Having discussed the key elements of a powerful headline in a previous post, let’s drill down and look at the nuts and bolts of how to go about wording effective headlines.

We can begin by considering four tips which can be applied to most types of headlines:

  1. Save the key phrase (or word) that brings the idea to life to the end of the headline, in a similar way to the build-up to the punch-line of a joke. This can work very effectively in two-sentence headlines (see the Timberland example below).
  2. Can you take a common saying, proverb, quotation or catch-line and put an interesting twist on it, so that it emphasises your proposition? For example, ‘More haste less speed’ into ‘Less waste, more speed’. Just remember, the headline must always focus attention on your single-minded proposition, and not just use witty word play for its own sake.
  3. Similarly, could you turn the saying into its opposite? For example, the famous VW Beetle headline “Think Small”, or turning the song title ‘Scream if you want to go faster’ into ‘Scream if you want to go slower’.
  4. Can you phrase the headline in the form of an interesting and relevant question, in order to draw in your target audience? For example the famous headline for The Economist: “Would you like to sit next to you at dinner?”

Next, let’s consider three additional tips for direct response headlines, ie those scenarios where you want your reader to undertake a specific action after engaging with your communication:

  1. Powerful action words can work well in direct response headlines – for example: unlock, discover, double. Be careful not to overdo the use of imperatives (ie commands) though, otherwise your approach can come across as the clichéd ‘hard-sell’.
  2. Direct response headlines should also incorporate web-optimised keywords wherever possible (particularly in digital media) – but do not write your headline purely from a keyword perspective. It’s far better to write the most powerful headline you can, and only then see if you can add in keywords without compromising the impact.
  3. Try not to include negatives (eg ‘no’, ‘none’, not’) in direct response headlines – people often read negatives as positives. This may be because the negative ‘no’ or ‘not’ doesn’t stand out well, especially in a headline, or because the brain instinctively links the two concepts together, regardless of any negative connectors.

Finally, lets consider the length of your headlines:

  1. You should aim to make the headline as brief as you can – are you able to remove words to make it shorter and more immediate without removing any meaning? In a longer headline every single word must still work extremely hard to justify its inclusion.
  2. However, never make your headline so brief that it becomes vague or no longer fully encapsulates the meaning you want to convey.
  3. Bear in mind that a strong image can facilitate a more succinct headline, as the image will help convey part of the message.
  4. Consider splitting longer headlines into two short sentences, with each part playing off against the other (as in the Timberland example below). This technique can create contrast or tension between the two sentences, which can heighten the drama of the headline.

What about longer headlines? In well-targeted direct communications (particularly for high-involvement purchases), longer headlines can often be more successful in selling. This is because they can appeal more precisely to the target audience, who are already in the ‘interest’ stage of the AIDCA buying process, and are therefore more receptive to engaging with relevant communications. You just need to make it very clear exactly who you are appealing to, as no proposition will appeal to everyone at the same time.

In addition to direct marketing communications, longer headlines can also work well to boost impact in ‘awareness’ advertising, as in the following Timberland example:

In this Timberland ad, the two-sentence headline occupies nearly half of the ad space – yet the bold typeface and strong contrast against the background ensure it is just as impactful as a shorter headline. Notice how splitting the headline into two short sentences makes it easier to read, as well as giving it an interesting rhythm and symmetry. In this example the benefit comes first, followed by the ‘punch line’.

I hope these tips have provided you with some food for thought – do you have any additional tips which you use when writing your own headlines?

If you’re interested in exploring this area in more detail (together with relevant examples), you might like my recent book ‘Successful Marketing Communications’.  If you have any thoughts or comments, do drop me a line below.

Written by Rob H

I’m a Chartered Marketer with over 20 years’ experience working in digital and offline marketing communications across the financial services, leisure, education and technology sectors – most recently working for a large financial services organisation, managing the acquisition marketing communications team. I gained an MSc in Strategic Marketing from Cranfield Business School in 2005 and the CIM Diploma in Digital Marketing in 2012. In 2012 I became the part-time course tutor at the Cambridge Marketing College for the CIM diploma in ‘Principles of Mobile Marketing’ – also authoring the accompanying Mobile Marketing study materials for the college. In March 2017 I published ‘Successful Marketing Communications‘ (available on Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks), which has become recommended reading for delegates at the IDM (Institute of Direct Marketing). When I’m not knee-deeping in reading/ writing the latest marketing communications articles I enjoy outdoor swimming and anything involving snow – with my goal for next year being to combine the two…

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