The big ‘headline’ first made front page news during the 19th century newspaper wars when papers everywhere were fighting for readers’ attention. You’ve seen it in old movies — the kid on the street corner hawking the newspaper by yelling out the day’s headline! We’re still hawking with headlines. But are they effective? And do the old rules still apply? To be effective, your headlines need to be HOT!

If you don’t pull ’em in with the headline, anything else you write won’t matter. 

Five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. That was true years ago and it’s still true. No one reads the body copy and ignores the headline. If you don’t pull ’em in with the headline, anything else you write won’t matter. The medium doesn’t matter either: online or print — whether it’s advertising, journalism, a magazine article, Social Media via Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. — the headline’s job never changes. Where the medium does matter is the sheer volume of headlines we’re exposed to via technology. To stand out, yours has to speak up louder and clearer than the street-corner kid. It must:

1. Grab attention.

2. Speak directly to the target audience.

3. Work as a complete message. Body copy is there only to flesh out the message.

A simple Google search hits the hot spots for a good headline

At its simplest, and strange as it might seem, a simple Google search hits the hot spots for a good headline. You want to know why your goldfish are dying in your backyard goldfish pond, so you type into the search engine: ‘Why are goldfish dying in my pond?’ It’s short, snappy, to the point. I’m not saying it’s a headline, but when agonizing over headlines, it helps to think of them in this way. My Google search about goldfish:

  1. Grabs attention: the attention of all websites on the subject.
  2. Speaks to a target audience: everyone who has something to say about dying goldfish (more on this below).
  3. Is a complete message: I want to know why my goldfish are dying.

I typed the goldfish question into Google and got 336,000 results — those results also illustrate the kind of competition we’re up against in advertising our brands today; thousands upon thousands of headlines with products, services or information vying for consumers’ attention. Now think about the search results; they work in much the same way as a headline.

A good search response, like a good headline, will reel me in and leave me happily fishing in a pond of information.

Results that are concise, descriptive and resonate with me, I’ll click on them. The ones that don’t, I’ll ignore: just like I’ll ignore a headline that doesn’t ‘move’ me. (An aside: all of this also illustrates the point of how important it is to get SEO right, so your website cuts through the clutter and rises to the top in search engine results.)

There’s a global glut of information out there and multiple mediums through which our advertising message can be delivered. So how do we cut through the clutter and get our message across in a way that’s hotter than everyone else’s with a similar product or service to sell? The old rules still apply …

  1. Make it short. How many words? you’re probably asking. “As many as needed,” David Ogilvy, the father of advertising, used to say. As many as needed is important: it doesn’t mean use a lot, it means exactly what it says: as many as needed to …
  2. Make it immediately compelling so that customers want to read more.
  3. Speak to the audience. Vitally important! A headline speaks to a target market, one you’ve researched thoroughly (hopefully!) before you ever start to think about headlines and body copy. It speaks to people who care about what you have to offer and that’s where your focus should be.
  4. Make sure your headline works with the visual(s). Think about ads you’ve seen. Look at a few critically after reading this. How often is the headline simply describing the visual? What a waste of space. If the visual is so weak you need to describe it, then you have a bigger issue.
  5. Understand catchy and clever! Sure, we remember catchy, clever headlines, but if we don’t remember the brand and what it’s selling, what’s the point?
  6. Humour can work, it can add personality, make a headline memorable, when used wisely and appropriately.

For small businesses without the backing of an agency skilled in creating great ad copy, it’s worth taking time to learn more about headlines, because dollars spent on advertising a truly great product using a truly ineffective headline are dollars wasted.

 10 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas that work

 100 Good Advertising Headlines

 The Formula for a Perfect Headline

Best recent headline you’ve read? Send it to me! #SharedWisdom