An Open Letter to Anyone Who Writes Headlines for a Living

Image of Demian Farnworth, Copywriter

Howdy writer,

Remember when I said that profitable advertising was a planned and purposeful neglect of everything except making the sale … and that you should treat copywriting like a salesman?

Well, there is something else you should know: the difference between copywriting and face-to-face salesmanship is that the salesperson can’t be ignored …

She demands attention. Your advertisement, however, can be ignored. This is why effective headlines are so important.

See, an effective headline is like calling out in a crowded room, “Hey Demian, can I talk to you?” Your headline gets the attention of the right people. So you write a headline that recognizes those people.

But there’s a problem.

These days the trick is to write a headline that will blow up on the social web. A headline that will get people to pound the “Share” button … a headline to clog our Twitter feed with thousands of retweets.

We watch our website traffic rise like a rocket out of Cape Canaveral … and then we stroke our goatees and fan our long hair as we linger in the afterglow of the rapidly fleeting adulation of people who are mostly impossible subjects for what we have to offer.

To make matters worse the people we really want may never have a clue our content is out there. Waiting for them.

Your mom might be proud. Your boss won’t be.

Legend has it that nobody reads advertisements. This is absurd, of course, coming from someone who’s seen hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on direct-response advertising … and the returns that pile in.

Again and again I saw twenty to thirty percent of readers subscribe to a 12-part email newsletter … and then hundreds of readers spend three hundred dollars for a product sold in those email newsletters.

So please don’t tell me people don’t read ads.

They certainly don’t read them for fun (unless they are a copywriter). The caveat, however, is prospects will only read advertisements if they are interesting.

A 1,000 word landing page on building an igloo will not get a glance from a surfer. Nor will a 50-word ad selling surf board wax get a glance from an Eskimo.

We are a harried people, and we have too much to read to begin with. We won’t waste our time on content that doesn’t speak to us.

Just look at our coffee tables: they are loaded with print subscriptions that pile up month after month without a single glance. Look at our RSS readers: bulging with unread posts from last year. Look at our inboxes: clogged with email newsletters — email newsletters we signed up for — that end up in a folder called “Later.”

Later never comes.

Here’s the lesson so far: create advertisements that communicate WHAT it will be worth to your prospects if they set aside time to read your promotion. And do that with your headline.

We are ruthless when it comes to who we listen to. Who we read. We want entertainment. Benefits …

  • Ideas on grilling a rabbit.
  • Applying rouge.
  • Creating content that ranks well in search engines.
  • Fixing a universal joint.
  • Investing in treasury bonds.
  • Sailing to St. Croix.
  • Recapturing the heart of a lover.

You won’t be able to solve all of her problems. But there is that one pain that your product soothes perfectly. Yet, she will never know it unless your headline tells her in a clear, concise, and compelling manner.

This is why more than a third of your time spent on a promotion should be spent on a headline.

If not more.

While searching for a headline, I’ll scroll through our magnetic headline clinic. Pull Tested Advertising Methods off the shelf and browse Caple’s 39 ideas. I’ll look at data on past headlines. I’ll break apart a campaign where I used four or five different headlines for what was virtually the same copy.

But let’s say your product solves more than one problem. It aids a young man in retiring early, but also ups his chances of buying his dream car and attracting that beautiful wife. What appeal do you use in your headline?

Well, you must know what quality your prospect desires the most.

This doesn’t mean you neglect the other qualities. But you fire the big guns for the widest targeted audience. And convert the loafers with the additional benefits.

For this same reason you can create more than one ad.

This is the beauty of pay-per-click advertising and landing pages. Your product might offer five benefits, so you run five separate landing pages. Sure, there will be overlap, but no harm. Most people are convinced by more than one argument. You wish to reach the widest audience.

And remember to never confuse the benefit for the feature. A bare-bones online trading dashboard doesn’t mean anything to a young investor. Quick trades does … but not nearly as much as selling quickly enough to stop the hemorrhaging from a trade gone wrong.

Again, a twenty-year track record of returns above fifty percent means nothing to a young investor. Turning $10,000 into $75,937.50 in five years, however, does.

Here’s my point: the hooks that we like best will rarely pull the best. We simply don’t know enough people to prove our hunches. We have to test our ideas in the marketplace.

This boils down to fixed principles. Online you are in front of millions of people. Among those millions there is a small percentage you wish to influence. Try to strike a chord with that percentage.  Ignore the rest.

Sell your anti-ageing diet to ageing adults … ignore the adolescents (who already think they will live for ever).

Offer a cure to stop smoking to smokers … not to those who’ve already quit. Or never even started.

Promote a book on overcoming suicide to the delusional optimistic and you’ll lose money … as will one on ambition offered to the chronically depressed.

Know your audience inside and out.

And then go craft a headline they can’t ignore.

Demian Farnworth
St. Louis, Missouri
2013

About the author

Demian Farnworth


Demian Farnworth is Copyblogger Media's Chief Copywriter. Follow him on Twitter or Google+.

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Comments

  1. “Later never comes.”

    You hit the nail on the end. I have dozens of things bookmarked and saved for me to read but just never actually got around to doing. If I can’t make time to read it right now the odds of me coming back to it are pretty slim. Sometimes it’s just bad timing so even the best headline in the world won’t get me to read it right then and there but plenty of times a great headline has sucked me in enough that it’s worth pausing whatever else I am doing to read.

    • I’m the same way, Nick. I have good intentions of returning to things I save, clip, bookmark … but if there isn’t a good reason (like I need to refer to it in an article I’m writing) then it goes untouched.

  2. This is just what I needed today. I am forever putting “to read later” posts on my bookmark, but I haven’t gone back to a single one. HOwever, if the headline is powerful enough, I will leave the post up on my tab till I go back and read it before deleting it. ANd I really like your exhortation to go after the few I can really help – not everyone. Thanks again, Amy

    • Yep, your conversions will go up and costs down when you pinpoint exactly who you need to talk to … And they’ll love you for it, too. They’ll understand you are talking directly to them.

  3. Brian let you write a post without subheads?

    Guess you can break the rules when the content is good enough.

    Great message on specificity, one I will apply over the next few weeks.

  4. Nice article Demian, and in fact a great headline that caused me to stop what I doing and click on it when it popped into my inbox!

    I was discussing this very thing at a party on Saturday night with a personal trainer who runs online fitness courses. I was telling him about the importance of creating a great headline (backed up of course with exceptional content) and he was agreeing and saying how when he sees something pop up on his facebook like ‘5 foods you must eat to lose 3 stones in a week’ he just can’t help but click it, even though he knows it’s probably a load of nonsense. He just has to know what the 5 foods are!

    I drive my girlfriend crazy these days (and she probably worries about my masculinity…) as I am always pinching her copy of Marie Claire or Cosmo to browse for headline inspirations. The best ones go into a spreadsheet for later ‘re-purposing’ ;-)

    Anyway, totally agree and best get back to what I was doing before your headline made me stop. Damn you magnetic headline!

    • That’s a great strategy! Tell your girlfriend all the best writers do it. ;)

      • haha, I think she’s worried she’ll come home from work one day to find me prancing around in her underwear! Must compensate by eating copious amounts of t-bone steak and downing excessive quantities of beer to build my man points back up…

  5. There seems to be two parts to the issues you’ve addressed. One is knowing who you wish to reach and the other is crafting a headline or banner that speaks to the people that we want to reach.
    These struck a chord with me: ‘Know your audience’ and ‘Try to strike a chord with that percentage.’ For my own experience, considering that subscribers have already endorsed my message, product or service by offering giving me their contact details, it makes sense to address these like-minded individuals. Then there’s the effort of communicating to my subscribers and readers briefly and succinctly my inspiration or interests. Only when I fully understand the benefits of what I’m offering are headlines are not so much of a problem or a chore to create. Thanks Demian for your post.

    • You bring up a good point … writing great headlines doesn’t stop once you’ve got them on your list or membership site. Your job is a little bit easier since you created an environment where they know like and trust you … but if you want conversions in that space, you still need to focus on that percentage.

  6. Thanks for the post. I have learned so much from Copyblogger about the importance of headlines. But, most of what I have learned relates to sales copy.
    I have a question.
    My sites goal is spreading compassion for all animals. Sometimes my posts are educational (about animals), sometimes they are informative (the poaching crisis), and sometimes they are guiding the reader on how to help animals.
    So, the headlines are difficult for me when I try to add the ‘advantage to the reader’ words. Do you have an suggestions for compelling (advantage to the reader words) for educational headlines?? Thanks.

    • Teaching people how to help in some capacity is educational: how to adopt exotic, endangered animals for less than $100 … 10 Places to Volunteer Caring for Helpless Animals … Best Countries Caring for Their Exotic Animals … Most Animal-Friendly Countries … 21 Trust-Worthy Organizations Who Will Spend Your Money Wisely. And so on.

      That make sense?

    • You are the best. That’s why they pay you the big bucks. :)
      Thanks so very much. I have already basicly written the content for most of the titles you just gave me. Thank YOU.

  7. “…create advertisements that communicate WHAT it will be worth to your prospects if they set aside time to read your promotion. And do that with your headline.” Best lesson I’ve learned to date.

    Your headline is the key that opens the door for your ideal customer to your business.

  8. I have to say that by following what you are teaching here on Copyblogger in the way of headlines has really helped increase readers on my blog. Just simple tweaks and a lot more visitors.

    I heartily agree – Headlines are extremely important, not just for sales copy, but also for blog posts, book titles, etc.

    • We love hearing this sort of comment … very encouraging to see people’s businesses/blogs growing from the advice we provide. We are confident it will … because we know it works … you just have to put it into practice. Glad to hear you are. ;)

  9. By accident I learned my audience is obsessed with “networking” – that’s the biggest pain. A headline about networking moves the needle

  10. Revealing article. After reading it I’m really motivated to start detecting some pains. Thanks!

  11. I am not a copywriter by nature or by previous career path, but the more I have gotten into online marketing, the more I find myself studying ads in offline publications (magazines, newspapers, the babysitting brochure of the kid down the street, etc). I now study the cigarette ads in Field & Stream more than the article about where to catch lunker trout!

  12. Dang Demain your good.

    I got to this point in your post, “create advertisements that communicate WHAT it will be worth to your prospects…” and stopped. I didn’t have to read any further. I knew what I had to do. That little part of that sentence summed up your whole point. It the old cliche from the reader’s point of view, “what’s in it for me.” If we make the reader feel it is useful, they click.

  13. Sheetal Sharma :

    I thoroughly agree to your point here, headline is the first parameter which comes out when anyone reads a post.

  14. Perfect. So much truth in this post.

    As you mentioned, its more important to know your target audience and connect with them than it is to get hits from anywhere…

    I know a small business in Texas that signed up with one of these big online marketing firms… and paid them a bunch of money. They increased hits and “leads”.. but they all came from Saudi Arabia and China. How is that even helpful? They’re a small shop in Texas operating in like a 150 mile radius… if that.

  15. Demian,

    I know content creators have differing opinions Seth Godin’s “Just Ship It” strategy of getting your art out into the world…

    It seems like what your saying above is that you have to put your work out into the world or you’ll never know what hooks world on your audience and which don’t.

    Am I looking at this correct?

    Hanley

  16. Great post, Demian! I’ve been involved in my own startup odyssey (MyLocalReporter) and now face some of the toughest obstacles. I constantly go back and forth between wanting to keep at it and just hanging up the entrepreneurial dreams. It’s good to get another person’s perspective. Sorry it didn’t work out for you but I hope another opportunity comes your way soon.

  17. Bart van der Griendt :

    Hi Demian,

    Yes, you are an expert salesman. That is abundantly clear. A profession that hasn’t fundamentally changed over the centuries, however much you capitalize on the fact that the context has indeed changed. Dramatically.

    You know what’s very striking about people who sell stuff for a living? The telling use of the words ‘they’ and ‘them’ when referring to the people you sell to. It multiplies when salespeople are talking to other salespeople, like you do here. The reason is that salespeople love the sell much more than the pesky people they sell to.

    What would happen to selling if salespeople started to *really* care about the chronically depressed, self-loathing teenagers or the worrying retirees, in stead of exploiting their needs and psychological makeup with what in essence is manipulation?

    Would you like to have a thousand chronically depressed people at your doorstep, asking you to help them? No? Well, why do you pretend then that your product can *really* help them and fullfill their deepest desires?

    It’s about the sell – it’s not about people.

    One final note: it’s not my intention to be cynical or sarcastic. Yet I can’t help but feeling bad about this new age. For the first time in history we can get scientific about the exploitation of people’s needs, and bring the dishonesty to a whole different level of manipulation.

    Oh, and I am a business owner myself, and yes, I have to sell too.

    :-)

    Bart van der Griendt

    • >>>For the first time in history we can get scientific …

      See: Scientific Advertising, Claude Hopkins, 1923.

    • Bart, I’m sorry you need to be so negative about copywriting. It really bothers me.

      I’m not the expert here, but I would guess sales people that really care about their customers do much better. And using what you call “manipulation” is in the best interests of their customers.

      I would also guess true manipulation won’t get the copywriter anywhere.

    • Also, I’ve bought just about every product Brian offers at Copyblogger. In no way do I feel manipulated. In fact, I’m truly grateful for all the education that his copy has provided.

    • Bart, you might enjoy this:
      http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1904/01/the-psychology-of-advertising/303465/

      I would not want chronically depressed people crowding my doorstep … unless I thought I could truly help them. :D

      I wouldn’t mind, however, people who wanted to be writers crowding my doorstep … I love writing, and I love teaching people how to write better.

      The best salesman hands down are those who are zealous about people, a cause. If you are not zealous about the cause, sell something else.

      • What Demian said ^^^

      • Reading your answer, I find myself smiling at my own misjudgment.

        I guess the art and science of persuasive writing is a tool.

        And, as my father used to say: the house is not in the hammer, it’s in the carpenter’s mind.

        Regards,

        Bart

  18. “Ignore the rest.”- my new mantra.

    Cute photo, I’ve always liked Missouri.

    Thanks for the real talk, even if the sales rhetoric was a little beyond me.

    I’ve always wanted to sail to St. Croix…

    Sincerely,
    Alexis

  19. Archan Mehta :

    What an interesting post: right on the money.

    The first thing I notice is the headline: everything else follows or builds up from there.

    The headline should be eye candy: attention arresting, making you want to learn more about the product or service you are trying to sell.

    I appreciate your timely reminder and keep up the great work you are doing on this fabulous blog. Cheerio.

  20. I agree.. You do do have to test and tweak with you headlines. Just a few extra tweaks on my landing pages could mean a big difference in conversions. Add in relevance and understanding your prospects better than they understand themselves.. and your golden..

  21. Great Article Damien!

    I write headlines for a living, mostly for PPC ads and landing pages and focusing on the my “best customers” has been the trick that changed it all for me.

    At first I was trying to make my ad or landing page headline match every different type of customer expectation. it worked, but not as well as I wanted it to.

    Now what I do is write for my best customers, those that I think have the highest potential for buying my product.
    It allows me to use jargon words and speak directly to their problems and needs.

    Since I started doing that I am seeing better conversion rates than ever.

    Testing of course is the way to get there, it’s rare that the first headline I write is the best one. It usually takes 3-4 headlines until I hit the jackpot.

    Cheers.

  22. ‘Try to strike a chord with that percentage. Ignore the rest.’

    Demian,

    good thoughts – thankyou.

    When I first let myself loose on copy – I did so with the verve of a sweaty manic preacher seeking to convert everyone to my cause. The only qualifying factor required in the audience: a heartbeat.

    The results were understandably mediocre.

    The more time I spent identifying markets and creating messages specifically for those markets, the more I saw my results consistently improve.

    Funny that. . .

  23. Great article, Damien, and the headline itself is very inspiring. The tactics you describe don’t apply to outbound sales strategies only. In fact, they are probably even more important for inbound marketing where the aim is to capture readers’ attention rather than the attention of their wallets.