How To Write Persuasive Headlines

When it comes to designing marketing materials, we always assume images attract more attention than words. Not always. A well-written headline can be just as effective at luring the reader’s eye as a well-selected visual. And an advertisement or cover that includes both a strong headline and strong visual can dramatically improve your chances of the piece getting opened, read and acted upon.

Unfortunately, lots of design briefs include lazy headlines that fail to inspire. Obviously, bad headlines means bad news for the client—readers don’t pick up publicity that doesn’t shout for their attention. It’s also bad news for you—if the headline doesn’t inspire you, how are you expected to produce an exciting design?

Offering headline consultation
Designers willing to consult with their clients on headlines can forge themselves a major business advantage. Writing headlines allows designers to connect the ‘voice’ and the ‘look’ of the promotion, making for a much more dynamic and memorable copy/visual message.

It’s is also a layer of service that can significantly boost a designer’s freelancing job opportunities. Offering headline writing can turn a freelance designer into an advertising consultant, and an indispensable creative vendor for marketing clients.

The secret of a good headline?
A good headline should seduce the target reader. It should grab the reader’s attention, hooking the reader into the body copy.

Below are 13 conventional techniques for wording headlines. Use them as a platform for brainstorming ideas when suggesting improvements for your clients’ lead copy.

  1. Ask a provocative question
    Questions address the reader at a personal level, eliciting their agreement and creating a need for the product. Well-targeted questions draw the reader into the body copy by arousing curiosity.
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  2. Begin a story
    A headline that promises an interesting or emotional story is guaranteed to catch the eye and encourage the reader to read on. For maximum effect, end your headline on a cliff-hanger so the reader has no choice but to find out what happens next.
    They laughed when I sat down at the piano but when I started to play!
  3. Make a controversial statement
    Controversial statements arouse curiosity and give your publicity news-value. If you have an opportunity to make a controversial statement in a manner that is consistent with your product’s message, make sure the claim is a) true, b) not offensive in any way, and c) fully explained in the body copy.
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  4. Reveal an intriguing fact
    Factoids satisfy the readers’ natural thirst for knowledge. Make sure the fact you choose is up-to-date and relevant to your target audience.
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  5. Promise a reward for reading on
    Headlines such as How to…, 5 reasons why…, and 10 top tips for… promise the reader nuggets of useful information when they read the body copy. These headlines can be extremely effective, as long as you deliver on your promise in the text.
    How to cut your home insurance bill in half
  6. Command the reader to do something
    Commands grab attention because they are direct and help you to communicate the product’s benefits up-front. For this reason, I recommend that you consider using a command headline as your standard headline of choice.
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  7. Be startlingly frank
    People don’t normally expect promotional literature to be straight-talking. That’s why headlines perceived as being frank and honest never fail to grab attention. Use this approach if your message can be reinforced by forfeiting a trade secret or confronting a taboo or sensitive issue head-on. (Make sure your target audience will welcome your treatment of the issue you are confronting).
    Cash if you die, cash if you don’t
  8. Lead with a testimonial
    People treat publicity with natural scepticism. Testimonials grab attention and encourage the reader to read on by immediately validating your message.
    “I’m so sure you’ll love my Frying Machine, I put my name on it”
  9. Say how many people have bought the product
    Popularity headlines grab attention and draw readers into the body copy by evoking a feeling of curiosity: there must be a reason why people are buying the product.
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  10. Write from somebody else’s point of view
    You can write your headline from the view-point of anyone or anything that benefits from your reader buying the product. For example, if you are writing to teachers about a school text book, try writing from the students’ point of view. If you are writing to mothers about a childcare product, why not write from the child’s point of view.
    Product: Toddlers’ diapers. Headline: [visual of toddler sitting on toilet] Mommy, I can do it too!
  11. Play on words
    Puns that reinforce a message can be extremely memorable. But be careful, wordplay for the sake of wordplay can appear absurd and completely incomprehensible. Make sure your headline works as a sales pitch as well as an interesting idea.
    – Product: Car. Headline: Forget mpg and mph. It’s got mp3.
    – Product: liquor. Headline: The story of Dramanio is over 250 years old. We’ve just added a couple of twists. [visual of hand twisting lime juice into a tall glass of liquor]
    – Product: Cell phone. Headline: Ironic that a phone would leave you speechless
  12. Break the reader’s expectations
    When people say a particular headline is ‘clever’, it’s usually because the concept provides an element of surprise. Often the headline or visual sets up an expectation, which is broken when the product is introduced.
    – Heard the one about women drivers? [Sub-headline: They got cheaper car insurance.]
    – What Nut Did This?[visual of delicious cake topped with walnuts]
  13. Make it newsy
    You can base the format and style of your headline and copy around the concept of a news report. This is particularly effective if the product has been developed on the back of some interesting research, if the message coincides with a timely news story, or if the product has been eagerly awaited in the market.
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This list of headline approaches is intended as a starting point for brainstorming ideas; it is not definitive—the most creative headlines often stray away from the conventional. I should also note that many great concepts include headlines that are utterly meaningless in isolation, but extremely memorable in the context of the visual (the ‘What Nut Did This?’ example demonstrates this nicely).

Adapted from The Freelance Designer’s Self-Marketing Handbook