The Formula for Headline Success
The book Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples is an all-time classic and must read for all marketing professionals.
Though first published in 1932, the fifth edition has been updated so that its even more relevant today and, in our opinion, is relevant for every blog post title and meta description, email campaign subject line and preview test, Google AdWords and other pay-per-click ads, company tag lines, as well as in today’s advertising headlines.
Why is this book so good? Because it takes a simple and powerful approach to writing headlines and other copywriting that generates leads and other results.
3-Step Approach to Headline Creativity
For example, here are John Caples’ three-step approach to creativity:
- Capture the Prospects Attention: nothing happens unless something in your ad, your mailing, or your commercial makes the prospect stop long enough to pay attention to what you say next
- Maintain the Prospect’s Interest: keep the ad, mailing, or commercial focused on the prospect, on what he or she will get out of using your product or service
- Move the Prospect to Favorable Action: unless enough “prospects” are transformed into “customers,” your ad has failed, no matter how creative; that’s why you don’t stop with the A/I/A (attention/interest/action), but continue on with testing [editor’s note: much like the Create a Sense of Urgency step of the brand story framework]
Specific to headlines, here are four important qualities for the most effective, results-generating headlines according to John Caples:
- Self-Interest: first and foremost, try to get self-interest into every headline you write – make your headline suggest to prospects that it’s something they want; this rule is so fundamental that it would seem obvious, yet it’s violated every day by scores of copywriters
- News: if you have news, such as a new product or a new use for an old product, be sure to get it into your headline in a big way
- Curiosity: avoid headlines that merely provoke curiosity as it is seldom enough by itself – however, curiosity combined with news or self-interest is an excellent aid to the pulling power of your headline; this fundamental rule is violated more often than any other and is the primary reason content fails to generate results
- Quick, Easy Way: try to suggest that here is a quick and easy way for your prospects to get something they want – just make sure it’s believable
Tip: avoid headlines that paint the gloomy or negative side of the picture – take the cheerful, positive angle.
Yes, it’s that simple, though the most effective headlines include more than one of these qualities, if not all four.
Classic Headline Examples
Below are classic advertising headline examples that adhere to at least one of the four qualities:
- How a Fool Stunt Made Me a Star Salesman
- What’s Wrong in This Picture
- How I Improved My Memory in One Evening
- Give Me 5 Days and I’ll Give You a Magnetic Personality… Let Me Prove It—FREE
- A New Course and Service for Men and Women Who Want to Be Independent in the Next 5 Years
- The Deaf Now Hear Whispers
- Wanted—Your Services as a High-Paid Real Estate Specialist
- Announcing New Home Money Making Plan
- “No Time for Yale–Took College Home,” Says Well-Known Author
- I Gambled a Postage Stamp and Won $35,840 in 2 Years
Headlines That Failed
- “No… No… Don’t Call on Me!” (course in public speaking)
- The Odds Are 9 to 1 Against You (business training course)
- “I’ll Never Give Another Party,” She Sobbed (book of games for parties)
- A Test of How “Well Read” You Are (book of literary gems)
- Is Worry Robbing You of the Good Things of Life? (life insurance)
- The Trouble with Many Married Men Is… (life insurance)
- Are You Playing Fair with Your Wife? (life insurance)
- Are You Living in a Circle? (budget book)
- The Years that the Locust Hath Eaten (business training course)
- Letters Wives Don’t Write to Their Unsuccessful Husbands (business training course)
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