If you’re browsing eyes scanned toute de suite down to this sentence to the heartbeat of “Oh-Yeah!”, then the first stage of the Anatomy of Body Copy – Arrest Attention – has been successfully accomplished.
The concept’s headline and visual is quite literally the be all and end all of a communication piece (which I will now refer to as the commpiece from now on). It’s the first, and perhaps only, impression you make on your target audience. Without a clear, concise and compelling promise that turns a browser of content into an engaged reader, the story ends before it begins. For content writers on and off-line, crafting compelling headlines is a critical skill.
Because there are many headline formulas, this article will come in three digestible parts, starting with perhaps the most talked about technique of all – How To … You can find thousands of articles on the life and death imperative of headlines in general and the “How To … in particular, which only goes to prove just how important headline making is. Apart from the fact that crafting a great headline focuses the mind like a session of shamata meditation (focussing on the breath), it is many other things as well. So before we look at the list of the tried, tested and true “headline formulas”, let’s take a short trip into the underlying significances of headline making. It’s necessary to understand why a particular headline works, because it prevents you choosing the wrong “headline formula” or misusing it the right one, which leads the most well-written headline down the gurgling “So-what! factor”.
When you’re writing and rewriting headlines toward the perfect articulation of propositional content that hits the “Yeah! factor”, you’re in the process of searching and finding what the story is really about. This act of writing the “what to say” (communication strategy) in “how to say it” (creative strategy) is the set up for story, meaning and value. All three must be evident in the headline (and visual). The headline kicks off with an interesting story; is meaningful (relevant) to the target audience; and must offer a beneficial promise (the “what’s in it for me?”).
On average, according to Copyblogger:
8 out of 10 people read headline copy. 2 out of 10 will read the rest. So the better your headline, the better your odds of beating the averages, and getting a larger percentage reading the rest of your copy.
The deal between you and your target audience is this: “I’ll give you my valuable time if you give me some valuable information”. So your headline’s job is to clearly communicate the benefit you’ll deliver to the reader in return for their valuable time. If the promise you make hits the “yeah! factor”, your reader will naturally desire to read the body copy for the fulfillment of that promise.
For this deal to work, you need to prove your empathy with the target audience. You can’t fake it, and SEO makes sure of that. Popular keywords isn’t going to cut it. You’ve got to target the niche phrases, which are much more specific to the particular group your communicating to. This is perfect for writing headlines for humans. Specificity makes for a much better headline. According to the real pros in third tribe content marketing like my colleagues at Copyblogger, “Google and the other search engines really do want to reflect what’s important to people … Speak the language of your target audience and you attract more readers, more links, more retweets, more social bookmarks, and more relevant search traffic”.
Okay so now, how to write “how to” headlines.
It might sound easy but you have to keep in mind that it’s what comes after those two magical words that influence the amount of attention and readership your writing gets. There’s a virtually no limit to the number of ways you can use this formula.
How To Formula #1:
How to + benefit / story
This formula is deceptively simply. Just add benefit/story. But the addition requires propositional content that hits you right where you live. Which means you’ve got to know your target audience like they were your next of kin.
How to beat the Army Officer Selection Board. (Army Officer Selection Board)
How to insure your life without a medical if you’re over 50. (Golden Years Plan)
How to calculate the date of your own death (Albany Life Insurance)
In the next example, it’s just add story:
How to kill a baby (Woman’s Day story on baby seals hunting in Canada and Japan)
How To Formula #2:
How to + benefit 1 (that) benefit 2
How to write a highest-ranking blog post in five minutes.
Who could resist a headline like that (not me, that’s for sure).
How to learn writing quality content that turbo-charges your career.
That’s pretty compelling to my particular target audience (you) when having to choose which professional development course to commit your time and money too.
From a credibility-wise, this structure is especially useful when benefit one (highest ranking; quality content) and benefit two (five minutes; turbo-charge) are actually related. The most famous of all would have to be Dale Carnegie’s
How to win friends and influence people.
That headline would have to appeal to every single one of Hugh MacKay’s Ten Desires That Drive Us (see my post: What Are The Hopes, Fears and Desires of Your Target Audience?)
Here are few quickies to show it’s versatility and power:
How to Save Time and Get Things Done (Time Management Coach)
How to Get a Better Job and Make More Money (Recruiter)
How to Save Money and Retire Rich (Financial Planner)
The dual benefit “how to” structure will always work if you logically link the two benefits together and, it should go without saying, deliver relevant and substantive content in your body copy.
Another variation on the How To formula is linking a mundane task to a rewarding benefit:
How To Formula #3:
How to (Mundane Task) transitional word (Rewarding Benefit)
How to reduce your income by half
This formula takes a normal “how to” title and make it better by using a transitional – “by”, “that”, “into” ¬– followed by the primary benefit (being as specific as possible).
How to turn the room in your head into a room in your home
How to have $50 extra in your pocket today
How to be taken seriously and get that promotion
How to write a tweet that attracts thousands of followers
How To Formula #4:
How – (To) + (Unique Subject) + (Rewarding Benefit)
How I Improved My Memory in One Evening
Leave out the “To” and you increase the curiosity factor of your headline one more notch, while guaranteeing that you nail the primary benefit of your commpiece:
How I saved hundreds on my heating bill
How the science of Biomimicry can eliminate megacity pollution
How Copywriting in Action became one of the most popular courses at RMIT University
How you can stay at home and learn to become an accomplished writer in eight weeks
The “How To …” formula variations date back to the 50’s and are still going strong today, especially in the blogosphere where it is very popular. So popular and well-worn in fact, that you can run the risk of sounding predictable and insincere if you take the “How To …” formula too much for granted. Rule # 253 is “when everybody zigs, you zag”. So in Part 2 of this 3 part series of articles, we will look at some other tried and true formulas before moving on to the high-end of headline writing.
But for now, I’d like to finish on a quote by Georgie Fame, “I say yeah yeah, that’s what I say, I say yeah yeah.”