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What makes a good headline?

If the job of a headline is to get people to stop and take attention of your marketing message, how exactly do you do that? How do you get a headline to cut through all the other advertising messages and “noise” and busy-ness?

In short, how can you grab your readers’ attention and engage them in just a few words?

How to engage your readers

The key to getting your readers’ attention is to engage them. That means, getting them to pause for long enough so that they’ll want to read more.

There are a number of ways in which you can write headlines which engage readers, and you can use these techniques either in isolation, or by combining them.

We’ll look at these techniques by applying some examples: the “before” is the kind of introductory text you’ll often read online or in an advertisement. The “after” gives an example of a more effective headline.

1. Ask questions to engage your readers

A very popular and very effective way to engage readers is to ask a question in your headline.

Example – website designer:
Before: We design e-commerce websites
After: Do you wish your website generated more sales?

Example – fruit and vegetable store:
Before: Apples $3.50 a kilo
After: Do you need to increase your 5-a-day fruit intake?

2.  Use customer-focused words

Make it about the reader: make sure you use the words “you” and “your” as much as possible – and try to avoid “we”, “us” and “our” as much as you can. Certainly avoid using the latter at the beginning of the sentence.

Example – plumber:
Before: We fix leaks.
After: You don’t need to put up with that drippy tap!

Example – fence manufacturer:
Before: We specialise in the manufacture of high quality fences.
After:  Are you looking for a stylish way to secure your property?

(In this last example, notice how the question-asking technique has also been used.)

3. Offer a solution to a problem

Offering a solution to a problem that your reader is having is another common headline-writing technique. That’s why you see so many headlines beginning with “how to…” or “why…”. Here are some examples:

Example – landscape gardener:
Before: Shrub pruning
After: How to enjoy more fruit this summer with this easy shrub pruning technique.

Example – gym:
Before:  Supervised weight lifting sessions.
After: Why lifting weights will slim you down.

This also means that you’re talking about benefits rather than features, e.g. enjoying more fruit or slimming down… the things the consumer really wants! Pruning or weight lifting is just the means to the end: we don’t necessarily want to spend our time pruning or lifting weights, but we do want more fruit in our garden, or to be slimmer.

4. Using emotional trigger words

There are certain words that are said to grab people’s attention because they generate an emotional response.

Examples of trigger words include: achieve, amazing, bargain, beautiful, easy, exclusive, formula, free, imagine, important, luxury, power, results, revolutionary, savvy, selected, shocking, urgent, valuable… there are dozens more of these. Just look up “emotional trigger words” in your favourite search engine.

Example – hairdresser:
Before: Hair straightening service
After: With this revolutionary hair-straightening technique, you can enjoy 25 valuable minutes longer in bed each day!

Example – business coach:
Before: Dealing with debtors
After: Is your cash flow suffering because you’re not using this important financial management technique?

Health warning: use emotional trigger words in moderation. If you over-use them, you could come off as sounding phoney, insincere and too good to be true. Here’s the business coach example again, with too many emotional trigger words:

Imagine the amazing results you could be achieving with this valuable, revolutionary formula!

… Yuck! That example is so over-hyped, it would be hard to believe what’s being said next. By all means use emotional trigger words, but go easy on them.

Summary

These are just some of the ways you can use headlines to engage your readers: there are other techniques as well, but these are a good starting point as they are quite easy to implement. (Plus, they work really well!)

Do make sure you try these techniques next time you write a headline.

One final word on headlines: they shouldn’t be too long. If you can’t easily say a headline in one breath, you need to re-visit it and shorten it. Why? Long headlines are confusing and cluttered… and after all, the whole purpose of the headline is to cut through the noise and busy-ness (rather than adding to it).

 

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