As any advertising copy writer, newspaper or magazine editor, will tell you, the key to grabbing someone’s attention lies in the headline.
A good cover line on a magazine, or headline on the front page of a newspaper, can persuade someone to buy a copy, similarly a good advertising headline can persuade someone to read the rest of the ad copy and perhaps become a customer.
The first thing to note about headlines is that they should be short and to the point, indeed the shorter the better, look at how tabloid newspapers reduce headlines down to a punchy two or three words. Good advertising headlines are exactly the same, short and punchy. Longer six or seven word headlines can be used frequently within the main copy of the article or advert and are used to help readers get the main idea of what you are talking about without the reader having to spend a lot of time reading the smaller print.
In the online world headlines are just as important, they are used in web page titles, in search engine listings, on the subject line of an e-mail, and of course within e-mail newsletters and web pages, as well as banner adverts. Once again advertising headlines and editorial headlines are extremely important because they help people avoid spending a lot of extra time online because they encapsulate the main message of the text. If you want to learn more about the selling power of good headlines and good copywriting then check out that much praised work on online copywriting, Ken Evoy’s “Make your words sell”
What makes a good headline?
To write good headlines, whether for advertising or editorial copy, we need to understand how headlines are structured, and how different types of headline can be used for different purposes. We can group editorial and advertising headlines into several different categories. Thus a hard-sell e-mail letter might have a headline in all capitals on both the subject line and at the beginning of the text:
WIN A FREE HOLIDAY
A headline can be softer and less obvious, more like short paragraph at the beginning of your main text, but displayed in bold:
Enter our prize draw today and you too could be jetting away to a free holiday in sunny Spain
Another ploy designed to get your reader’s attention is to appeal to his interests, beliefs, or emotions. Use your advertising headline to point out a problem the reader has or something you know he feels passionately about.
Would you like to earn a lot more money?
Advertising research has also shown that responses to a headline are higher if that headline is enclosed in quotation marks, it gives the advertising headline a personal touch. However, do not overuse this technique.
“I can help you reduce your printing bills”
For classified ads you should consider using a very simple three word headline, remember that the classification under which it is placed will have primed the reader about the subject matter of the ads in that section, so do not repeat the classification in the headline.
Cheap in Harrow
Could be the headline for a classified advert for a business selling computers in the London borough of Harrow, the classification is computer hardware for sale, and the headline informs the reader that the company is offering cheap products and also tells the reader where they are located.
The wording of headlines
As equally important as the format of an advertising headline is the wording of the headline, and here headline writers have over the years developed a number of formulas, all of which work well either in an editorial context or an advertising context. We can summarise these formulas as follows:
News always makes a good advertising headline, and this is probably because we are all familiar with news headlines and thus react favourably to this type of wording, even when it is associated with an advertising message, for example:
Report finds 60% of UK population are now online
This sort of advertising headline, particularly when it is followed by some further explanatory text can make an excellent attention grabber for either an advert or a piece of editorial copy.
Another popular type of advertising or editorial headline involves asking a question, this works simply because anyone reading a question will automatically try to answer that question in their mind. A question arouses the curiosity of the reader and thus automatically gets them involved with the message and makes them want to find out the answer to it, for example:
Why do blonds have more fun?
With a question like this you can make the reader read all the rest of the text in order to find out why, and in so doing put over a sales message or any other point which you wish to make.
A popular type of advertising or editorial headline in certain categories of magazines, as well as in adverts, is one that starts which starts with the words “How to…”. This type of headline works very well for articles or adverts which offer to provide the reader with information, thus if you were selling a book or an e-zine on making money from a web site you could use the following headline:
How to make money from your web site
This type of editorial headline shows that you are promising to provide the reader with useful information, and people love information which shows them how to do something profitable.
We now come to a group of three types of headline which are almost exclusively used in advertising.
The first is the well known “FREE” offer headline, it may be widely used but it is never the less a highly effective way to generate lots of interested prospects. The opportunity to get something for nothing will always attract potential customers, the only thing you need to watch is how you word such an offer. The headline:
Will work for virtually everyone, but if you are aiming at professional or more affluent customers then it is probably better to soften the headline by dropping the word FREE and replacing it with words such as: “complementary”, “no-cost” or “bonus”.
A similar type of headline is the special offer with a deadline, a headline which is designed to first entice the prospect with the offer and then persuade them to do something about it immediately, such as:
20% off air fares to Spain if booked today
This hopefully will prompt potential customers to take action straight away and not take the usual course of action which is to put it off doing anything until later.
The testimonial is another popular type of advertising headline which aims to use the recommendation of a satisfied customer to persuade others to buy the product. It is a technique much loved by washing powder ads but none the less worth trying for any product or service, for example:
“WebpositionGold increased my web site traffic by 500%” says John Marlow of Birmingham
Note the combination of a quotation and the full name and location of the person making the recommendation.
When writing advertising or editorial headlines there are other points which should always be born in mind, the first of these is that people today have little time, we are bombarded with thousands of sales messages every day and if a headline does not grab our attention then most of us will not waste time reading the rest of the text. We want messages which are simple and easy to understand.
For this reason it is a good idea to use a sequence of editorial headlines to break up stretches of text, headlines that allow the reader to quickly scan down the article or advert and come to a quick conclusion about exactly what you are saying or offering. If they think you have something interesting to say, then they will take time to read the rest of the text.
For similar reasons you should cut out all unnecessary words from both advertising and editorial headlines. Avoid listing all the main features of the product or service you are offering, instead headline the benefits that can arise from the product or service’s main features. And to motivate the prospect use plenty of action words in your headlines, words such as: do, save, make, get, etc.
Finally study the advertising and editorial headlines written by other people, look at what they are doing right, and try and work out if they are doing anything wrong. Take time over writing your own headlines, be critical, and if in doubt rewrite.