How to Write a Headline (Seriously)

As I’ve threatened for some time, I’m finally getting around to writing my post on how to write a headline. This isn’t one of my typical humor pieces. This is a real overview of how to do it, intended for the beginning copywriter. By the end of it, you’ll be an expert and I’ll be out of a job. But I’m a giver, so for all of you who got an A in English class and always think, “I could totally do that”, I’m pulling back the curtain.

Let me start with a quote that every aspiring copywriter should know. Famous ad dude David Ogilvy said: “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 eighty cents out of your dollar.”

That’s how important the headline is. It gets attention, and should deliver your message, even if no one reads the copy in the rest of the ad. Whether it’s a digital ad or a print ad or a website home page carousel or a blog post title or whatever, the same principles still apply.

Where to start: The straight line.
The first thing you need to figure out is what you want to say. You have to know who your audience is, what the competition is saying, what your position is, what the features/benefits of the product are, if you have a USP (unique selling proposition)…all that.

If you’re at an agency, you work with the account team to figure that out. If you’re a small business owner, you know all this already. Either way, all this legwork needs to be done before you ever write a single headline.

Once you know all this, you distill it all into a straight line. I’ve also heard this called a blueprint line, but I like straight line better, so that’s what I call it. You might have several straight lines on a project, but to keep things simple, let’s just stick with one.

Your straight line is one sentence, and it’s what you would tell someone about your product in plain English, assuming you have their full attention. You’re not being clever or creative at this point. You’re being clear and simple. For example, your straight line could be, “Bosch makes the quietest dishwashers in the world.” Or “Our lingonberry pancakes are on sale this month.” Or “Our cars are made for those who appreciate adventure.”

Write or type that straight line across the top of your page.

Now, it’s your job as a copywriter to write a headline that is a lot more interesting, but communicates just as clearly. That straight line will serve as your guide to keep you from straying too far. If you start wandering, compare what you’ve written to your straight line. Does it say the same thing? Or have you gone off on a tangent? Keep referring to your straight line.

Think of someone you know.
Advertising is one-on-one communication. You’re not talking to a million people. You’re talking to one person: the person who’s reading your headline.

It always helps me to think of someone I know who’s in my target audience. Let’s say the target is someone who, as much as possible, tries to only buy organic food for their family. That’s my wife. So while I write headlines, I’ll imagine I’m talking directly to her. What would appeal to her? What could I say to her that would intrigue her?

Or let’s say the target is world-class athletes. I have a buddy who’s a triathlete, currently ranked fifth in the world in his age group. I’ll think of him.

How about if the target is snooty a-holes? I know a lot of them. So I just picture one of them.

Even if you don’t know a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker personally, the goal is to make your headline a conversation between you and a real person, not just some vague, non-personal group of data points.

Okay, but how?
Your pen is hovering over your paper. Your fingers are suspended above your keyboard. How exactly do you get started? What do you write?

When I was starting out, I used to devour all the advertising awards annuals. There are lots of awards competitions in the advertising industry, and they publish books with all the winners in them. My two favorites are The One Show and Communication Arts. You can order One Show annuals here and CA annuals here.

Everyone used to look at them, in fact. And many of us still do. They serve as inspiration and as the high bars. Some people I know used to use them to steal ideas, but most of us could never do that. In fact, we’d be sitting around concepting, and we’d come up with a great idea, then one of us would say, “nah, that was in CA a few years ago. Can’t do that.” The goal was to be original and fresh and get in the book ourselves (which many of us did).

Anyway, I saw all this work as a wee lad, and I tried to reverse-engineer the ads. I tried to figure out how they arrived at those brilliant solutions. What questions did they have to ask themselves to come up with those concepts?

From there, I came up with my own questions that I would ask myself when I started a project. For example, “What happens if I don’t use this product?” “What happens if I do use this product?” “What happens if someone else uses this product but I don’t?” “Will people like me more if I use this product?” “How will this product make me happier?” “What did people do before this product was invented?” “What if this product came in every color?” “What if I used this product in a library?”

The list of questions you can ask yourself is…well, it isn’t endless, but there are an awful lot of ways you can think about a product or a situation.

Write everything down.
Okay, you’re ready and willing, and now what? Just start writing. Write anything. Write everything.

When I write, I’ll write phrases and words and complete sentences. I’ll write notes like, “healthier, makes me lose weight, I won’t be a human boat anchor, I won’t weigh more than a palletful of Christmas hams…” I don’t worry about if it’s good or bad, because I’m not going to show anyone all the random, weird thoughts anyway. The goal is to get the words flowing. To board a train of thought. To drift down a stream of consciousness.

You’ll write plenty of crappy headlines, but so what? They’re a starting point. Sometimes I’ll look back on a headline and think, how did I get to this? And I’ll see that I started with a crappy headline, then I tweaked it a little, then I did this instead, then I made this leap, and eventually, I ended up with a great headline. And I wouldn’t have gotten there if I hadn’t first written that crappy headline down.

The other reason you write everything down is to get it out of your head. If you keep thinking of the same word or phrase, it gets in the way, and nothing new can come out. So I’ll write down anything I think of. Once it’s down, I can stop thinking about it and think of something new. If I keep thinking of a crappy headline even after I write it down, I’ll keep writing it down until it’s purged.

I can’t reinforce this enough: it doesn’t matter if you write down the lamest, most embarrassingly bad, the most offensive or inappropriate headlines ever. Remember, no one will ever see them. You only share the good stuff.

Write a lot.
How many headlines should you write? As many as it takes. Early in my career, it was not unusual for me to write 100 or even 200 headlines. For a single ad. I’m faster and more efficient now, but even so, sometimes it takes awhile. For a single ad, it’s still not unusual for me to write 40 or 50 headlines. My goal is to give my client enough great options that they have a hard time choosing their favorite. As far as that goes, depending on the client and the assignment, I usually shoot for around five or so to present. Any more than that typically just makes it too much for a client to choose.

Concepts, not headlines.
I’ve been saying “headlines” this entire time, but honestly, you should be thinking in terms of “concepts”. Ideally, the headline and the visual should work together to create a concept. If the headline says it all, try to take some of the words away so that the visual pays it off (completes the thought). Or vice versa. The visual could be prominent, and the headline can pay it off.

For example, an ad I wrote for Bosch said, “The loudest sound in your kitchen will be you weeping tears of joy.” Makes no sense by itself, right? But the visual paid off the headline, and in this case, it was simply showing the product, which was a dishwasher. And the straight line? “This is a quiet dishwasher.







One of the most well-known examples of great visuals with simple headlines is the Absolut vodka campaign. I had nothing to do with that campaign, though I wish I had.

Concepts. Not just headlines.

Subheads: the donkeys of the ad.
Sometimes you just can’t get it all in the headline. Headlines should be relatively quick and punchy, and there just might not be room to say “the Bosch dishwasher is quiet and it’s on sale” in the headline alone. A subhead can help. You can say it’s 15% off without cluttering up the headline. Conversely, you could say 15% off in the headline and put quiet in the subhead or visual. The point is, with a glance at the headline, subhead, visual and logo, your audience has pretty much all the information they need to know what the ad is about.

Be consistent with your brand.
Remember, a brand is like a person. So you have to speak in a consistent voice. If you’re an intelligent, authoritative brand, you have to sound like an authority. If you’re a young and energetic brand, you have to sound young and energetic. Keep your brand characteristics in mind.

Touch an emotion.
You can’t bore anyone into buying your product. If you ever hope to provoke any kind of response, you must, must, must touch an emotion. Whether that’s inspiration or humor or sorrow or warmth or even outrage, your ad has to touch an emotion in order to connect.

Words that seem to help.
“Free” is a great word. Any time you can work “free” into your headline, do so.

Another phrase that used to be good was “How to”. But then everyone was writing a “how to” headline, and it started to feel stale. Any ad that said “how to” automatically felt familiar, and that’s no way to break through the clutter.

Now, though, “How to” is making a comeback. It’s all over the internet, and people still want to know how to do things. “How to write a headline” started as my straight line for this blog post, and after exploring other ways of saying it, I decided it was still the best way of saying it. It’s not a clever headline by any means,  and I haven’t written a “How to” headline in years, but part of being a good writer is knowing when to break the rules, even if they’re your own rules.

Sex and borrowed interest.
Your ad has to be relevant so people don’t feel tricked. The classic example of borrowed interest is, “Sex. Now that I have your attention, let’s talk (whatever the product is).” The word “Sex” is just a cheap trick to get you to read the ad. Who wants to deal with a company who has to trick you into listening to their message? Tells you right off the bat their message isn’t interesting enough in and of itself.

The last thing: writer’s block.
I once read an article in an old CA that I ran across in my first boss’ collection. I wish I’d saved it. I looked for it a couple of times after that, but could never find it again, even when I still worked there.

The gist of the article was that there’s no such thing as writer’s block. If you can’t think of anything to write, it simply means you’re coming into it through the same door. You have to come into it through a different door.

Remember that list of questions I ask myself? The key is to come up with more questions. Try to look at the problem from a different perspective. Ask yourself new questions, and remember, write everything down. Get the words flowing, and pretty soon you’ll be off and writing amazing headlines once again.

Or you can just have me do them for you.

As always, comment below and please subscribe. It makes me feel warm inside.

Future post: How to write body copy.

10 Thoughts to “How to Write a Headline (Seriously)

  1. The part I read was very interesting- first 7 paragraphs then I scrolled until I saw SEX, and read the rest.?
    Well done. You should get a lecturing gig.

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