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There are two huge mistakes people make when they write headlines. Either they are too bland and don’t say enough (such as when they attempt to simply summarize), or they say too much to cover all the bases.
In both cases, you will lose readers.1. The True Purpose of The Headline
The headline is more than a mere summary of the sales copy. Unlike the title of a book, for instance, it’s not meant to introduce the story. It’s meant to generate readership in the first place.
It’s the first thing that people see. Just like front-page headlines of a newspaper are meant to sell the paper, the copy’s headline is meant to sell people on the copy.
If a headline does not instantly give an indication of not only what the page is all about but also the reasons why people should read further the moment they read it, it will actually deter prospects.
In fact, headlines that do not communicate any benefit in reading the next paragraph or navigating the site will dissuade readers from going deeper, which is where sales are made.
So the true purpose of a headline is not to summarize or advertise the website, the salesletter, or the business behind it. It’s simply to get people to read further. That’s it.
In advertising parlance, a headline is the “ad for the ad.” For instance, a resume is not meant to land a job but to land an interview. A headline is, in the same way, meant to land the reader’s attention and arouse their curiosity — not the sale.
If a headline does not achieve this quickly, efficiently and effectively, people will simply click away, throw away the salesletter, or skim over it without giving it much thought.
You may have heard of the famous “AIDA Formula,” which stands for, in order: Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. Ads must follow this formula in order to be successful.
They must capture the reader’s attention, arouse their interest, increase their desire and lead them to take some kind of action.
Other than “grabbers” like graphics, pop-ups, liftnotes, multimedia, or “lumpy mail” (in direct mail marketing, it’s where trinkets are added to grab people’s attention), the first part of the formula often refers to the headline.
If the headline does not command enough attention (or does not command it effectively and, above all, rapidly), then the rest of the formula will fail — no matter how great your copy is.
Ultimately, the headline is not meant to do anything other than to create readership. To “grab people by the eyeballs” and pull them into the copy.
Period.2. The Gapper
Usually, there is a gap between the prospect’s problem and its solution (or a gap between where a person happens to be at the moment and the future enjoyment of a product’s benefits).
In sales, they call this “gap analysis.” It works because many prospects either do not know there is in fact a gap or, because it is one, try to ignore it as a result. Therefore, a headline that either communicates the presence of such a gap or implies it can cause people to want to close the gap.
And the obvious way to do this is to read further.
Using a headline that immediately conveys either a problem or a potential benefit not only makes the reader aware that there is a gap but also reinforces it in the mind. (And this doesn’t mean writing all the benefits in the headline to cover all the bases, as in the case of long, wordy headlines.)
Some headlines are newsy, others are sensational. Some make claims, others make statements. Some arouse curiosity, others provoke controversy. Some are intriguing, others are inspiring.
Either way, it doesn’t matter.
All that matters is that the headline gets the reader to start reading. And if you created, communicated, or, better yet, widened the gap mentioned earlier, then after reading the headline readers will want to know, by browsing further, how they can close that gap.
Widening the gap will not only appeal to those who can immediately relate to it but also cause those people to want to close the gap even more.
Famous sales trainer Zig Ziglar said that people buy on emotional logic. In other words, they buy on emotion first but justify their decision with logic. Therefore, emotionally-charged headlines also help to widen those gaps. The wider the gap is, the greater the desire to close it will be.
For instance, rather than saying “Lose 40 Pounds In Just 6 Weeks,” you can say, “Lose 40 Pounds Of Ugly Fat In Just 6 Weeks.”3. The Pain-Pleasure Principle
While your copy should focus on the solution rather than the problem, adding a negative (or a potentially negative) situation to the headline is often more effective because it appeals to stronger emotions and motives.
Granted, this might seem somewhat unusual or contrary to what you have learned in the past. So in order to understand this, let’s take a look at how human needs and emotions work.
In the late 1960s, psychologist Abraham Maslow developed the hierarchical theory of human needs. In essence, Maslow stated that the foundation of all human needs is our need to survive. The next one in that hierarchy is our need for safety and security.
After that, it’s social needs (e.g., the need for affection, to be loved, to feel a sense of belonging). The need for attention, to feel valuable or respected are esteem needs. And finally, at the top, is our need for self-actualization (i.e., to outdo ourselves, to get to the next level, to be all that we can be, etc).
A similar principle is called the “pain-pleasure principle.” In essence, it states that people want to either avoid pain or gain pleasure. In anything we do, we want to either move away from pain (i.e., solve a problem) or strive towards pleasure (i.e., gain an advantage).
But when given the choice between the two, the avoidance of pain is the stronger motive, because our need to survive and be safe takes over. The emotions attached to pain are far superior than those attached to pleasure.
So a headline that communicates a problem (i.e., a painful situation they feel right now, or a potentially painful one that could arise without the benefits of one’s offering or without at least reading the copy) will have more emotional impact than a pleasurable one.
It also instantly communicates to those who associate to its message and thus isolates the serious prospect from the curious visitor.
For example, when I work with plastic surgeons I tell them to use as a headline, “Suffering from wrinkles?” Prospective patients who can instantly relate to the headline will more than likely read the ad further.
They do so for two reasons.
First, the headline appeals to those who have wrinkles. But not all people who have wrinkles are bothered by them. That’s why the headline also appeals to those suffering from wrinkles (i.e., people who also want to do something about them).
Therefore, think of a negative situation that is now present, or one that will occur without your product or service.
Now, sometimes this pain can be implied. And the implication can often be a lot stronger than the one specified. (As a mentor once told me, “Implication is more powerful than specification.”)
For example, in a recent headline split-test for a salesletter I wrote that promoted a marriage counselling information product, the headline “Save My Marriage!” won over “Stop My Divorce!” by a huge margin.
My guess is, “Stop My Divorce” is a negative. But it’s specific. (And the implication is that the product may only stop the divorce but may not necessarily get the relationship back on track and stop the marriage from disintegrating — which is the true problem.)
“Save My Marriage!” implies so many things. And the positive benefit is also implied — the marriage (i.e., the love, the passion, the relationship, the happiness, etc) can also be saved. Because not saving those, too, can be labor-intense, painful, and too difficult to bear.
(Another reason may be that in “Stop My Divorce!” the divorce is imminent. If this was the case, people would probably be more interested in how to win in a divorce rather than stopping it. But I digress.)4. The Director
Incidentally, the last headline uses another readership-enhancing technique: It begins with a verb. In other words, it directs visitors and takes them by the hand. Other examples include headlines that begin with the words “claim,” “discover,” “find,” “get,” “read,” “see,” “earn,” “visit,” “surf,” “join,” “sign up,” etc.
But go a step beyond that. Don’t stick with mere verbs. Use action words that help paint vivid pictures in the mind. The more vivid the picture is, the more compelling the headline will be.
(For example, a headline like “zoom past the confusion” will be better than “discover how to do it right.”)
Ultimately, don’t let visitors guess what they must do or what they will get from reading further. You can also tell them in the headline. Also, you don’t need to be direct. You can, in this case as well, imply what they must do.
For example, if you’re selling an accounting software, rather than saying “Poor fiscal management leads to financial woes,” you can use “Don’t let poor fiscal management suck money right from your bottom-line.” People can picture the action of “sucking” more than they do “leading.”
Headlines that communicate something worth reading will cause people to surf deeper into your site (or read further into the letter). But the important thing to remember is, you only have a few seconds — if not a fraction of a second — to connect with you reader. That’s why being pithy is vitally important.
Think of an “elevator speech.”
Like with a person you’ve just met in an elevator, such as a potential client, you only have a few short seconds to make an impact until you or the other person finally leaves the elevator.
The important thing to note is that your elevator speech must be good enough and concise enough to capture, in just a few short moments, the attention of the person to whom you’re introducing.
Sometimes, headlines need a little push. Just making a bland statement is not going to get you anywhere. You need to compel your readers. You need to not only capture their attention but also keep it. You may even need to shock, be intriguing, pique their curiosity, even be sensational, and not just inform.
For example, think of the types of headlines you see in tabloid-style newspapers or grocery-line magazines, like National Enquirer, The Globe, Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, Men’s Health, and more.
Some of the highest paid copyeditors are often those working on the front-page headlines for these types of publications. If your paper had a story on Britney Spears’ latest divorce setllement, what headline would sell more:
“Inside Britney Spears’ Divorce Settlement With Kevin Federline”? Or, “Uncover The Shocking Reason Behind Britney Spears’ Divorce!”
How about this one: “Mediterranean Diet Boosts Metabolism”? Or, riding on the buzz created by the recent movie “300,” “Ancient Weightloss Diet Used By Greek Warriors Discovered!”5. The Ziegarnik Effect
In 1927, Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist’s assistant and one of the early contributors to Gestalt Psychology, found that people remember unfinished tasks better than they do finished ones.
She noticed something peculiar after observing waiters who seemed to remember orders and forget them once the food was served. In other words, the incomplete task created a certain tension, discomfort, or uneasiness that caused the brain to â€œhookâ€ onto the unfinished task until it was done.
You see, we have an intrinsic need for closure.
We get a certain feeling of disconcertedness when something is left unfinished. Often called the “Zeigarnik Effect,” we not only remember interrupted tasks best but also the tension tends to create curiosity to an almost excruciating level.
Achieving closure is part relief, part release. Until then, we either passionately attempt to complete something that’s incomplete, or feel a certain discomfort until it is and often go to great lengths to get it done.
In copywriting particularly, this tension can be created in a headline.
For example, to the headline “How to lose 30 pounds in 6 weeks,” you add “with these 7 tips,” it will push people to read further to find out what the heck those “7 tips” are. (That’s why the headline, “Do You Makes These Mistakes In English?” worked so well. People wanted to know, “What mistakes?”)
Let’s take a look at a headline I used earlier. With “Inside Britney Spears’ Divorce Settlement With Kevin Federline,” it doesn’t really open up anything. But, with “Uncover The Shocking Reason Behind Britney Spears’ Divorce,” people want to know, “what is that secret” or “what’s so shocking about it?”
In fact, making some kind of sensational, controversial, or intriguing statement, even though it doesn’t open anything up in a direct sense, creates tension because people want to know what it is.
(The “gap,” in this case, is implied.)
Take, for instance, “Lies, Lies, Lies.” “The Ugly Truth About Low-Carb Dieting.” Or, “What Doctors Don’t Want You To Know.” (Here’s a little test: take a look at these 100 of the most successful headlines, and see how many use the Zeigarnik effect. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.)6. The Window Shopper
Erroneously, many people often look at their prospects reading their salesletters for the first time as qualified patrons. And they tend to do so by considering their visitors as being “physically” inside the store once they read the front page — with headlines that begin with those hackneyed words “welcome to.”
(While they may or may not be targeted, they’re still not qualified. They may be pre-qualified if they’re targeted. But they’re only window shoppers at this point.)
Have you ever walked by a retail store whose sign in the main window said “welcome to [store name]“? Not likely. But you’ve probably seen such a sign upon entering a store.
And there’s the problem: In both cases, you had to walk inside the store first before you were welcomed and asked to browse further or if you needed any help.
When people read your headline, they’re not “inside the store,” yet. They’re still outside, thinking about whether to go in or not.
So there must be something that gets them interested in walking into the store to browse or inquire further.
It could be a variety of things. For example, it could be the showcase display in the window, possibly an outdoor sign touting some special, a banner announcing a special event, a sales flyer received in the mail, or a friend heralding the benefits from a product she bought at — or some special deal she received from — the store.
Salesletters are no different. A headline is like the store’s front window or entrance — people are not inside yet. And this is especially true in the case of online salesletters.
Look at the web as one, colossal shopping mall. When people surf the web, they’re browsing the mall. When they hit your site’s front page, they are only seeing the “outside” of your store.
Think of the people reading your headline as merely “window shopping.” So your headline must be effective and efficient enough to instantly capture their attention, and compel them to enter your store and browse further.
Understandably, a salesperson’s ability to instantly capture the attention of her busy and incredibly preoccupied prospect is easier in the physical realm.
Most of all, her enthusiasm for, and belief in, her product are easy to convey in person. Her ability to instill confidence and create trust, as well as her unique set of sales and people skills, product knowledge, personality and expertise, are equally advantageous.
A salesletter is your salesperson in print.
And like a salesperson, a headline must qualify the reader, and it must do so by communicating those ideas (e.g., credibility, intrigue, proof, etc) and emotions that empower people to at least enter the store.
The responsibility therefore rests almost entirely on the words one chooses. Those words can make all the difference. And words should appeal to specific motives — whether directly or indirectly.7. The Specific
One last tip.
Vagueness, unless it is intended to create curiosity and readership by pulling people into the copy, will only confuse people.
So try to be as specific as possible. Use very specific, quantifiable descriptions. For instance, use odd, non-rounded numbers instead of generalizations. Odd, non-rounded numbers are more credible and have pulled more than even or rounded numbers.
That’s why, for example, Ivory soap was marketed as being 99 and 44/100% pure. If Ivory said 100%, it would not have been as believable. “Amazing new system helped me earn $3,956.75 in 29 days!” is much more credible than “$4,000 in 1 month!”
This tip may sound simple, but it is indeed very powerful. In fact, I have found that the best claims, benefits, or even headlines, are those that have any one of three components:
Any one of the three is better than none. But if you can have two or even all three components, the stronger and more credible the impact will be.
I’ve covered “quantifiable.” But being measurable means to add a baseline against which the quantity can be compared or contrasted. And being time-bound means there is a specific timeframe the quantity (or benefit, problem, or idea) was achieved.
For instance, if I can show you how to make “$784.22,” it may mean nothing. But if I tell you, “How I generated $784.22 in just 5 minutes,” that would be a lot more interesting.
In conclusion, ask yourself: “Does the opening statement beg for attention? Does it arouse enough curiosity? And does it genuinely reflect and cater to the needs, motives and emotions of my target market?” Most importantly, “Is the language easy to understand, especially by that market?”
Michel Fortin is a direct response copywriter, author, speaker, consultant, and CEO of The Success Doctor, Inc. Visit his blog and signup free to get tested conversion strategies and response-boosting tips by email, along with blog updates, news, and more! Go now to https://www.michelfortin.com.