All of our lives we have been told by parents and teachers alike to never judge a book by its cover. And all of my life I thought this to be a fair lesson. Until I became a copywriter.
Suddenly that whole no-judgement thing went out the window. If I didn’t craft the perfect words I was threatened with disinterested viewers moving on to the next ad, email, blog, mobile banner or whatever form of media begged their attention.
And that’s if they made it past the headline.
The rest of the copy could be a linguistic masterpiece, surrounded by a beautiful design but if that headline didn’t hit home then all of our work was for nothing. That’s a lot of weight on my narrow shoulders. But it’s also why I love writing headlines.
Though they be little, they are fierce.
If writers love anything, it’s a challenge. With the average attention span of a human being about 8 seconds (less than a goldfish!), headlines have to be quick and spur emotion and action in mere nanoseconds. Impossible you say? Think about some of the most compelling headlines in history:
MEN WALK ON MOON
JFK IS DEAD
HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR
With barely 50 characters between all of them (including spaces!) these headlines said it all…and sold the crap out of their respective publications. Sure, someone labored over the copy that told the rest of the story; but as noted by New York Post editor Steve Dunleavy (publisher of Vincent Musetto’s famous homage to the headless), who knows if anyone would have bothered with something like Decapitated cerebellum in tavern of ill repute.
I know what you’re thinking: those were newspaper headlines.
Yes, those may have been written by journalists and not copywriters, but the goal for both is the same: sell, sell, sell. There’s a simple ingenuity of it all —which leads me to the second reason I love writing headlines.
You get to flex your creative muscles
Since headlines have to capture attention so quickly, they need to let the viewer know the benefit of taking the time away from their latte to keep reading whatever it is you have to say. And we all know how people can be about their java.
This can take some creativity. Unlike math problems, there isn’t just one way to “solve” a headline. As I mentioned above, headlines are the catalyst behind everything from campaigns to blog posts, and there are many different formulas for convincing a viewer to pick your content. A few of my favorite methods include:
ASKING A QUESTION
It has been nearly 25 years and Goodby Silverstein & Partnesr’ Got Milk? is still the ultimate Snowclone thanks to two words and one simple punctuation mark. Question headlines encourage your audience to stop and ponder your query, while also offering them an answer if they just keep reading.
APPEALING TO SELF INTEREST
We’ve all seen the headlines like “How to Have Flat Abs Fast” but have you ever wondered why these “how-to” headlines are so successful? They solve a problem, and who doesn’t love that? But before magazines loaded their covers with how-to promises, the great David Ogilvy used this method to combat European’s misconception that visiting America was a pricey venture. His How to Tour the U.S.A. for £35 a Week link to is still touted as one of his best-selling headlines of all time.
I love this method because it’s honest. If I don’t deliver on the how-to I’ve just lost my reader’s trust; but if I do I’ve gained a loyal follower. Mission accomplished.
INSPIRING A “WHAT THE…?”
Just like Musetto did so masterfully back in 1983 with his Headless Body in Topless Bar, I love headlines that demand a double take. They allow me to take content that may otherwise seem ordinary and turn it into a must-read. The secret to this; however, is to make sure there is something to back it up. A twisted headline is only as good as the copy that follows. If your readers feel duped once they get past your headline, you can kiss your trusted status goodbye.
Headlines may seem easy, but as Mr. Ogilvy once said:
On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have your headline written, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.
I don’t know about you, but I like my money well spent. If you also like getting the most bang for your buck, the team at VIRGEN can help.