Maslen on Marketing, Structural tools

How to make your headlines work harder

As we all know (we do, don’t we?), headlines are there to draw your reader into your body copy. The most effective way of doing that is to either promise or imply a benefit. Why? Because people act out of self-interest. The old, “What’s in it for me?” question again.

Trouble is, people are so darned cynical these days. You can’t blame them though. Decades of being subjected to spurious sales claims and rubbish attempts at wordplay by generations of hacks have left them about as trusting as turkeys at Christmas.

For every benefit there’s a reader saying, “well, you would say that, but what if…?”

And it’s the “what if?” question that lies behind the “What’s in it for me?” question, whispering poison into the reader’s ear.

“Oh sure,” it says. “They SAY you’ll lose weight. But you’ll probably have to eat wood shavings, or stewed grass for a month. Turn the page.”

“Save money? Yeah, right!” it snorts. “Lose it more likely. Let’s add this one to the spam pile.”

So a useful little technique when you’re writing a headline is to think about the reader’s objections, as well as their motivations. In other words, what’s stopping them reading on, rather than what would make them read on.

Suppose you were selling a weight loss plan to an affluent group of consumers you knew liked their First growth Bordeaux.

An OK headline would be

Lose weight now

But the What-ifster would be whispering, “you don’t really believe that do you? You know you’ll have to give up drinking”.

So how about

How Parisian women are losing 7lb in a fortnight without giving up their vin rouge

It’s longer, sure: 15 words as opposed to five. But it’s stronger because it overcomes the objection. There’s also a compelling narrative that helps the reader identify with the copy.

It’s also specific. It tells the reader how much weight she’ll shed and in what time. And “Parisian women” conjures up a picture of chic, svelte ladies in smart clothes – an aspirational image for the reader.

Look at your own headlines. Assuming you’ve stuffed them full of benefits, could they work even harder if you found a way to address an objection? Maybe to price? Or availability? Or practicality?

Take the example of one of those newsletters that gives quick overviews of the main points of half-a-dozen new management books each month. The reader might be wondering whether it’s really quick, or whether they will still be mired in page after page of management speak.

A so-so headline might read

Get the insights of the world’s best management thinkers every month

A better one would read

Get the insights of the world’s best management thinkers in just five minutes a month

Objection. Overcome.

And I’m telling you this because?

Writing headlines is where the really hard work gets done. From envelope messages to subject lines, headlines are what change readers into buyers.

Remember that your reader is likely to be sceptical at best and cynical at worst about claims made by advertising copy. So try to allay their fears with a subtle or bold answer to the “What if?” question.

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