Marketing Bootcamp

11 Ways to Write Powerful Ad Headlines

11 Ways to Write Powerful Ad Headlines
Image credit: Izabela Habur
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The following excerpt is from Craig Simpson and Brian Kurtz’s book The Advertising Solution. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes

Now it’s time to look at what ad expert Eugene Schwartz had to say about headlines because it gives us an interesting perspective on what a good headline is all about. Schwartz told us that, in spite of what many of us may believe, “The headline does not sell.” That’s not its purpose. Its purpose is to capture attention.

As people read through their mail, you have only 10 seconds to catch their interest. During those ten seconds, people decide to either keep reading the piece or throw it away. The headline’s only purpose is to get people to read the rest of the piece. It doesn’t sell a product, confirm a point of view, argue for or against any position or say anything about the advertiser. It just has to get people to read the next paragraph.

Related: 17 Tips for Increasing the Selling Power of Your Ad Copy

With email, you can only count on about one-third the attention span, so it’s more important than ever to have a headline or subject line that grabs attention and entices the prospect to read on. How long should the headline be? There’s no universal length that will be right for every piece. The headline just has to be long enough to stop prospects from throwing the piece away and get them to read the next paragraph. As Schwartz told us: The headline sells the first line. The first line sells the second line. The second line sells the third line. And the third line sells the fourth line, etc.

You just want the reader to keep moving through your copy. Remember, your readers may not be ready to accept certain ideas until they’ve been prepared for it. You can say things in the middle of a piece that readers would never believe in a headline. As Schwartz said: If he’s prepared to believe, he’s prepared to buy.

Your job as a marketer is to build your argument so you make the right points at the right time. If you’re not using your headline to sell, what do you want to put in the headline? First, you want to include some kind of promise, and it’s especially strong if it’s connected to intrigue -- something people find personally fascinating, with a bit of mystery attached. Second, the mechanism of the headline is to capture an emotion. If readers are intrigued and their emotions are touched, they’ll keep reading.

How do you find your headline? The product itself gives it to you. You should be working from copious notes about your product, so go through your notes again and again until a picture begins to emerge of the problem the product addresses, how it resolves that problem and who your audience is. Schwartz used this method to come up with the following headline that sold huge numbers of books: Sneaky Little Arthritis Tricks, Natural Foods and Do-It-Yourself Secrets That Pain-Proofed Over 100 Men and Women Like You.

By studying Schwartz’s headline closely, all its brilliance will reveal itself to you:

  • It makes it clear who should be interested in reading more (anyone in pain, especially people with arthritis).
  • It promises a simple, inexpensive solution (using natural foods and do-it-yourself methods).
  • It implies that these “secrets” aren’t broadly known and that the reader will be let in on something special.
  • It promises that these secrets have successfully helped others just “like you.”

For people suffering from the pain of arthritis who may have tried everything they could get their hands on to no avail, this would certainly seem like something worth looking into further by reading the rest of the sales piece. If you follow up a headline like this with a dynamite first paragraph that strengthens the points in the headline and ends with a hook to the second paragraph, you’re well on your way to bringing in your prospect.

Related: 8 Tips for Producing Advertising That Sells

Here are some additional ways to create a dynamite headline:  

1. Rewrite a cliché for your purpose.

Using a cliché in a headline can be super effective because it uses language your prospect is used to hearing. For example, one cliché that’s been proven to be effective is a play on “What your mother never told you.” You can adapt this to “What your lawyer never told you,” “What your doctor never told you,” “What your accountant never told you” etc.

2. Add an element of tension.

This happens when parts of a headline look like they contradict each other. Here’s a successful example of adding tension to a headline once used for an estate-planning book: What your lawyer never told you when you made out your will.

3. Raise questions people want answers to.

Here are some examples of “fascinations” (i.e., bullet points with accompanying page numbers where buyers will find the answers in the book) from some of co-author Brian Kurtz’ most successful direct marketing packages:

  • How to know when a slot machine is about to pay off
  • How to outwit a mugger in a self-service elevator
  • What never to eat on an airplane

In addition to your main headline, you’ll probably have several lesser headlines and subheads strewn throughout your piece, especially if it’s a long letter, web page or email. Each of these subheads should follow the rules of the main headline, carrying forward the logic of your argument and tying one section of the piece to the next. How many should you have? There’s no firm rule. You need to put in as many as you need to make the piece work. As the piece develops, this will become clearer.

Related: 4 Tips for Crafting the Ideal Sales Letter

Here are more tips for writing effective headlines:

  • Specific information in headlines is more persuasive than gen­eralities. So give actual percentages or other figures when you can (e.g., not “Our Washers Get Clothes Cleaner” but “Our Washers Get Clothes 56% Cleaner”).
  • Headlines in quotation marks increase recall by 28 percent. Perhaps it draws attention or makes the headline seem author­itative.
  • If you’re advertising in a local area, put the name of the city in your headline. When people see they’ll be getting informa­tion on something local that could concern them, it gets their attention.
  • Appeal to the reader’s self-interest. This is the first and foremost task of a marketer. Give the reader a reason to look through the rest of the piece, open the email or click through to the website. This should seem obvious, but this rule is violated again and again.
  • Offer them something newsworthy. If you have something new to report -- a new product or a change in an old product -- make sure to put that fact in the headline.
  • Use people’s natural curiosity. Don’t merely try to provoke curiosity in a headline. Curiosity can be powerful, but only if it’s combined with self-interest and/or news. A headline that’s merely clever may please the copywriter, but it won’t capture readers’ attention.
  • Be positive. Wherever possible, avoid headlines that only present a gloomy or negative picture. If you need to lead with something negative, always add a positive angle.
  • Offer a quick and easy solution. Headlines that suggest there’s a quick and easy way for readers to get what they want can be very appealing.