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When writing direct response copy, a few things can maximize the responsiveness of your message. The first and most important element that can turn any website, salesletter, or advertisement into an action-generating mechanism is, without question, the headline.

But lately, I'm seeing more and more headlines that are limp, bloated, or simply dead wrong.

A headline is meant to do two vital things.

No more and no less. First, it needs to grab your reader's attention. That's the primary and most important job of the headline. It's not meant to summarize an offer or be a paragraph in and of itself. It's not meant to make a sale, either.

You know what I'm talking about, right? Headlines like these make me twitch…

“Stomp Out Yo-Yo Diets For Good When You Apply The Amazing Accidentally Discovered Secret Weightloss Strategy That Can Literally Triple Your Energy, Boost Your Immune System, And Shed Unwanted Pounds of Pure, Stubborn Fat Without Moving A Single Inch And While Eating Everything Your Heart Fancies — Even If You Carry The Fat-Magnetizing Genes Of Someone Who Can't Lose A Single Ounce After Running Back-To-Back Marathons… Starting As Early As Tonight, 100% Guaranteed!”

Ugh.

Double ugh.

People not only won't read it all, much less your salesletter, but it also immediately sends off alarm bells way too early that your copy is a blatant sales pitch.

In today's fax-microwave-email world, people want everything fast. Their attention span is smaller than an subatomic particle. Online, they surf the web in a click-happy state, ready to open and close browser windows at the blink of an eye. Literally.

For example, they tend to scan web pages quickly, even many of them simultaneously. Your site is but a blur to them. So, your headline must be prominent, effective enough to stop them, and efficient to do so in a very short span of time.

And the headline's second job is, it needs pull the reader into the copy.

To do that, it must create curiosity. It must be interesting enough to pull the reader in and push her further into the copy. It must be pithy enough — not necessarily short but straightforward enough — to do its job in the least amount of words possible.

And finally, it must cater to a specific emotion or a relevant condition that speaks to the target market at a personal level, and does so immediately and with as little thinking as possible — one to which the reader can easily and instantly associate.

Before I give you some examples, note that most of these headlines were enormously successful for my clients, not because they were tested and tweaked, but because they were actually stolen from other, equally successful ads or salesletters.

All copywriters worth their salt do this. They steal. Recycle. Copy. Model. Swipe.

But above all, they adapt.

Of course, they mustn't be copied verbatim. When I say “steal,” I mean to do it in an ethical way. There's a big difference between plagiarism and modelling. But they can be easily adapted to fit the market, the offer, and the message.

I have a large swipe file that contains copies of ads, websites, direct mail pieces and salesletters I come across. I then turn them into templates or “fill-in-the-blanks” formulas.

Here's a list of “triggers,” coupled with actual examples I used in the past:

  • Curiosity (“Revealed! Closely Guarded Secrets For …”)
  • Mystery (“The Five Biggest Mistakes to Avoid By …”)
  • Fear (“Over 98.4% of People End up Broke When …”)
  • Pain (“Suffering From Needless Back Pain? Then …”)
  • Convenience (“How to Increase Your Chances With …”)
  • Envy (“How Fellow Marketer Pummels Competitors By …”)
  • Jealousy (“They All Laughed When … Until I …”)
  • Sloth (“Slash Your Learning Curve By 57% When …”)
  • Love, Lust (“Make Her Fall in Love With You With …”)
  • Shock (“Finally Exposed! Get The Dirty Truth On …”)
  • Greed (“Boost Your Income By More Than 317% When …”)
  • Pride, Power, Ego (“Make Fellow Workers Squirm With …”)
  • Assurance (“… In Less Than 60 Days, Guaranteed!”)
  • Immortality (“Reverse The Aging Process With …”)
  • Anger (“Banks Are Ripping You Off! Here's Why …”)

Study and model successful copywriting as much as you can.

Dan Kennedy, a successful copywriter, teaches this exercise: buy tabloids, such as The National Enquirer, on a regular basis. Of course, the publication may be questionable for some, and it may not necessarily fit with your style or cater to your market.

But here's the reason why.

Ad space in tabloids is excruciatingly expensive. If an ad is repeated in more than two issues, preferably copy-dense ads and full-page advertorials, common sense tells you that the ad is profitable. Rip out the ad and put it into your swipe file.

(If you don't have one, a shortcut is to copy someone else's, like this list of headlines from Jay Abraham, or swipe from proven list of successful headlines. But also, don't discount supermarket magazines, like Cosmo, Vanity Fair, Men's Health, and the like.)

Then, copy the headlines into a document. They can be easily converted into “fill-in-the-blanks” formulas. Keep in mind, you need to understand why the headline worked — simply swapping in a few words here and there doesn't mean it will work.

Swiping, done correctly, can work well with almost all markets. I've tried these types of headlines on both low-end and high-end clients, from simple $10 products to six-figure investment opportunities. And they worked quite effectively in both situations.

The cosmetics of a headline is equally important if not more so. The type must be bold, large, and prominently placed, even written in a different font or typestyle, if possible. It must draw attention. It must grab your readers “by the eyeballs.”

Remember, your first job is to catch their attention. Then, and only then, it's to get them to start reading your letter. And the headline is often the best tool to do this.

Specificity is also quite important. The more specific you are with your headline, the better the response will be. Use odd, non-rounded numbers because they are more believable and pull more than even, rounded numbers.

(For example, in its commercials, Ivory Soap used to say that it was “99.44% pure.” Otherwise, if it used “100%,” it likely wouldn't have been as believable.)

Whenever possible, be quantifiable, measurable, and time-bound.

For example, don't say “how to increase your income” or “make money fast.” Words like “income” and “fast” are vague. Instead, say, “How six simple sales strategies helped me stumble onto an unexpected $5,431.96 windfall — in less than 27 hours!”

The bigger the numbers are, the greater the impact is. If the same number can be presented in a way where the numerals are larger, then use the larger one.

For instance, if you say “five times more,” replace it with “500%” (or better yet, “517%” or “483%”). Don't say “one year,” say “364 days.” The brain thinks in pictures, not numbers or words. Both terms may mean the same thing, but one is perceived as bigger.

Using some of the triggers mentioned at the beginning of this article, here are some examples of being specific with your headlines (see if you notice them):

  • “Nine Jealously Guarded Techniques That …”
  • “Here Are 17 of My Most Prized Recipes For …”
  • “How I Made $42,791.36 in Only 11 Days With …”
  • “Boost Your Golf Drives By 27 Yards When …”
  • “A Whole New Way to Lose 45 Pounds in 7 Weeks With …”
  • “Marketing Toolkit Contains 35 Powertools That …”
  • “Follow These Eight Magical Steps to …”
  • “Read This 22-Chapter, 376-Page Powerhouse …”
  • The 10 Commandments of Power Positioning …”
  • “Chop Paperwork By as Much as 47% When …”
  • “Slash Your Learning Curve By Four Weeks With …”
  • “… And Start Within Only 33 Minutes!”

My favorite headline formula is one I call the “gapper,” which is based on the pain-pleasure principle. In sales, it's often referred to as “gap analysis.”

(Dan Kennedy calls it “Problem-Agitate-Solve.” That is, you start by presenting a problem. You agitate your audience by making the problem “bigger,” more significant, and more urgent. And then you present your solution in the offer.)

There's a gap between a prospect's problem and its solution — or a gap between where one is now and where that person wants to be in the future. But many prospects either don't know there is a gap or, because it is one, naturally have a tendency to ignore it.

It's simply human nature.

So, a headline that communicates the presence of such a gap — and particularly one that helps to widen it — will likely appeal to those who can immediately relate to it. That is, the people who happen to fit within that specific site's target market.

For example, a headline for a diet program might say:

“62% of Americans Are Only One Hamburger Shy of a Heart Attack, Doctor Reports.”

This headline speaks to the gap of a health-conscious market who are obese and want to do something about it, and widens it by instilling a sense of danger and urgency.

(In addition to the headline, this can be accomplished through other components, such as a surheadline, subheadline, “lift” copy, sidenotes, deck copy, or lead sentences. For instance, a subheadline to the above might say: “Here's what you can do about it now.”)

By opening the gap or widening it helps to reinforce a sense of urgency in the mind.

After the headline, visitors will want to know how, by reading further, they can close that gap. And the wider the gap is, the greater the desire to close it will be — and the more valuable the gap-closing solution, which is your offer, will be as well.

Why? Because it appeals to stronger motives.

Abraham Maslow, the famous psychologist who developed the hierarchy of human motives, stated that the foundation of all human needs is our need to survive. Once satisfied, the next one is our need for safety. Our need to be with other people is next, followed by our need to feel appreciated. Finally, our need to be challenged is at the top.

The “pain-pleasure principle” states that people either fear pain and try to avoid it, or crave pleasure and try to gain it. When given a choice between the two, however, and according to Maslow, pain is almost always a superior motive.

Our need to survive and feel safe, which are at the bottom of Maslow's pyramid, rule over all other needs, which are social, esteem and self-improvement needs.

So a headline that communicates a problem (i.e., a painful situation or a potentially painful one that may arise without the benefits of your offer) will have more impact.

People who associate with the message will feel compelled to read more, which also helps to qualify your readers — it isolates the “serious” from the “curious.”

You heard it before: there's a difference between “needs” and “wants.”

When I work with plastic surgeons, I often tell them to use as a headline, “Suffering from wrinkles?” That way, it pulls only qualified prospects into the ad because it appeals not only to people with wrinkles but also to those who suffer from wrinkles (i.e., they want to do something about them, since not everyone who has wrinkles are bothered by them).

A web salesletter I recently wrote for Michael Murray talks about the fact that he is a college student stricken with cerebral palsy who's “made it” online. The copy and most of the headers use some of the triggers I mentioned earlier.

Below is a brief list. Can you identify them?

  • “SPECIAL REPORT! Want to cash in on …”
  • “… But don't have a product or a website?”
  • “How a ‘Physically Disabled' Teenager …”
  • “Earn a $2,000-to-17,000 Monthly Downpour of Dollars …”
  • “… On a Shoestring Budget!”
  • “Jealously guarded ‘secrets' are finally revealed …”
  • “Get your hands on dirt-cheap products to sell …”
  • “You'll never have to create your own products!”
  • “… Model after actual websites ‘making it' BIG TIME!”
  • “PLUS, for a limited time only, the next 500 orders …”
  • “And if I can do it, I'm sure most ‘abled' people can!”

At the time of writing the letter, Michael was a 19-year old with cerebral palsy.

Also known as the “Bill Porter” of online marketing, Michael and his story moved me personally. But in choosing his headline specifically, my biggest concern was, most people have become so desensitized with opportunities of this nature.

So, in order to beef up the attention factor, I used what John Carlton often calls “the incongruous juxtaposition of seemingly irrelevant ideas, things, or events,” and catered to people's emotions by using Michael's disability as a psychological “hook.”

I wanted the headline to stop people in their tracks and force them to say to themselves, “If a teenage kid with cerebral palsy can make that much money, then there must be something in here I need to know more about…”

Ultimately, ask yourself: “Does my headline effectively stop people from scanning, capture their attention, and trigger their emotions in order to pull them into the copy?”

More importantly, ask yourself, “Does my opening statement beg for attention, and genuinely cater to the dominant motives and resident emotions of my market?”

If not, change your headline, even with the same copy.

Sure, it may be a small and insignificant change overall. But sometimes the smallest changes in your copy can be the ones that create the most dramatic changes in results.

Michel Fortin

Chief Experience Officer at Supportibles, Inc.
A copywriter and consultant for close to 30 years, Michel was instrumental in selling millions worth of products and services. His most notable success is a salesletter that sold over a million dollars online on launch day. Today, Michel is a best-selling author, in-demand public speaker, and highly sought-after marketing consultant. Get his free report, "The 10 Commandments of Power Positioning," at Supportibles.com.

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