

Order a trial pack of Wonder Mix today and save 99p

You could even add a lead-in that refers to your target, like this:

How to make the perfect sponge cake every time
Order a trial pack of Wonder Mix today and save 99p

How To Write Great Headlines that make money

Design and layout

Headlines look better set in a larger point size than your body copy. But don’t go mad. As a general rule for most print and online communications, your headline will tend to shout if it’s more than twice the point size of your body copy. (Of course, you may want it to shout.) And don’t use ALL CAPS: it makes it harder to read quickly and forces your reader to decode it letter by letter. I think a simple sentence case looks best; initial caps force the reader’s eye to jump up and down as each new word starts (though there’s evidence that initial caps also work well).

Finally, never use full stops at the end of your headlines. They say ‘stop’ and you don’t want your reader to stop, you want them to keep reading. The absence of a full stop implies that the sentence hasn’t finished yet and they will keep reading till they find one. Look at a newspaper and see if you can find a headline with a full stop.

A few ideas to keep you going

Compare value with price

Want a CEO lifestyle on a part-time salary?

Use storytelling or editorial techniques

Break the price down into manageable chunks

Feature the discount

Provide practical information

Style your headline as a quotation or testimonial

Ask your reader a question

Come in half-way through a sentence

Because there’s more to driving than miles per gallon.

Some of the above ideas are my own; others I have adapted from other copywriters, including the excellent John Caples’ book, Tested Advertising Methods. If you don’t already own a copy, buy one. You won’t be disappointed.

Summary

Headlines are too important to waste on lame puns or bogus ‘Ooh! That’s intriguing’ teasers. This goes double online, when people are even more impatient. If you do nothing else with your next headline, spell out your main benefit. And remember, if your reader can say ‘so what?’, it’s not a benefit.

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