Ray Braun Design
Graphic Design for Business and Non-Profits

How To Write Compelling Headlines

They’re the most important words you’ll ever write. The hours spent researching, drafting and revising that ad, brochure, article, press release or Web page are without reward unless the headline attracts readers.

It’s disappointing that the merits of our work hinge on a few words, but that’s the reality.

Direct marketers know this. They test headlines, learning that some are 10 times more effective, even though body copy and art are identical. Newspapers employ copy editors to write nifty headlines that sell newspapers. And ad agencies are paid thousands to conceive headlines that will capture the imagination of the consumer.

So how do you write compelling headlines? First let’s look at what a headline should do.

The Headline’s Job Description

I suggest a four-fold purpose for the headline:

Get attention. The headline must wrestle readers away from everything else that’s competing for their attention.

Relate to readers’ interests. A well-executed headline zeroes in on the audience you want to attract.

Propel readers into the body copy. An effective headline makes people want to read more.

Sell. An obvious requirement for advertising headlines, I maintain that all headlines are selling something – whether a press release, article or book (in which case the title serves as a headline).
Now let’s review headline types.

The 8 Headline Types

Following are the eight headline types employed over the years, including examples.

1. Direct. Direct headlines make a straightforward statement to readers.
Save Up to 70% on All Contact Lenses

2. Indirect. Indirect headlines are designed to pique the curiosity of readers, providing the payoff in the body copy. If they’re too vague, readers will say “Huh?” and move on. Use with caution.
Issaquah Is Now Home to 42,469 of Your Favorite Authors (Barnes & Noble)

3. News. Obviously, news headlines are used when you have news or a special announcement.
Introducing the First Watch You Can Wear
With a Wet Suit and Tie (Citizen)

4. How To. How to is the workhorse of headlines. It promises useful information. When you’re drawing a blank, try a how-to headline.
How to Get More Mileage Out of Your Yellow Pages Advertising (GTE Directories)

5. Question. Question headlines are effective when, not surprisingly, readers want an answer to the question.
What Does the Northwest Airlines Pilots’ Strike Mean for Your Travel Plans? (Northwest Airlines)

6. Command. Command headlines tell readers what to do.
Protect Your Company’s Image (Communication World)

7. Reason Why. Reason-why headlines work well when you plan to present copy in a list format. This headline type can also include introductory phrases such as “8 Ways,” “5 Tips,” and “10 Steps.”
8 Reasons to Use a Fountain Pen (Seattle Pen)

8. Testimonial. Testimonial headlines are “they say” instead of “we say” selling.
“Running our ads in Forbes helps build credibility for DIGEX.” (Forbes)

Writing the Headline

Now the hard part – writing the headline. In the early stages, don’t worry about headline types. First, consider the headline an invitation to read your ad, brochure, article or press release. How must you word your invitation to gain acceptance?

If you’re writing an ad or promotional copy, one method is to think of the number one benefit to customers or prospects. The benefit is what they find most compelling; your task is to find an interesting or provocative way of expressing it.

If you’re writing an article, newsletter or press release, design your headline to showcase the news or informational value to readers.

In either case, list benefits, key words and facts to prime the pump. Then write as many headlines (or fragments) as you can. Don’t critique or edit. Just get all your ideas down on paper.

Using your raw material, try different word combinations and constructions, experiment with headline types, and polish your best efforts. This should yield at least one workable headline, if not more.
When should you write a headline? Before or after you’ve written the piece?

For me, it depends. If I’m writing ad or promotional copy, I’ll usually write a headline (or at least a working headline) first since it will determine the direction of the body copy. For articles and newsletters, I’ll almost always write headlines after the piece is completed.

Some Final Headline Do’s and Don’ts

• Do deliver a complete message.
• Do combine headlines with strong visuals.
• Do use strong noun-verb combinations.
• Do use headline-subhead combinations.
• Don’t sacrifice clarity (or sales) for the sake of cleverness, word play or puns.
• Don’t mislead, shock or use other gimmicks to get attention (unless you publish a supermarket tabloid).
• Don’t worry about your headlines. Given time, they’ll come to you.

Neil Sagebiel is a freelance copywriter who has written promotional copy for dozens of national clients. Neil's specialty is B2B, including print and online advertising, marketing collateral, Web, email marketing, direct mail and PR materials. He can be contacted at 540-745-5472 or www.neilsagebiel.com.