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How to Write Effective Headlines

Copywriting Tips for Designers and Non-Writers

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The job of the headline is to get attention. A good headline makes the reader want to find out more by reading the article, brochure, or ad. To help your headline do this, try one of these techniques:
  • Create curiosity
  • Promise answers to a question or solutions to a problem
  • Include a key benefit

Have fun with it
You can create curiosity by asking a provocative question or making a seemingly outrageous statement. Word play, alliteration, or take-offs on familiar phrases or cliches can create some eye-catching and often amusing headlines. However, avoid ambiguoity or at least use eyebrows, subheads, or decks (smaller headlines above or below the main headline) to clarify or explain. If your reader has to guess at what you mean or at what the article or ad is all about, they'll be saying, "I guess you don't want me to read this article." Some examples of word play, alliteration, and take-offs:

    Wingdinging it
    using symbol fonts as impromptu logos

    Build a Better Bass Boat

    Sing a song of six pence, a pocket full of lies...
    teaching children to tell the truth

The middle example, using alliteration, can stand alone but the other two benefit greatly from more straightforward subheadings.

State the Benefit
Answer the question foremost in your reader's mind, What's in it for me? Tell your reader about the primary benefit found in the story or brochure or ad. Offer a solution to a common problem. Create several potential headlines using as many of the following techniques as possible until you find the one that works best.

  1. Ask a question (How many cavities is "too many"?).

  2. Make a statement or exclamation (Fewer cavities. Guaranteed.).

  3. Tell "how-to" (How to spend less time at the dentist's office).

  4. Use a number (6 ways to get fewer cavities).

  5. Use a product, service, or business name -- or create a new word or catch phrase to describe the product (PearlyBrite dental creme is the newest weapon in the war on tooth decay).

  6. Use words like new, improve, more, and better (Get 50% more cavity protection in our new, economical 9 oz. tube).

Keep it short
What is the ideal length for titles and headlines? Seven words or less is a good rule of thumb. Shorter headlines are punchier and easier to read. If you need more words to accomplish the job, consider putting them into the subhead or deck.

Deliver on your promises
The best headline in the world won't help a bad story. Before you snare the reader with your witty headline be sure you can deliver with a well-written, informative article, brochure, or ad. Insure that your headline supports the body too. If you ask a question, provide an answer. If you promise to solve a problem, offer a solution.

Avoid deceptive headlines. If the headline suggests that the story is about low-cost, romantic honeymoon locations, don't give the reader a story about honeymoon disasters in cheap hotels. It might be a great story, but the reader feels cheated if the headline promises something totally different.

Use a headline to get the reader's attention. Catch the reader's eye and give enough information to make your reader want to read your message.

Even though I know the techniques for writing good headlines, my efforts fall far short of the mark on occasion. Consider these two examples from past issues of The INK Spot magazine (a publication about desktop publishing and word processing that I once published) with possible "improved" headline ideas.

  • A Pretty Package

    Do you have a clue what this might be about? It was in the Christmas issue so maybe it's on making your own wrapping paper? This headline and subhead might give you a better idea:

      Pick a Pretty Paper
      Your Letters from Santa will stand out with decorative paper and envelopes

  • Changes in Resume Writing

    Factual, but a little boring. How about adding a benefit for the reader?

      Expand Your Services with New Resume Writing Techniques

When a professional copywriter is not feasible, heed these simple tips for writing effective headlines as well as the additional advice in Copywriting for Designers and Non-Writers.

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