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January 11, 2010

How to Write Headlines That Make Readers Slam On Their Eyeball Brakes

The title of this article just stopped you dead in your tracks didn’t it?

Well, that was the intent, and the entire subject matter of this article. And I intend to deliver exactly what I promised in my headline.

You see, the key to successful advertising is the right people seeing your ad and responding. However, your ad has a far greater chance of succeeding, if your headline is strong.

How Important Is A Strong Headline?

If your headline is weak, chances are, it won’t get noticed, and your ad will fail. At the very least, it won’t be nearly as successful as it could be.

Here’s a stat that will help drive home my point. On average, 8 out of 10 people will read your headline, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest of your copy?

Think about that for a second: On average, 8 out of 10 people will read headline, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest of your copy. Do you understand the full import of that statement?

In a nutshell, it means people will decide whether or not to read your ad, based solely on how compelling your headline is. In other words, if your headline doesn’t capture the readers imagination, your ad is pretty much destined to fail. That’s how important it is to get the readers attention.

This is especially true for online copy, because Internet users are notorious scanners. You have to literally make them “Slam On Their Eyeball Brakes!”

What Makes A Good Headline?

Before you can write a good headline, you first have to understand what the job of a headline is. The number one job of a headline is to get the readers attention – period. All other considerations are secondary. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a sales letter, article, flyer, brochure, postcard – whatever.

Now there are two ways that you can grab the attention of the reader – with a direct headline or indirect headline. What’s the difference?

In an direct headline, you get directly to the point. You let the reader know right upfront what you’re selling, and what your amazing offer is. For example:

“How to Win Friends and Influence People”

That headline is about as direct as it gets. Conversely, an indirect headline is much more subtle and mysterious. The main function of an indirect headline is to create curiosity in the reader – to make her want to read more. For example:

“The Man With The Grasshopper Mind”

Is that a provocative headline or what? By the way, Those two examples are both classic headlines, and are two of the 100 Greatest Headlines Ever Written.

Direct or Indirect Headlines: Which Is Better?

Actually, both types work. So it’s basically a matter of personal preference. Personally, I prefer direct headlines. I believe in respecting the readers time, so I like to get right to the point in my headline. That way, the reader can decide immediately if she wants to continue reading the rest of my copy.

That being said, do you remember what I said earlier? The number one job of a headline is to get the readers attention – period. Remember, all other considerations are secondary.

So even though I prefer direct headlines, there have been occasions when I’ve used indirect headlines to accomplish that goal.

You Have To Know Your Target Audience

However, regardless of which type of headline you use – direct or indirect, it’s important to understand your target market. It’s absolutely imperative that you know your audience.

Knowing your audience will help you write more effective headlines, as well as more effective copy in general.

For example, one of my websites is a marketing blog. And being a marketing guy, I happen to know for a fact that one of the things my readers are interested in is writing more effective headlines. How do I know this? Market research. I conducted a survey among my readers.

Always, Always, Always research your market! Do whatever it takes to completely know and understand your target audience. That can be your greatest edge over your competition.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. My target audience for this article are readers interested in learning how to write compelling headlines. So in my headline, I focused on what my audience wants – to write compelling headlines. Hence the headline:

How to Write Headlines That Make Readers Slam On Their Eyeball Brakes

You have to admit, that’s a pretty provocative headline. That being said, results are the true litmus test for any headline. However, my gut instinct and twenty years of sales and marketing experience tells me that’s a strong headline and will be very successful. “How To” headlines are generally very effective.

Now I simplified the writing process here for the sake of brevity. But you’ll more than likely have to write dozens of headlines, before you come up with something you like – something that’s going to be effective. It’s all part of the writing process.

For me personally, my best headlines are usually the ones that sort of just pop into my head. But remember, I have twenty years of experience doing this.

Generally speaking, you’re better off writing a bunch of headlines, until you end up with your strongest one.

How To Determine Your Strongest headline

So how do you determine your strongest headline? Well, if you’re an experienced marketer, you could always split-test your headlines. But if you’re not that experienced, the easiest way is simply to show your headlines to your friends, and family. Get their opinions.

Also, if you’re a member of any small business forums, show your headlines to forum members to get their feedback.

Let me walk you through the steps of writing another headline.

Let’s suppose I own an ice cream shop. Now since I already did my market research, I know that most consumers like having a variety of flavors to choose from. So I’m sure that I would get an ice cream lovers attention with a headline like this:

“Ice Cream Lovers: We Have More Flavors Than Tiger Woods Has Girlfriends!”

Now let’s discuss exactly what I did for a moment. My target audience for this ad are people who love ice cream – which is pretty much everybody. Nonetheless, in my headline I targeted my audience by using the words, “ice cream lovers” and I gave my audience what they want by using the words “more flavors.”

Let me explain what else I did. I used the name of a famous celebrity in my headline, which is always guaranteed to get attention. Remember, the number one job of a headline is to get the readers attention.

But I also did something else. I brought emotion into the mix – the emotion of humor – coupled with a current, hot news story. In my headline, I told readers that my ice cream shop has “more flavors than Tiger Woods has girlfriends!”

That headline has strong emotional appeal. After all, who wouldn’t get a chuckle out of the headline, other than Tiger and his wife, right?

By the way, emotional appeals and hot news stories are very powerful in headlines. So use them as often as possible. Are you starting to get a feel for writing effective headlines yet?

Well, let’s write one more to make sure.

Pizza Anyone?

Let’s suppose I own a pizza shop. Again, start with the fundamentals. My target for this ad is a general audience. After all, nearly everyone eats pizza, right?

But despite that fact, I’m still going to target my audience by using the word, “pizza” in my headline. Now this one’s a little trickier because pizza ads are a dime a dozen.

So I need to do something to make my headline different – to stand out. I’ve decided to give my headline instant credibility by using a feature that is unique to my pizza shop. Here’s the headline I came up with:

“Jackson’s Pizza: Voted Albany’s Best Pizza For 10 Straight Years!”

Do you know what the reaction of most people reading that headline would be?

“Wow…voted Albany’s best pizza for 10 straight years! It must be good!”

This headline also has strong emotional appeal. Why? Because everyone likes to be associated with a winner. It’s human nature.

5 Steps For Writing Effective Headlines

Wrapping everything up, I’m going to summarize what it takes to write effective headlines into 5 simple steps:

  1. You must know and understand your target audience. Research your market.
  2. Target your headline to that audience.
  3. Give your audience what they want.
  4. Get the readers attention. Be creative.
  5. Use emotional appeals, and hot news stories in your headlines whenever possible. Again, be creative.

By the way, when writing headlines don’t try to trick or mislead people. Get people’s attention, yes. Be creative, yes. But also, be honest.

Write Your Headline Before First, Before Writing Your Copy

One last thing: Different experts have different schools of thoughts on this. But I’m a firm believer in writing your headline first, before writing your actual copy.

Why? Remember at the beginning of this article, when I promised to deliver on what I promised in my headline? Well, I’ve worked extremely hard on this article to do just that. Hopefully, I’ve succeeded.

The point is your headline is a promise to prospective readers – a promise that you should be committed to keeping. And I believe that if you write a strong, compelling headline first, it will force you to work harder to write copy that lives up to the promise you make in your headline.

David Jackson is a writer, marketing consultant and entrepreneur. Which online services can you trust? Find out here: