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How to Write Attention-Grabbing HeadlinesWherever you turn – be it the Web, magazines, television, or your inbox – there are just too many things competing for your attention. It’s no different for your prospective clients.

Consequently, your marketing messages must do something special to grab your prospective client’s attention or they will go unnoticed.

Direct-mail advertisers know that a sales letter has only five seconds in which to gain a reader’s attention. If a reader finds nothing of interest after five seconds of scanning the letter, she will toss the letter in the trash. And direct mail is what’s known as a relatively contained selling environment. When someone opens a sales letter in the mail, there’s less competing for their immediate attention than when watching television or surfing the Web (where another channel or website is a millisecond’s click away) or reading a magazine where dozens of articles and scores of other advertisements are immediately competing with yours.

In most media, you really have only 2-3 seconds to grab your prospective client’s attention and make them want to read, watch, or learn more.

In advertising and marketing, getting your prospective client’s attention is the job of your headline.

So the primary job of any headline you write – whether it’s for a page on your website, an article, an online advertisement, a postcard mailing, or anything else – is simply to grab your prospect’s attention and get them to keep reading, watching, or whatever it is you want them to do. That’s it!

Your headlines are not the place to tell your prospective clients about how therapy works or about you or your practice (unless, of course, you can do so in an incredibly compelling manner). And your headline definitely needs to say more than “Welcome,” or “Anxiety Counseling,” as is done on so many therapists’ websites and online advertisements.

Your First Impression

I’m sure your familiar with the phrase, “You only have one chance to make a first impression.” You need to make yours count!

In all forms of marketing, the “first impression” – the first thing your prospective client or referral source sees, reads, or hears – can mean the difference between success and failure. If the first impression is boring or irrelevant, your message will not attract your prospect. If it offers news or helpful information or promises a reward for reading, the first impression will win your prospect’s attention. And this is the first step in persuading your prospect to take action (be it subscribe to a newsletter, call for more information, schedule an appointment, or purchase a product or service).

What, specifically, is this “first impression”?

  • For a print advertisement, it’s the headline and the visual.
  • For a brochure, it’s the cover.
  • For a radio or TV commercial, it’s the first few seconds of the commercial.
  • For a presentation, it’s the first few slides.
  • For a website, it’s the top of any given page of the site.
  • For an e-mail message, it’s the “From” line and the “Subject” line
  • And so on…

No matter how wonderful the product or service you’re offering is, now matter how great the rest of your marketing message, you won’t be able to get your prospect to take action if you can’t attract their attention.

An attention-getting headline is the key ingredient for a successful marketing message.

Advertising legend David Ogilvy had the following to say about headlines:

“On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy [for an ad]. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar… If you haven’t done some selling in your headline, you have wasted 80 percent of your money.”

The Power of a Headline

When your prospective clients are browsing the Web, scanning ads, or skimming through magazines, consciously or subconsciously they are asking themselves, “What’s in it for me?”

An effective headline tells your prospect: “Hey, stop a minute! This is something that you’ll want!” But, getting your prospective client’s attention is just one function of a headline – albeit the most important one.

Your headlines can actually perform four different tasks:

  1. Get attention
  2. Select the audience
  3. Deliver a complete message
  4. Draw the reader into your message

Let’s take a quick look at each…

1. Getting Attention

As we’ve said, the best way for a headline to grab a reader’s attention is by appealing to his or her self-interest. Think of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” This headline (and the title of his book by the same name) promises you’ll make friends and be able to persuade others if you read it. The benefit is almost irresistible. Who but a hermit doesn’t want more friends?

For another example, there’s an ad for Kraft Foods that reads, “How to Eat Well for Nickels and Dimes.” If you’re interested in good nutrition but are on a fixed budget, this headline speaks directly to your needs.

Another effective, attention-getting gambit is to give the reader news. Headlines that give news often use words such as “new,” “discover,” “introducing,” “announcing,” “now,” and “at last.’ For example:

Discover the New Therapy Technique that Can Help You
Overcome Anxiety in Less than Eight Weeks

Other powerful, attention-grabbing words include “how to,” “why,” “sale,” “quick,” “easy,” “last chance,” “guarantee,” “results,” “proven,” “save,” and “free.”

Do not avoid these words because others use them with such frequency. These words are used so commonly in ads because they work. You need to evaluate the performance of your marketing based on its effectiveness, not its originality.

Now, to be clear, none of this is to suggest you write an attention-grabbing greeting for attention-getting’s sake. Doing so may attract a lot of attention, but it won’t lead to many new clients. And none of this is to suggest you exaggerate claims to the point of dishonesty!

When you write a headline, get attention by picking out an important client benefit and presenting it in a clear, bold, dramatic fashion.

2. Selecting the Audience

If you’re offering counseling services to parents of young children, there’s no point in writing a marketing message that generates inquiries from seniors. Similarly, if you charge upwards of $200 per hour and don’t accept insurance, you don’t want to waste time answering inquiries from people who cannot afford your services.

Your headlines can select the right audience for your message and screen out those who are not your ideal clients.

For example, your headline could read “Fast, Effective Counseling Services for Busy Parents of Young Children” or “If You Have to Ask How Much Your Happiness Will Cost, These Solutions Aren’t for You.”

3. Delivering a Complete Message

If David Ogilvy is correct in his contention that four out of five people read only headlines and skip the rest of an ad, it would be wise to state a complete message in your headline. For example, if you’re offering peak performance training to business executives:

Peak Performance Associates Can Help You
Turn Every Opportunity into a “Million-Dollar Moment”

Or, if you’re offering couples counseling services to partners who’ve experienced an affair:

If You Act Quickly, XYZ Counseling Can Help You
Turn Infidelity into a Win/Win for Your Marriage

Many headlines don’t include the name of the product, service, or brand. But, if you suspect most of your prospects won’t bother reading the rest of the ad, it only makes sense to include it.

4. Drawing the Reader into Your Message

Unlike food, alcohol, and fashion, effectively marketing counseling and psychotherapy services requires prospective clients be given a fair amount of information. That information appears in the body of your marketing message. And, for your marketing to be effective, your headlines must compel your reader to read the body of your message.

To draw a reader in, you must arouse his or her curiosity.

This can be done using humor, intrigue, by asking a question, making a provocative statement, or by promising a reward, news, or helpful information. For example:

What Do Happy Couples Have that Your Relationship Lacks?

or …

If You’re Confused about What to Look for in a Professional Counselor or Therapist, Here’s Some Help

Eight Types of Headlines

If you’re like me and consider yourself to be a creative person, it’s only natural to want to avoid formulas and strive for originality.

While effective marketing requires you to stand out from the crowd and make your services appear unique, there are certain marketing “formulas” and “rules” that have been proven to work countless times over decades and decades.

Remember, marketing is part art and part science. As such, successful marketing requires that you take what’s been proven to work time and time again and apply it to your product or service in a way that is unique, compelling, memorable, and persuasive.

As I said, you need to be evaluating the performance of your marketing based on its effectiveness, not its originality. And you have to know the rules before you can break them!

Here, then, are eight, time-tested headline categories that have helped sell billions of dollars’ worth of products and services in countless industries. Study them. Use them. Then, and only then, try creating breakthroughs of your own.

  1. Direct Headlines – Direct headlines state your marketing message directly, without any wordplay, hidden meanings, or puns. “Support Groups for Adolescent Girls – 30 Percent Discount if You Register Before the End of the Month” is a headline that’s about as direct as you can get.
  2. Indirect Headlines – Indirect headlines make their point in a roundabout way. They arouse curiosity, and the questions they raise are answered in the body of your marketing message. For example, “2,000 Years of Successful Stress Relief!” If a prospective client who’s having difficulty coping with and managing stress reads this headline, they’ll likely wonder what this is all about and read more to find out. Only by reading more do they find out that the 2,000 years in this case refers to an ancient Chinese technique that’s been helping people overcome stress for the past two millennia. On a more humorous note might be a headline like: “When Your Relationship Has So Many Issues, You Need a Subscription.” Then, in the body copy you could list all of the benefits of your relationship self-help newsletter subscription service.
  3. News Headlines – If you have news about your product or service, or your product or service is new, announce it in the headline. Everyone likes to learn something new. This fact is even ingrained in our speech when we ask someone “What’s new?” Have you ever asked someone “What’s old?” Examples of news headlines can include: “New Therapy Makes Anti-Depressants Obsolete,” “The Biggest Discovery in Anxiety Treatment this Decade,” or “2,000-Year-Old Chinese Technique Gets New Life as Depression Cure.”
  4. How-to Headlines – The words “how to” are pure magic in advertising and marketing headlines, magazine articles, and book titles. There are more than 7,000 books in print with “how to” in their titles. There’s a reason this is so. In fact, many marketing writers claim if you begin with “How to…” you can’t write a bad headline. They may be right. How-to headlines offer the promise of solid information, sound advice, and solutions to problems: “How to Overcome Anxiety and Stress,” “How to Create the Relationships You Desire,” “How to Stop Bingeing in 30 Days or Less, Guaranteed.” Whenever I’m stuck for a headline, I type “How to” on the page, and what follows those words is always a decent, hardworking headline. At least one that’s good enough to use until something better comes along.
  5. Question Headlines – To be effective, a question headline must ask a question your prospective client can empathize with or would like to see answered. For example, “What in the World Is Wrong with Me?” or “Is Your Depression Costing You More than You Know?” Equally effective is to ask prospective clients questions that get them to say, “Yes!” as they start reading the body of your marketing message: “Are You Struggling to Get Through Each Day?”, “Do You Want to Create the Relationships and Life You Desire?”, “Would You Like to Overcome Anxiety and Stress Once and For All?” The important thing to remember about question headlines is that they should always focus on your prospective client’s self-interest, curiosity, and needs, and not on yours. A typical self-serving headline I see used all too often is “Do You Know What’s New at Company XYZ?” The reader’s response to such a question is invariably “Who cares?” That’s the last response you want to any question you ask a prospective client!
  6. Command Headlines – Command headlines generate action by telling your prospective clients what to do: “Start Creating the Life You Desire, Today!”, “Stop Worrying about Your Anxiety,” “Get the Help You Need,” “Aim High and Reach for Your Dreams.” Note that the first word in a command headline is a strong verb demanding action on the part of the reader.
  7. Reason-Why Headlines – One easy way to write a marketing message is to list the features and benefits of the product or service you’re offering in a 1-2-3 manner. If you write your marketing message this way, you can use a reason-why headline to introduce the list. For example, “Seven Reasons Why You Should Seek Marriage Counseling” or “Three Reasons Why You Need Some Psychotherapy, Even If You’re Taking Anti-Depressants.” Reason-why headlines need NOT contain the phrase “reason why.” Other introductory phrases can do just as well: “Six Ways to Have a Healthier Relationship,” “Seven Steps to Overcome a Past Trauma,” or “Here are Five Things that Can Help You Child.”
  8. Testimonial Headlines – With a testimonial, your clients are doing your marketing for you. Testimonials work because they offer proof that a business satisfies its clients. For example, “I Thought My Marriage Was Over, Now It’s Better Than Ever” or “Getting Up in the Morning Has Never Felt So Good!” With testimonial headlines and body copy, use quotation marks to signal the reader that the headline and body is a testimonial. And use your client’s own words as much as possible. Don’t polish statements, as a natural, conversational tone adds believability to the testimonial.

While some writers spend the majority of their time coming up with dozens of headlines before writing one word for the body of a marketing message, others write the body copy first and extract the headline from it. There is no right or wrong way. You’ll have to experiment and see what method works for you.

However, before you start writing any headline, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Who is my prospective client?
  2. What are the important features and benefits of my product or service?
  3. Why will the prospective client want to purchase my product or service? (What feature and benefit is most important to him or her?)

Once you know the answer to question number three, you know the key selling proposition you should feature in your headline. Then it’s simply a matter of stating that benefit in a clear, compelling, interesting way that will make the prospect take notice and want to know more.

Always remember, the real purpose of your headlines and your marketing messages is to communicate ideas and information about your products or services to your prospective clients. While it helps to do so in an attention-getting manner, getting your prospect’s attention is not the end goal in and of itself.

Your headline and getting your prospect’s attention are just the beginning of creating effective, powerful, and compelling marketing messages.

That being said, without an attention-grabbing headline, it doesn’t matter how good your product, service, or marketing message is if it, and you, never get noticed. An effective, attention-grabbing headline can not only help make sure you get noticed but also go a long way towards getting your prospective client to take action.

Don’t forget to let us know your questions and comments below. And let us know what headlines are working for you!

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