When you look for examples of copywriting in the real world, the first thing you notice is how rare it is to stumble upon a truly great advertising headline. I was recently sitting in my office when I decided to search for new advertising inspiration. I grabbed a nearby National Geographic magazine and thumbed through it looking for ads. (Who needs Netflix, anyway?)
The ad headlines were vague, dull, and did little to make me want to learn more. I grabbed a second magazine, thumbed through it, and tossed it to the side. Soon, I was standing over a stack of magazines, two or three sprawled open at a time on my desk. Nothing.
Minutes later, I was in my car, destination: Barnes & Noble. I went to the business magazine section and decided to focus my search. I would find the most compelling technology headline (since that’s my industry) and take a picture of it. Forbes, Success, Bloomberg, Bitcoin Magazine (which I just learned was a thing) — I noodled my way through several magazines.
Maybe I was in a particularly skeptical mood, but no advertisement warranted that picture. Admittedly, this experiment isn’t entirely fair. It’s impossible to judge the effectiveness of an ad when you’re not the intended audience. I’m sure some of the ads I glossed over have been split-tested to powerful effect.
Still, I think it’s safe to say that truly great copywriting is still rare. Let’s explore why that is, as well as a few methods to improve your headlines.
Elements of a Bad Headline (and Why They’re So Common)
The reason great headlines are uncommon is because they’re difficult to write. Great advertising headlines are more than mere word choices. They must convey something—a story, an idea, a call to action—that makes a reader care. And it’s hard to get someone to care about a message that they know was paid to be placed in front of them.
How do you tell a story in a headline? How do you grab the attention of a distracted reader and pull them in with the gravity of your product, company, or offer?
The least-effective headlines are vague. They use language that communicates nothing new to the reader. “The future is here” or “From ordinary to extraordinary” are made up examples that drive home the type of vague message I’m talking about. These are platitudes that fail to tell the reader anything of substance about themselves or your offering. The reader leaves the ad with nothing “sticky” to remind them about your company.
Another sign of a bad headline is that it’s dull. Being dull is not as criminal as being vague because even a dull ad can convey a message to the reader. And being boring doesn’t mean unflashy or non-punchy. I would define a dull ad as one that doesn’t matter to its intended audience. The stakes are too low for readers to stop and consider your message. On the other hand, an unflashy ad containing the right message can move readers to take action.
4 Tips to Write a Great Headline
What are the elements of a great headline? Phrased another way: Where do the pains, hobbies, concerns, and curiosities of your reader overlap with the value offered by your product? Somewhere in the center of that venn diagram lies a great headline.
Great advertisements come in many forms. It’s difficult to put “rules” around great ads, because often the best advertisements are surprising, which insinuates that they often fall outside of definable rules.
That said, here are four broad headline tips that I often use as North Stars in my copywriting:
4 Tips to Write a Great Headline
- Speak directly to the reader.
- Name the pain.
- Start with a promise.
- Put readers in a story.
1. Speak Directly to the Reader
Name them. If your intended reader works in marketing, call them a marketer in your headline. Tell them that your product is made for marketers.
2. Name the Pain
What problem is top of mind for your target customer? Call it out in the headline. If you can accurately define the reader’s problem, they’re more likely to believe you have a solution.
3. Start With a Promise
Readers love promises. “15 minutes could save you 15 percent or more on car insurance” is hard to beat.
4. Put Readers in a Story
I recently opened a National Geographic newsletter with the headline: “‘Accidental’ discovery yields treasure tomb.” Who couldn’t read on? A good story is a powerful marketing device.
2 Ways to Improve Your Headlines
Here’s the problem: Understanding the elements of a great headline doesn’t necessarily help you write one. As Mary Wells Lawrence said, “Alchemy plays a big role in creative businesses.” To write a great headline, it helps to trust the power of serendipity. If you bring together the right ingredients, sometimes magic strikes like lightning.
Here are two ingredients for eliciting creative magic.
2 Ways to Improve Your Headlines
- Listen to customers.
- Embrace time, iteration, and feedback.
1. Listen to Customers
Customers are your greatest asset when it comes to writing winning headlines.
Tapping into the creativity of customers means getting on the phone with them, reading online reviews of the product, or digging into case studies. I might read news from my client’s industry — mostly just to skim the comments sections to see what emotions are hot among that readership.
In almost every copywriting project, I create a spreadsheet dedicated exclusively to tracking customer language. When it’s time for me to sit down and write, I have my working doc open on one screen and my customer language spreadsheet open on the other. Some of my best headlines came straight from the lips of an excited customer.
2. Embrace Time, Iteration, and Feedback
The best thing you can do for your ad is not use your first headline idea. Great copy is the result of exhausting many ideas until the right one rises to the surface. When I write website copy, I always provide at least three headline options for the above the fold (since it’s such important digital real estate). These three headlines are my top picks out of multiple dozens I wrote during my creative process.
Iteration brings up another point: time. Great headlines are (often) the result of simply playing the long game in marketing. I’ve been writing copy consistently for over eight years. Sure, I’m no industry veteran. But I’m not a new kid on the block either. And every year I see my copy mature, become more compelling.
The longer you write, and the more great headlines you read, the better you’ll become at producing effective copy — especially if you add feedback to your process. Great writing of any kind doesn't take place in a silo. You need to see how headlines work in the real world. You’ll see what works and what flops.
Eventually, with enough trial and error, you gain an “ear” for good copywriting. And that’s when you adopt the hobby of going to Barnes & Noble just to stare at advertising headlines. Or maybe I just have too much time on my hands.