EIGHT BASIC HEADLINE TYPES For
What follows is a part of “The Copywriter’s Handbook: a step-by-step guide to writing copy that sells” by Robert W. Bly. This book is a guide to copywriters, but in practice it’s for everyone who deals with the subject of sales. In this section, the author introduced eight effective titles to write an ad text.
It’s only natural for a creative person to avoid formulas, to strive for originality and new, fresh approaches. To the creative writer, many of the headlines in this chapter might seem to follow rigid formulas: “How to . . ,” “Three Easy Ways . . . ,” “Introducing the New . . .” And to an extent, copywriters do follow certain rules, because these rules have been proven effective in thousands of letters, brochures, ads, and commercials.
Remember, as a copywriter, you are not a creative artist; you are a salesperson. Your job is not to create literature; your job is to persuade people to buy the product. As the late John Francis Tighe, a top direct-mail copywriter, pointed out, “We are not in the business of being original. We are in the business of reusing things that work.”
Of course, John doesn’t mean copywriters spend their time deliberately copying the work of other writers. The challenge is to take what works and apply it to your product in a way that is compelling, memorable, and persuasive. Certainly, the best copywriters succeed by breaking the rules.
But you have to know the rules before you can break them effectively.
Here, then, are eight time-tested headline categories that have helped sell billions of dollars’ worth of products and services. Study them, use them well, and then go on to create your own breakthroughs in headline writing.
- Direct Headlines
Direct headlines state the selling proposition directly, with no wordplay, hidden meanings, or puns. “Pure Silk Blouses—30 Percent Off” is a headline that’s about as direct as you can get. Most retailers use newspaper ads with direct headlines to announce sales and bring customers into their stores.
- Indirect Headlines
The indirect headline makes its point in a roundabout way. It arouses curiosity, and the questions it raises are answered in the body copy.
The headline for an ad for an industrial mixing device reads, “Ten Million to One, We Can Mix It.” At first, this sounds like a wager; the company is betting ten million to one that its mixer can handle your mixing applications. But when you read the copy, you discover that the real significance of “ten million to one” is the mixer’s ability to mix two fluids where one fluid is as much as ten million times thicker than the other. The headline has a double meaning, and you have to read the copy to get the real message.
- News Headlines
If you have news about your product, announce it in the headline. This news can be the introduction of a new product, an improvement of an existing product (“new, improved Bounty”), or a new application for an old product. Some examples of headlines that contain news:
“Introducing the New Citation II”
“Finally, a Caribbean Cruise as Good as Its Brochure”
Norwegian Cruise Line
“The Greatest Market Discovery Ever Made”
Commodities trading newsletter
The Norwegian Cruise Line headline, in addition to containing news, has added appeal because it empathizes with the reader’s situation. We’ve all been disappointed by fancy travel brochures that promise better than they deliver. Norwegian gains credibility in our eyes by calling attention to this well known fact.
- How-to Headlines
The words how to are pure magic in advertising headlines, magazine articles, and book titles. There are more than 7,000 books in print with how to in their titles. Many advertising writers claim if you begin with how to, you can’t write a bad headline. They may be right.
How-to headlines offer the promise of solid information, sound advice, and solutions to problems: “How to Turn a Simple Party into a Royal Ball.” “How to Write Better and Faster.” “How to Stop Smoking in 30 Days . . . Or Your Money Back.”
Whenever I’m stuck for a headline, I type “How to” on the page, and what follows those words is always a decent, hardworking headline: good enough to use until something better comes along.
- Question Headlines
To be effective, the question headline must ask a question that the reader can empathize with or would like to see answered. Some examples:
“What in the World Is Wrong With Me?”
“When an Employee Gets Sick, How Long Does It Take Your Company to Recover?”
Pilot Life Insurance
“Is Your Pump Costing You More to Operate Than It Should?”
“Do You Close the Bathroom Door Even When You’re the Only One Home?”
“Have You Any of These Decorating Problems?”
“What Do Japanese Managers Have That American Managers Sometimes Lack?”
Bits & Pieces
Question headlines should always focus on the reader’s self-interest, curiosity, and needs, and not on the advertiser’s. A typical self-serving question headline used by many companies reads something like, “Do You Know What the XYZ Company Is Up to These Days?” The reader’s response is “Who cares?” and a turn of the page.
- Command Headlines
Command headlines generate sales by telling your prospects what to do. Here are a few command headlines:
“Try Burning This Coupon”
“Put a Tiger in Your Tank”
“Aim High. Reach for New Horizons.”
U.S. Air Force
Note that the first word in the command headline is a strong verb demanding action on the part of the reader.
- Reason-Why Headlines
One easy and effective way of writing body copy is to list the sales features of your product in simple 1-2-3 fashion. If you write your ad this way, you can use a reason-why headline to introduce the list.
Examples of reason-why headlines include “Seven Reasons Why You Should Join the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics” and
“120 to 4,000 Reasons Why You Should Buy Your Fur during the Next Four Days.”
Reason-why headlines need not contain the phrase “reason why.” Other introductory phrases such as “6 ways,” “7 steps,” and “here’s how” can do just as well.
- Testimonial Headlines
In a testimonial advertisement, your customers do your selling for you. An example of a testimonial is the Publishers Clearinghouse commercial in which past winners tell us how they won big prize money in the sweepstakes. Testimonials work because they offer proof that a business satisfies its customers.
In print ad testimonials, the copy is written as if spoken by the customer, who is usually pictured in the ad. Quotation marks around the headline and the body copy signal the reader that the ad is a testimonial. When writing testimonial copy, use the customer’s own words as much as possible. Don’t polish his statements; a natural, conversational tone adds believability to the testimonial