Effective Advertising? It's All in the Headline!

Arguably the best book on advertising is “Ogilvy on Advertising,” from the 1970s. Back then he said something that has certainly come true: that all advertising would one day become direct response advertising. What does that mean? Well, direct response, which agency types see as somehow ‘dirty’ (and they have some good reasons for this belief) aims at getting people to do something NOW: get up off the sofa, pick up the phone, give us a call (now it’s visit our site or send us an email). Most ads, unfortunately, try to be branding, which is agency talk for they didn’t sell a thing but they look good.

Ogilvy foresaw that advertising was getting expensive, consumers were jaded and there would not be enough ROI for those nice, pretty “we love the environment and we love our customer” ads. If you had the courage to advertise then have the courage to ask for the sale.

So how does this relate to headlines? Very simple: anyone who has ever written a direct response ad knows that the headline is the single most important factor in the ad’s success. As much as 70% of the response can be attributed to the headline (in a way, like 70% of a cigar’s flavour is in the wrapper… the filling, the bulk of the cigar plays a very minor role).

Which is why it can take weeks to write a 10 word headline, then two hours to write the rest of the ad.

So what makes a good headline? It’s an art and a gut feeling. Successful DR writers have handed down a few rules.

1. Don’t be too cute! How many B2B ads have you seen that work with a play on words? You know: “Columbus Widgets Can Help You Discover a New World of Savings.” Mostly, these are terrible; although when a good one comes along like, “Probably the best lager in the world,” it can work. But most are not that good and are too clever by half.

2. Questions work a lot of the time. The most successful cosmetics ad of the past decade asked a simple question: “Better Than Botox?” and women responded to the tune of half a billion USD. If you can ask a ‘real’ question, something your customers are asking themselves, you could be on to something.

3. FREE always works, always, always, always.

4. The headline to your next press release, or ad or the opening screen of your PowerPoint can make or break your efforts. You’ve got to standout without screaming… make a point that your audience is worried about, curious about, struggling with and offer the promise of a solution or some information people don’t already know.

Whatever you do, spend a lot more time on the headline and opening paragraph than you are used to spending. We all usually jump at the first cute headline that we think of (and if the headline seems cute, it probably is so forget it) or we listen to some engineer whose solution is to “just say what it is.”

C’mon who wants to sit and listen to a lecture entitled “BGAs and Effective Soldering Techniques” when you can listen to one called “Solder Balls Aren’t As Bad As You Think… They’re Worse”?