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Discover the secret to a killer headline

As a copywriter, I’m incredibly lucky that I rarely get writer’s block. But when I do, it always strikes when I’m preparing a headline. And in a world where readers have access to so much content, the headline is undoubtedly the most important sentence of any communication. It’s the calling card, the bit that should cry out ‘read me!’ to anyone who stumbles across it.

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“On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” David Ogilvy (AKA ‘the father of advertising’)

Despite many fellow bloggers claims to the contrary, I don’t believe that there is a perfect formula for writing a headline. I’ve read various pieces of advice, ranging from the sensible (“It should be 65 characters or less“: makes sense, so that it doesn’t get cut off in search results) to the downright peculiar (“It should be 6 words. No more, no less“: err, why??). In fact, the most repeated tip to headline-writing success is to produce a numbered list (“7 tips to guarantee results” or “5 ways to make your money work“). Whilst I’m definitely a fan of a numbered list, they are becoming increasingly common, and isn’t it boring when everything is done in the same way? Are there any other tricks you can deploy to get your headline noticed? My tip to a killer headline is much more simple, and allows for much more creativity from the writer. Write a headline that promises the reader something that they want. Whether you’re offering up advice on buying a second hand car, where to find the best savings account or even how to write effective headlines(!), your audience needs to read that short sentence of bold copy at the top of the page and feel compelled to read on. So how can we achieve this?

  • Be urgent. Compel the reader to take notice. For example “Why you must do X today”, or “Act now to avoid Y”
  • Speak directly to your audience. Ask them a question, that they feel can be answered by reading your content. For example, “Why do your customers prefer X?” or “What is Y, and why do you need it for your business?”
  • Take risks. Use strong adjectives that you wouldn’t usually use and really grab the attention of your audience. For example, “7 tips to marketing success” becomes “7 amazing secrets, guaranteed to help your marketing succeed”
  • Have fun. Some of the best headlines I’ve seen have been the ones that make me giggle. OK, I work in financial marketing specifically, so there’s not massive scope for that here, but sometimes you can use a play on words to create a catchy heading. For example, Walker Crips’ Stockbrokers once introduced their new ‘flavour’ in a headline for a product press release.

Essentially, a headline can make or break a campaign and if you’re not already spending at least half your copywriting time thinking about how to word it, you’re probably not doing enough. That said, it’s not the ‘be all and end all’, and if your content doesn’t match the expectations set out by your headline, you’re not going to engage your audience.

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