What should a headline do?

You’re working. You’re with a group, brainstorming. You’re trying to come up with a concept for an ad. You’re thinking about images and ideas and of course headlines. And inevitably, someone — it could be a designer, the client, or even a creative director — says something like this … “We have to somehow get the whole point across in the headline to catch people who are just leafing through the magazine — because, you know, nobody reads body copy.”

Is that true? Does the headline have to do all the work of the whole ad? Well, like most things in marketing, the answer is … it depends.

It depends on the product or service, the state of the market, and the target audience. Say you have a product that’s pretty simple and your audience is fully aware of. In that case, sure, the headline can do all the heavy lifting. In fact, sometimes a headline might be all you need. For example, “Laundry Baskets — 3 for $9.99.” Not a lot else to do there.

Or even if the product is just slightly more complicated than a laundry basket but your audience is aware of it and its benefits — even then, the headline can do most of the work, like this — “Laugh at the Snow with Goodyear Ultra Ice Winter Tires Thanks to Posi-Lock Traction Tread.” Sure, you could go on in body copy about tread design, rubber compounds, differentiating from competitors, and whatnot, but for the most part — and depending on the audience — the headline says it.

For the vast majority of cases, though, the purpose of the headline is NOT to convey the entire sales message. Not by a long shot. For most ads, the purpose of the headline is to get your target audience to read the ad. Because if we’re trying to introduce a new product, open up a new market, or reinvigorate a product that’s nearing the end of it’s lifecycle, then our best hope of persuading prospects is by exposing them to a powerful step-by-step sales argument. And you just can’t do that in a headline alone.

Think of one of the greatest headlines of all time — “Do You Make These Mistakes in English?” This gem was the first step in a blockbuster ad for a correspondence course in grammar. What if someone had imposed the headline-has-to-say-it-all requirement on the writer of that headline, Max Sackheim, one of the true greats of advertising and copywriting? The ad wouldn’t have generated the millions of dollars in business that it did. The key to the success of the headline, of course, is the addition of the unassuming little word “these.” The headline works because — with the help of this one little word — it points the reader’s attention to the body copy, where the ad then takes up the art of persuasion in earnest. Most of the time, that’s the headline’s real job.

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One Response to What should a headline do?

  1. mak says:

    great insight, I can use this on my next project

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