Maslen on Marketing, Structural tools

How to write the perfect headline every time: part one

In previous issues of MoM I have looked at the copy right at the end of the pitch – order forms and calls to action. This month, I thought I’d turn to the beginning. The headline. Now, let me ask you a question.

What do you think is the purpose of the headline?

Here are a few answers from my case notes:

a) to demonstrate to the reader how clever I am
b) to indulge my taste for wordplay and ‘humour’
c) to stop the reader from turning the page
d) to make the reader want to read the body copy
e) to encapsulate my sales pitch in ten words or less
f) to fit in with the picture I have chosen
g) to allow me to use the same tired old cliché as our competitors
h) to raise brand awareness

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.)

Ingredients list

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 and Mather tested headlines, they found that benefits outpulled news, which outpulled curiosity. A combination of all three was the most responsive of all.

This is bad news for writers who favour headlines like this:

Why are copywriters like apricots?

(Reader: “I don’t know and I don’t care.”)

But excellent news for writers who like lines like this:

New from Sunfish: copywriting with results guaranteed

(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 around ten to 15 words. Oh yes. That. That’s what makes writing good headlines so infernally hard.

Four steps to a good headline

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.

Step one: Complete this sentence: My product helps my customers because it…
Eg My product helps my customers because it saves them money when they buy their next new car.

Step two: Cut everything up to and including ‘it’.
Eg Saves them money when they buy their next new car.

Step three: change ‘them’ and ‘they’ to ‘you’ (and tweak the rest as necessary)
Eg Save money when you buy your next new car.

Step four: Add ‘NOW: an easy way to’ at the beginning.
Eg 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.

Next month, more tips for better headlines.

This month’s message

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.


[Readability statistics]

Sentences per paragraph     2.2
Words per sentence             11.2
Characters per word             4.3
Passive sentences                2%
Flesch Readability Score      72.3
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level  5.9

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