Headlines are the most important words you write. Advertising legend David Ogilvy put it this way: "On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent 80 cents out of your dollar."
Writing good headlines is hard, which is why bad headlines are so common. I cover this topic in depth in my new book, How to Turn Your Words Into Money, but I'll provide a brief overview in this article.
Here's what I mean by a bad headline:
Partnering with the Southern Philippines
This is a real headline from a nonprofit newsletter. You find headlines like this more often than not. And that's too bad, because it has some real problems:
There's no news. It's not about a specific event.
There are no people. Just a region—an abstraction.
The verb is weak. Partner is one of those verbs that conceals action. If you try to visualize what specific action is taking place when someone is partnering, you'll come up blank.
It's an -ing verb. Even a strong verb loses a lot of its force when you tack -ing onto it. It turns it from an action into a process.
A headline with those problems might as well say this:
Do Not Read This or Your Eyeballs Will Drop Out
Actually, that would be a compelling headline.
Let's turn away from what doesn't work and look at the ingredients of a good headline, starting with what our bad example lacks:
- News. Headlines should reveal something of interest, not merely label a situation. It could be news in the journalistic sense (Last Night's Deep Freeze Sent Crowds of Homeless to Our Shelter). Or a personal story (Nick Says His Chemo Is Like Being "Rescued by a Monster").
- People. Make headlines about people, not situations. Instead of Drought Strikes Northeast Africa, make it, Families Flee Worsening Drought.
- Strong Verbs. Use one- or two-syllable verbs that show action in a concrete, sensory way. Words like blast, climb, dance, flee, grab, jolt, limp, mumble, plunge, race, scamper, tear, wander, yell. Notice how these words sound like some kind of conflict is going on? That brings us to the next ingredient …
- Conflict. The best headlines (and the stories people want to read) feature conflict.
- Relationships. The most fascinating thing about people is their relationships. Use headlines to show how people are connected. Relationship words like Mom, Son, Baby, or profession words like Teacher or Soldier make headlines more interesting.
- You. As often as possible, address your reader.
- Punctuation. Don't put a period at the end of a headline (it means stop). Go easy on exclamation marks (but don't be afraid to use them). Think twice before asking a question in a headline. If the answer is a simple yes or no, or the question is uninteresting, it falls flat.
- Mystery. For envelope teasers and e-mail subject lines—places where the reader must take action to get to the rest of the message—it's often best not to tell the news. Instead, create a sense of mystery. One of the most effective envelope teasers I ever wrote was "Letter Enclosed."
Let's take a look at a handful of powerful headlines from the Web and print worlds. Study them. Imitate them. Learn to think the way their writers think:
Brave Dog Shot Twice Defending the Family She Loves
Firefighters Smash 2-Day-Old BMW That Was Illegally Blocking Hydrant
Murder Suspect Wants Jury to Ignore "Murder" Neck Tattoo (New York)
Britain's Got Talent Star Was Busted for Smuggling Drugs in Bra to Jailed Gangster Boyfriend
(Daily Mirror [UK])
Three Attempts—God Wouldn't Let Me Rob That Bank
(New York's Bowery Mission)
* * *
Crusty, old-school, no-nonsense advertising copywriters spend more time on the 10 to 20 words of a headline than they do on the several hundred words of body copy. They understand how important headlines are. I hope I've given you a sense of their significance, too.
Books by Jeff Brooks
Jeff Brooks, creative director at TrueSense Marketing, has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 20 years, working as a copywriter and creative director on behalf of some of the best nonprofits of North America and Europe. His clients have included St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, CARE, The Salvation Army, Ronald McDonald House, World Vision, Feeding America, the American Cancer Society, and many more. He is deeply grateful to be part of an industry that makes the world a better place. A leading advocate of donor-focused fundraising, Brooks champions that cause on his popular Future Fundraising Now blog (www.futurefundraisingnow.com) and the Fundraising Is Beautiful podcast (www.fundraisingisbeautiful.com), as a frequent contributor to FundRaising Success magazine, and as a frequent speaker at fundraising industry events.