Improve Headlines for Better Results

Headlines must capture attention. That’s Mission No. 1. Mission No. 2 is to build interest and convey benefits. Some classic principles of copywriting apply. So do the usual weasel-ish exceptions. For example:

Rule: Short headlines are better than long ones.

Exception: Except where longer ones have more impact.

Rule: Sell the sizzle, not the steak (benefits over features).

Exception: Some features sell themselves to an extent, such as anti-lock brakes.

Let’s look at headlines from random magazine ads and see how they work well or can be improved. For good measure, we’ll envision a direct response component.

Crest Whitestrips. Crest Whitestrips brighten your teeth. Their ad says, “Whiten while you work.”

It’s perfect. The benefit is delivered with consummate economy. Because the line is alliterative, it’s memorable. The body copy tells you that all you need do is wear the strip 30 minutes twice a day, adding to the convenience factor.

But why not send your customers to the Web site for self-printed coupons and to capture database information? Nah, that would imply a response orientation, and these ads are created by pure brand-building agencies. So it never occurs to them. But still, let’s credit Whitestrips with a winning headline.

Eukanuba’s word-strangled pooch. Now let’s check out a dog. Eukanuba-brand dog food shows a cute puppy. Current headline: “What an adorable bundle of vital organs that needs to be nourished one cell at a time.”

Improved head: “Nourish your pooch one cell at a time.”

“Sometimes, shorter is better,” as my old friend Les Izmore likes to say.

The current response angle is a buried copy line: “To find out more, call 1-888-Eukanuba.” This could be changed to: “Ask for a copy of Puppy Health Guide, a booklet containing 24 little-known ways to help your dog live longer.”

Betty Crocker’s Snackin’ Cake. One way to add involvement to a headline is to reformulate a thought as a question. Here’s an example, starting with a current Betty Crocker ad for Snackin’ Cake. Current headline: “Introducing the chock-full-of-chunks ooey gooey never been so easy to make snack.”

Let’s reformulate that into a question: Can you say “Ooey gooey chock-full-of-nuts easy-to-make-snack”?

And to add a response component, give away coupons and build the database, let’s add: “Call 1-800-XXX-XXXX and give us your version. If it’s cool, you’ll be eligible to win some cool prizes!”

Yes, I’ve gone beyond rewriting and have reconstructed the offer. The idea is to make a game of it, all in keeping with a fun, impulsive product.

Callers can record their voices, which can be auto-responded to with comments like, “Hey, sounds offbeat, but we like it! Would you like to be eligible to win an X and receive a free recipe booklet?” Of course, a similar offer can be put up on the Web.

Here are some more ideas for writing powerful headlines:

o Write many and choose the best. From the multitude come the chosen. If you have many to play with and sift and weigh, you’re ahead of the game.

o Work different themes and approaches. If you simply do variations on a word or phrase such as “Give yourself …” or “Now is the time to …” or any key phrase or emotion, your chance of hitting on a winner are reduced. Mine different fields at first. Then, only once you have identified a rich theme, should you spend time on noodling and fine-tuning.

o Look for attention-generating power. Remember that the challenge involves far more than crafting a message tuned to your product’s benefits. First, you must capture their attention.

o Economize on words. This does not mean that long headlines are ipso facto worse than shorter ones. It simply means that any headline may be played with and cut until you know for sure that further cuts will diminish its effect.

o Bounce ideas and headlines off colleagues and others. We tend to get too close to our precious ideas and our pet avenues of thought. Ask people you trust to help you select among several good headlines and determine what is working well (or not) in each.

Some great headlines are crafted with loving care and great, painstaking work. Others arrive in a Eureka-like flash. Find the methods that work for you. All that matters is how the marketplace responds to your work. And that is the beauty of direct response.

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