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A good headline is critical. Its purpose is to captivate your readers’ attention and entice them into your body text. If it fails, all your work will be for nought and you won’t stand a chance of persuading your would-be readers.

You’ve only got one chance, so you’ve got to get it right. But how do you entice readers into your copy?

Most importantly, you have to offer a benefit to your readers. Indicate that if they read on, they’ll get some kind of payoff.

But in most cases, you don’t actually spell out the benefit in the headline. Rather, you engage the reader’s curiosity by hinting at the benefit. Do this right, and readers will find it irresistible. They’ll be hooked.

It’s curiosity — fueled by the promise of a wonderful benefit — that makes a great headline. Below are some proven techniques for writing compelling headlines.

Make a surprising statement

A great way to rouse curiosity is to make an apparently bizarre statement, then leave your readers dangling. (Some social scientists call this “Optimal Level of Dissonance.”) The surprising statement could be a bold promise or guarantee. For example:

“Increase your sales by 25% overnight, or you don’t pay.”

“If you don’t agree that my granola bar is the best you’ve ever tasted, I’ll eat the box it came it.”

Or it could be a statement that’s apparently against your self interest. (Think of Volkswagen’s famous “Lemon” headline.) Here are some examples:

“Why you shouldn’t shop at my store”

“Why I’m the worst copywriter in Canada”

“Run Away Now. Dangerous Information Inside.”

 

“How To…”

People love to be told how to solve problems or get some kind of advantage. Headlines beginning in “How to” can be irresistible. For example:

“How to Write Headlines Your Customers Can’t Resist”

“How To Increase Conversions by 10% Overnight”

Remember also Dale’s Carnegie’s famous book title, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”

 

Offer a helpful checklist or “Top Ten”

Like the “How To” trick, offering a list attracts readers by promising a solution to a problem (or maybe just a good laugh).

“Five Sure-Fire Ways to Save on Fuel Costs”

“Ten Great Reasons to Sleep in Tomorrow”

“Three Magic Words that Women Can’t Resist”

 

Ask a Question

Another way to rouse curiosity is to ask a compelling question. (And, of course, hint that you have the answer.) For example:

“Ever Wondered Why…”

“Do You Know the Three Biggest Challenges in Email Marketing?”

“Are You Killing Your Sales with the World’s Most Common Marketing Blunder?”

 

Writing great headlines isn’t easy. To create one that truly engages readers, you really have to understand what it is that drives them. You’ve got to find a compelling benefit that will solve a problem, provide valuable information, or otherwise enrich the lives of your readers.

Like most aspects of writing, it’s largely a matter of putting in the effort. If you haven’t gone through at least 10 drafts of potential headlines, you probably aren’t trying hard enough. Bash out another 20, then start winnowing…

Last week, I outlined some preliminary homework we have to do before starting to write. Let’s assume that’s done now, and move on to structuring our message.

How do we structure messages that resonate with visitors, and lead them to take the action we desire?

We can take a cue from traditional advertising copywriters here. For generations, they’ve relied on a structure called “AIDA” to convince customers they simply must buy their clients’ products.

AIDA stands for Attention, Interest, Desire and Action. I’ll explain each step below.

Attention

First, you have to capture your readers’ attention. A powerful image is helpful of course. But as a copywriter, your first concern is the headline.

In writing headlines, it’s often tempting to show off how clever we are. Our first impulse may be to use puns, double meanings, humor or other wordplay. And occasionally that can work. Usually, however, it’s much better simply to highlight a key benefit your reader will gain.

State a clear and compelling promise that will capture your reader’s attention and draw him into reading more.

As writing headlines is an art in itself, I’ll go into more detail in a later post.

 

Interest

You’ve captured your reader’s attention with a clear, compelling, benefit-centered headline. Now what?

The next step is to build on the promise you’ve made in your headline.

Presumably, your product solves some sort of problem. So let your readers know that you understand their problem. Describe the problem, emphasize its scope, highlight the annoyance or pain it inflicts on their lives. Stir their emotions.

Where appropriate, use statistics or other facts to let readers know they’re not alone in suffering from this problem. Maybe even let them know you’ve suffered from it too. Show empathy; create a bond with your readers.

Then, indicate you’ve got a solution. Build curiosity, entice readers further down the page…

 

Desire

Next, explain why your product is the best solution to their problem. Build desire, reduce resistance.

Highlight the benefits of your product. Use storytelling techniques to illustrate how your product has helped others. Build an emotional desire for your product.

Remember, however, that your readers need to rationalize their emotional desires. So use logic and cold, hard facts to back up your claims and help readers feel comfortable they’re making the right choice.

Additional ways to build desire and reduce resistance include:

  • Increasing confidence with Social Proof in the form of testimonials, ratings, reviews, etc.
  • Reducing anxiety and resistance: clear security assurances, easy-to-determine shipping costs, strong product guarantees, etc.
  • Adding urgency with limited-time offers, low stock indicators, etc.

 

Action

The final step is the simplest, but is often overlooked: You need to tell readers exactly what to do next.

Should customers simply “Buy Now”? Should they download a whitepaper? Fill out a form? Pick up the phone and call you?

Whatever it is you want them to do, spell it out for them. Let them know how they can enjoy the wonderful benefits you’ve promised them.

In deciding what action to take (including which products to buy), we’re influenced by both logical and emotional forces.

Logical motivations include:

  • Saving money
  • Saving time
  • Avoiding dangers or hassles
  • Achieving better results

Emotional motivations include:

  • Freeing ourselves of worry, fear or regret
  • Becoming wealthy or otherwise successful
  • Being admired and/or well-liked
  • Generally feeling better about ourselves

To be persuasive, we must address both the logical and the emotional factors: the practical reasons we should buy, and how our purchase will make us feel.

But how do we do this?

It takes a bit of homework and planning. In this post, I’ll address the 3 things you should ask yourself before you start writing.

 

1. Why should your customers buy this product?

Before we can sell something, we have to know all about it. We must fully understand why someone should choose our product above all others.

This takes research. You’ve got to learn everything you can about your product, and those of your competitors. In particular, you must uncover:

  • What does this product do?
  • What problems does it solve?
  • How is it superior to my competitors’ offerings?
  • How can I illustrate its benefits and prove its superiority?

Compile an exhaustive list of both the logical and emotional reasons your customers should buy. Then categorize them and rank them in priority. This “list of reasons” will form the backbone of your persuasive messaging.

 

2. Who’s your audience?

Knowing your customer demographics might be a starting point, but to write copy that truly persuades, it’s not nearly enough.

To know which buttons to push, we need a full understanding of our customers’ deep motivations. In particular, we need to know:

  • What makes them happy and content?
  • What do they aspire to?
  • What excites and drives them?
  • What holds them back? What do they fear or dread?
  • How can our product make their lives better?
  • What might prevent them from choosing our product?

Once we understand these things, we’re much better equipped to put ourselves in their position. We’ll know what will drive them to take action.

 

3. What action do you want your customer to take?

You need to understand exactly what it is you want your readers to do.

If it’s simple thing, then just tell them. For example, “Subscribe to my email list”.

If it’s a complicated sequence, you need to simplify it and provide a clear first step. For example, “Call us NOW!”

Sounds simple enough, right? But you need to know this in advance. Because the more you’re asking of your customers, the more you’ll have to persuade them before asking.

 

Once you have clearly formulated the answers to the above questions, you are ready to start working on your messaging. In future posts, I’ll get into the nitty gritty of persuasive writing.

 

To influence our customers’ decisions, we must understand what motivates them.

In 2004, Cialdini and Goldstein published a remarkable paper* which neatly explains three basic human goals that make us susceptible to persuasion. I’ll briefly describe each below.

1. Accuracy

When making a buying decision, we need to feel confident that we’re relying on accurate information and that buying is the correct thing to do.

This explains why Obedience to Authority is such a powerful persuasion technique: where better to get reliable information than from an expert?

Social Proof is also empowered by our desire for accuracy. When trying to decide how to act (especially in ambiguous circumstances) we look to see how others are acting. “If lots of people are doing it, it must be the right thing to do.”

2. Affiliation

We’re strongly motivated to form and maintain positive social relationships.

This is why, if you want to be persuasive, you’ve got to be likeable. The more we like someone, the stronger our motivation to cultivate a relationship with him or her.

The Rule of Reciprocation (our strong desire to repay favors) relies on this principle too. Reciprocation helps build trust with others, and pushes us towards equity in our relationships.

3. Favorable Self-Concept

We have a strong need to build and maintain a positive self-image. To do this, we’re highly motivated to act consistently with our prior actions, statements and commitments.

This principle is especially strong where we’ve made our previous statement or commitment actively and publicly. See my post on Public Written Statements.

The above forces tend to be subtle, indirect and outside of our awareness… which of course makes us particularly vulnerable to them.

* Robert Cialdini and Noah J Goldstein. Social Influence: Compliance and Conformity. (2004) Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2004.55:591-621

 

Not long ago, I wrote some posts on psychological biases. The crux: knowing your customers’ biases can help you create messages that truly resonate.

But there’s an interesting flip side. Because as marketers, we’re equally biased. We tend to assume our customers will share our own feelings and beliefs.

Biases such as False Consensus and Confirmation Bias can prevent us from recognizing what our customers really want, including:

  • Which products and services will be of interest?
  • What messaging will resonate with readers?
  • Which special offers will motivate them?

Consciously or not, we assume that if something is not appealing to us, it won’t appeal to our customers. And how wrong we can be. Here are a few of my personal examples:

Twitter

If the developers of Twitter had asked my opinion on the viability of their service, I’d likely have scoffed at the concept. Why? Because the idea that the world cares what I’m doing every minute of every day would, to me, have been laughable.

I have zero interest in Tweeting. Surely everyone else feels the same way. Right?

Payday Loans

Twenty years ago, if someone asked me if payday loans were a viable business, I’d have been sceptical. Why? because no matter how broke I was, I’d never let someone take advantage of my misfortune with an overpriced loan.

I’d never take out a payday loan. And surely nobody else would either. Right?

Premium Vodka

Research proves that people can’t tell the difference between regular and super-premium vodkas. So I’d never shell out for a bottle of Grey Goose.

And if I’d never buy it, nobody else would either. Right?

Swiffer TV Ads

I find these ads absolutely unwatchable. When one starts, I LEAP for the remote to change channels. If I were a Swiffer product manager — and my agency presented this creative — I’d have sent them packing.

If I’d never respond to these insipid ads, nobody would. So the Swiffer product line doesn’t stand a chance. Right?

Data-Driven Web Marketing

My own psychological biases have prevented me from recognizing some amazing business opportunities. I’ve simply assumed that if something doesn’t appeal to me, it won’t appeal to others.

This is what happens when we take an intuitive approach to marketing, rather than an data-driven approach.

We should always test our ideas, and we should find other sources of intelligence. In particular:

  • Get to know your customers. Find out what their real motivations are. Their feelings and beliefs, their drivers and blockers. See my posts on developing effective messaging.
  • Rather than relying on creative hunches, test your hypotheses. Free tools like Google Website Optimizer make this easy.

Of course, I’m not suggesting we never use our intuition. If nothing else, it can help us come up with concepts to test. But it’s important to recognize how our own biases and preferences can lead us astray.

Usability

How to Write Headlines that Lure In Readers… Like Charlie Sheen to a Media Scrum

Cardinal Path blog post

A good headline is critical. Its purpose is to captivate your readers’ attention and entice them into your body text. If it fails, all your work will be for nought and you won’t stand a chance of persuading your would-be readers. You’ve only got one chance, so you’ve got to get it right. But how … Read Full Post

Persuasive Copywriting: Structuring Your Message With the Time-Proven AIDA Method

Cardinal Path blog post

Last week, I outlined some preliminary homework we have to do before starting to write. Let’s assume that’s done now, and move on to structuring our message. How do we structure messages that resonate with visitors, and lead them to take the action we desire? We can take a cue from traditional advertising copywriters here. … Read Full Post

Persuasive Copywriting: 3 Things You Need to Know Before You Start

Cardinal Path blog post

In deciding what action to take (including which products to buy), we’re influenced by both logical and emotional forces. Logical motivations include: Saving money Saving time Avoiding dangers or hassles Achieving better results Emotional motivations include: Freeing ourselves of worry, fear or regret Becoming wealthy or otherwise successful Being admired and/or well-liked Generally feeling better … Read Full Post

Online Persuasion: 3 Basic Human Goals That Motivate Your Customers

Cardinal Path blog post

To influence our customers’ decisions, we must understand what motivates them. In 2004, Cialdini and Goldstein published a remarkable paper* which neatly explains three basic human goals that make us susceptible to persuasion. I’ll briefly describe each below. 1. Accuracy When making a buying decision, we need to feel confident that we’re relying on accurate … Read Full Post

Online Marketing: How to Prevent Your Own Biases From Leading You Astray

Cardinal Path blog post

Not long ago, I wrote some posts on psychological biases. The crux: knowing your customers’ biases can help you create messages that truly resonate. But there’s an interesting flip side. Because as marketers, we’re equally biased. We tend to assume our customers will share our own feelings and beliefs. Biases such as False Consensus and … Read Full Post

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