By Consumer Dummies

A headline is a print ad’s major introductory statement. It’s the large-type sentence or question that aims to stop readers in their tracks, target the right prospects, and pull them inside the ad to read more.

Four out of every five people who see your ad will read only the headline. Here’s where they go:

  • One reader sees your headline and moves on because he doesn’t have time to study the details at the moment.
  • A second reader sees the headline and rules herself out as a prospective customer because she doesn’t want or need your product or service or because she can’t afford what you’re offering at this time.
  • A third one finds your headline all that’s needed to reinforce an existing (hopefully positive) opinion.
  • A fourth one (should you be so lucky) finds the headline powerful enough to trigger the desired consumer action.
  • A fifth one is stopped by your headline and inspired to dive into the ad copy to find out more. Oh lucky day!

Knowing the attributes of a good headline

Your headline has to pack marketing power. It’s your only chance to communicate with 80 percent of your prospects, and it’s your hook for baiting the other 20 percent into your ad. If a headline doesn’t grab and inspire, your body copy doesn’t stand a chance. Here’s what your headline needs to do:

  • Flag your prospect’s attention by saying, in essence, “Stop! This message concerns you.”
  • Appeal to your target prospect individually and immediately.
  • Promote an answer or solution to a problem.
  • Convey a meaningful benefit.
  • Advance your brand image.

As if the preceding weren’t already a heavy load, the headline has to accomplish those things in words that people can read and grasp in five seconds. But even within that limitation, you have some creative elbowroom:

  • Headlines can be short or long, as long as they’re irresistibly compelling.
  • They can sit at the top, in the middle, or along the bottom of the page.
  • They can be a single word, a phrase, a complete sentence, or a question.

Crafting your headline

Whether you write your headlines yourself or call on the talents of a professional copywriter or advertising agency, follow these tips:

  • Lead with your most powerful point. Too many ads use a clever come-on for a headline and then divulge the benefit somewhere toward the end of the copy, where few people see it. Flip the sequence. Create a headline that conveys a benefit or asks a question that’ll stop people in their tracks. Then use your copy to fulfill the interest you pique.
  • Turn features into benefits. If you say that your product works at double the speed of competing products, you’ve stated a feature. If you say that the consumer can save the equivalent of two days of vacation, you’ve stated a benefit. If you add that the extra vacation days are a free bonus with every purchase, you’ve fuel-injected the message.
  • Make your headline easy to read at a glance. Choose very legible typeface and think twice before using all capital letters, which are harder to read and, as a result, easier to overlook.
  • Don’t end your headline with a period. The last thing you want is to encourage the reader to stop at the end of the headline.
  • Be believable. An old line about advertising goes, If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Beyond that, media ad departments screen ads and reject ones that advance deceptive messages.

Adding power to your headline language

As you take a critical look at the language you use to develop your headlines, consider the following advice:

  • Positive statements carry power. Figure out the pain your customers want to eliminate and use your headline to promote a solution. For example, if your customers want to save time, tell how your product allows them to work less. Offer an answer to their nagging problems.
  • Use compelling language. After you settle on a headline, see whether you can push more impact into the words. For example, if your headline says stomach, ask yourself whether guts would pack more punch.
  • Find words that prompt mental images. Instead of saying reduce fear, paint a picture by saying something like eliminate white knuckles.
  • Replace technical terms with words that most people understand. Keep your headline simple, clear, and free of jargon.
  • Use the word you. It’s the most magnetic word in advertising. Every time you get ready to write we, turn the spotlight to the consumer by using you.
  • Tell how. People are attracted to the feeling of interaction conveyed by the word how. Write a headline that includes how to … or how you … to draw prospects into your ad copy.
  • Use power words. A widely cited study by the psychology department at Yale University found that the most powerful English words include you, results, health, guarantee, discover, love, proven, safety, save, and new.