Earlier this week I was eves-dropping at a seminar in Newbury where the speaker Steve Mills was dishing out marketing advice to hungry small businesses managers.  One woman, asked “What is the secret of a good headline?”.

The lady in question explained how she was organising an event and needed a headline for her advertising.  So far she had been checking newspaper headlines and trying to think up something “catchy” and “clever”, a play on words or something similar.

When I was developing my Full Effect Marketing programme I created a formula for an advertisement that I stand by to this day.  Creatives don’t always agree, but it works and it goes like this.

  • There are four elements in an ad. – Headline, body copy, call-to-action, sign-off.
  • The sign-off, or strap-line, is your “brand promise”.
  • Your brand promise is always supported by pillars that substantiate it.  We create these in my Brand Discovery programme.
  • The headline is the first thing a reader will see.  It’s job is to stop the viewer and it has about half a nanosecond to do so, so it has to hit the mark.
  • To do this it has to be relevant and direct.
  • A good headline makes a proposition that your target will relate to.  It doesn’t have to resonate with people who you don’t want to reach, so it can talk to your target in his or her parlance and it will be all the more effective for that.
  • If you have made a good job of your Brand Model your headline proposition will reflect one of your brand pillars.
  • The body copy substantiates the proposition and links it to the brand promise.
  • The call-to-action tells them what to do next.

When you link up the components of an ad. it should tell a cohesive story.  Some organisations like Tesco, M&S and Philips do this very well, but most press ads are pretty average and surprisingly few headlines hit the mark.

In this case the lady wanted to promote self-improvement classes, so I guess her headlines should be something along the lines of “Learn the secrets of your future success”.  (So give me a break! I’m not a copywriter. I’m just marking out the ground here.)  The point is, clever headlines are only clever when they get to the point and if they are a mental obstacle course they are not clever at all.  The priority is to get your message across, if you can, express your brand personality in the language you use, which should be the same language as your target. Be clever by all means, but never make being smart your primary concern.

Michael Weaver
November 4, 2010

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