Secrets of a Master:
Why This Headline Works

One of the oldest ideas about headlines is that they should be short – fewer than eight words. So let's take a look at some of the super-successful direct mail promotions published in AWAI's "Hall of Fame" to see how this theory holds up:

  • Trout Spoken Here. (Also Bass. Salmon. And Bonefish.)
  • What Never To Eat On An Airplane
  • Profit With The Insiders Without Breaking A Law
  • Read This Or Go Broke!
  • Burn Disease Out Of Your Body
  • A Rare Opportunity To Turn $5,000 Into $3.52 Million
  • Tax Saving Information Most IRS Agents Don't Have
  • Fearless Conversation!
  • The Lazy Man's Way To Riches
  • Endangered Antidotes
  • 11 Medical Breakthroughs That Will Rock The World
  • The Plague Of The Black Debt

When it's all said and done, 26 headlines in the "Hall of Fame" contain eight words or fewer.

[Editor's Note: If you don't have a copy of AWAI's new Hall of Fame book, "Great Selling Ideas from Super-Successful Direct Mail Letters and Direct Response Ads" but would like a copy, please contact us with "New Hall of Fame" in the subject field of your submission. They're only $49 for AWAI members and $79 for non- members.]

If you stroll through Carl Galletti's "2001 Greatest Headlines Ever Written," you'll find that about 60% of the headlines contain eight words or less.

Most tellingly for me, however, is this: Of the dozen or so direct-response promotions that worked well for my clients this year, the lion's share had short headlines:

  • Fed Up?
  • Unlock Wall Street's Secret Logic!
  • The Coming Oil War!
  • Not Just For Millionaires Any More
  • The Greatest Opportunity Of Our Times

So what can we conclude from all this? How about this? Although there are plenty of exceptions, it seems clear that when it comes to headlines brevity is a virtue.

What's so good about brevity? Let's start with the obvious. Short headlines are easy to scan. A headline of five or six words, printed boldly on top of a letter or across an envelope, cannot be missed. Its power to attract the eye is almost 100%.

Contrast that to a headline that is almost a paragraph long. It may very well "work" but only after a significant number of prospects have dumped it in the trash basket because they (a) recognized it as advertising and (b) made an instant decision that they didn't have 15 or 20 seconds to read it. That never happens to a short headline.

But getting your headline read doesn't guarantee success. Unless your headline says something that is compelling and implies a benefit, it will end up in the same trash basket – just a second or so later.

Great headlines – breakthrough headlines – are "tipping-point" phenomena. They encapsulate the cutting-edge thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that a given group of people feels about a specific thing.

When, for example, Lee Euler wrote his blockbuster headline for Strategic Investment, "The Plague Of The Black Debt," he correctly identified what was, at the time, a major investment anxiety. The black-plague metaphor was just the thing, it turned out, to quickly summarize a complex and powerful fear about U.S. debt and the financial markets.

[The above article, "Why This Headline Works," is from Michael Masterson's daily e-mail service, Early to Rise. For a FREE 2-week trial membership, simply visit Early to Rise]

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Published: November 25, 2002

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