How to Write a Great Headline
I always had a gift for writing headlines. In fact, I got my first writing job because I kept yelling headline ideas over the cubicle partition that separated me from the Creative Department, until the staff begged their boss to hire me.
I’m good at writing headlines for two reasons. The first reason is that I love playing with word forms. Turning over phrases in my head comes naturally to me. I constantly critique other companies’ creative materials and play the game of how I might tackle the same challenge. It keeps me sharp and aware of what’s going on in the marketing world and beyond.
The second reason why I’m good at writing headlines is that I’m inquisitive. I want to know everything I can about the subject that I’m writing about. I want to know how things work, why they are better, and why a customer should care. Thirty-plus years in the marketing business have taught me that I can rely on those two primary capabilities more than anything else to create winning headlines every time.
But writing a great headline takes much more than just having a way with words and being knowledgeable.
Here are the 5 essential attributes of a great headline:
1. A great headline is easy to understand.
It’s rare for an effective headline to pour out of your brain. In fact, the ones that instantly come to mind are overly clever (often puns and other wordplay-based ideas that confuse rather than enlighten). One thing I’ve learned through painful experience is that cleverness is a writer’s aphrodisiac. It can take us on euphoric journeys that make us feel smart, but ultimately make the client look dumb—because the customer doesn’t have the time or patience to figure out what in the world we are trying to say.
A lot of writers would rather explore wordplay because it’s fun, but a more effective approach is to apply your talent to crafting a straightforward, easy-to-understand phrase. This isn’t as simple as it sounds. It almost always takes longer than you think to craft a headline that cuts right to your offer using words your target audiences will understand and respond to.
My test is this: If you put your headline in front of someone and they have to read it more than once to understand it, you’ve written a klunker. Go back to the keyboard and try again.
2. A great headline is on point.
Sometimes great ideas can pull even the best writer off course. The next thing you know, you’ve written a whole ad about what you wish you could do instead of what you set out to do. Make sure that your headlines are strategically on the mark—and they connect with your target audience. Keep the other ideas for the next client meeting.
3. A great headline is interesting.
There’s an old saying that you can’t bore a customer into buying. A great headline needs to catch the customer’s attention and compel them to keep reading. Period.
4. A great headline is crisp.
You know the sound a bottle of fizzy water makes when you twist the top? That’s what you want in your headlines. Create anticipation. Make your word choice interesting. Do something refreshing. Keep it short and punchy. Make the customer thirst for more.
5. A great headline sells.
I saved the best for last. We marketers don’t just write because we love to. We write because we’re motivated to sell effectively. That drives us to make every piece we write better than the last, even if we’re decades into our careers. If you’re not constantly asking clients, “How did our last ad (or email, blog post, etc.) perform?” please move it to the top of your list. Make it your business to find out what worked, what didn’t and why. Your client will be thrilled (and so will their customers).