Why “Grabbing Attention” Is Not Enough for a Truly Powerful Headline

Ask 100 copywriters the purpose of a headline, and 98 of them would tell you: “To grab the reader’s attention.”

And they’d be wrong.

Not totally wrong, but wrong enough that these copywriters will never be consistently great. They may get a hit now and again, but they will never reach the ranks of true Master Copywriters.

The problem here is that most copywriters stop at this very restricted view of headlines and never get beyond it. A great headline has to do far more than simply grab attention. Compare these two real headlines I got in my mailbox recently:

Headline #1:

Hot, Throbbing Sex Instantly!

You can have your pick of any woman you want once you know the secret to … [headline continues]

Headline #2:

10-Cent Tummy Tuck
puts plastic surgeons out of work!

Proven “Missing link molecule” trims off masses of deadly belly fat as precisely as cosmetic surgery …

The first headline certainly grabs attention. But then so does a drunk yelling in a nice restaurant.

And while it may grab the attention of some men, it will probably lose far more, because the copywriter did not understand any headline’s most important purpose.

Headline #2 is nowhere near as bold as Headline #1. But it does its job far better. Can you see yourself wanting to read more of this promotion? Even if you’re as skinny as can be, this headline piques curiosity.

So, why does Headline #2 work? It uses …

Four Interlocking Pieces of the Great Headline Puzzle

An effective headline must fulfill four purposes that work together. No one of these purposes is so much more important than any of the others that it will carry a headline. They all must be there … or your headline structure will collapse.

Puzzle Piece #1:
A powerful headline begins to develop a relationship with your prospect.

Michael Masterson emphasizes that the headline – or the envelope copy, which is a specialized type of headline – is the first place where you get to talk to your prospect. Not yell at him like in Headline #1, but talk to him, as a real person, as someone who deserves your respect.

It is the first place where you get to establish a relationship that will carry him through the entire promotion.

The need to establish a real, mutually respectful relationship with your prospect is the driving force behind the first law of master copywriting: “Know Your Prospect.” The need to establish this relationship is why master copywriter Mark Everett Johnson takes so much time finding real benefits before he writes any copy, let alone his headline.

Does Headline #1 try to establish a relationship? At best a superficial one that assumes the only thing men want from a relationship with a woman is sexual gratification.

Compare that superficiality to this classic Johnson Box (an extended headline) on a promotion that mailed for 25 years:

You look out your window, past your gardener, who is busy pruning the lemon, cherry, and fig trees … amidst the splendor of gardenias, hibiscus, and hollyhocks.

The sky is clear blue. The sea is a deeper blue, sparkling with sunlight.

A gentle breeze comes drifting in from the ocean, clean and refreshing, as your maid brings you breakfast in bed.

For a moment, you think you have died and gone to heaven.

But this paradise is real. And affordable. In fact, it costs only half as much to live this dream lifestyle … as it would to stay in your own home!

This headline says something about both the copywriter and the prospect. Both of you are lovers of the finer things in life. And because of that, you, as the prospect, immediately feel an affinity with the copywriter. He understands what you want in life.

Because he understands you, you’ll be more willing to continue following what else he says to you.

Bill Bonner took 99 words in this classic International Living promotion headline to begin establishing that relationship. But it can be done in shorter headline copy as well. Here is a headline for a fundraising letter for Covenant House written by Kimberly Seville:

I am praying that you will be able to help me today. The kids really need you.
– Sister Patricia A. Cruise, SC

This headline (written in Sister Cruise’s handwriting) does not have much “shock” value, but it headed a very successful fundraising letter. Its tone really grabs … not just the attention of the donor, but the heartstrings as well.

Bill Bonner and Kimberly Seville’s headlines demonstrate the crucial importance of relationship-building in the headline. These headlines show that a great headline does not have to rely on “shock” value to work.

But great headlines also have an additional quality that makes them so effective …

Puzzle Piece #2:
A powerful headline delivers a complete message.

Be careful with this one. It’s tempting to think this quality of a great headline means you should “tell it all.” Quite the contrary. A successful headline follows Michael Masterson’s “Rule of One.”

A successful headline has one big, core idea. And only one. Even if your product has many benefits, many modes of action, you should concentrate on the single most important one in your headline.

But in focusing on that one idea, give a complete message – a message that stands on its own. Bill Bonner’s International Living headline expresses the one, core big idea that there are affordable paradises on earth still available.

Kimberly Seville’s core idea is “we need you.” And there is urgency in her 17 words that give a complete message to the donor.

The complete message in Headline #2 (above) is there is a molecule that has been proven to trim abdominal fat as precisely as cosmetic surgery.

However, as you can see in these examples – and in other successful headlines – the complete message does not give the complete story. It hints at it, but does not give it all away.

This brings us to …

Puzzle Piece #3:
A powerful headline compels your prospect to read more.

This is an obvious piece of the headline puzzle with a not so obvious strategy for accomplishing it. If your headline does not compel your prospect into reading more, it has failed.

How to do this? By tapping into his self-interest. Know your prospect … really, really know him … and know the huge number of benefits your product brings into his life.

The coming together of these two parts of your early research will reveal the all-important “What’s in it for me?” factor that will drive your prospect into the package.

Now don’t for a moment think that looking for this key self-interest angle is cynical. Hardly.

A huge amount of self-interest drives all fundraising packages, and Kimberly Seville’s is no exception. What does the prospect get by reading? Where’s the self-interest?

The prospect wants and needs to help people. It’s one of his deepest needs. Kimberly Seville’s 17 words give the reader a path to finding fulfillment of that need. All he has to do is read some more to find out how.

Puzzle Piece #4:
A powerful headline grabs your prospect’s attention.

If your headline is flabby and not gripping, it would be better not to have it at all. This seems obvious. But there is more to simply grabbing attention as we’ve already seen. Finding the right way to grab that attention makes all the difference between a powerful and a mediocre headline.

So how do you grab your prospect’s attention? Tell him something he is aching to know. Tell him something that truly touches his core emotions. Give him an inkling of something that will make him richer, stronger, healthier. Reveal something that hints at easing his fears, that helps him sleep better at night, that makes his days pass more brightly.

I recently sat in on an interview with master copywriter Mark Everett Johnson, who has among his other successes, a promo that is still mailing after 13 years. Jen Stevens asked him specifically about his secrets for writing headlines. His starting point is to delve into the prospect (one, single person). He then develops an overwhelming list of real benefits – a hundred or more – the product delivers to that prospect.

This is where Mark finds a compelling idea that will grab the prospect’s attention in his headline.

Are these four puzzle pieces all there is to writing powerful, successful headlines like the masters write? Of course not. But these four qualities are the core structure upon which you can build your own powerful headlines.

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Average: 4.8
Published: August 25, 2008

10 Responses to “Why “Grabbing Attention” Is Not Enough for a Truly Powerful Headline”

  1. Very fine tip to treat the prospect with respect and understanding initially.

    M M Wagner

  2. So far it's making sense. The Headline is an important part of the copywritting formula. Much like the receptionist at a large corporation. She is the first person generally contacted and will leave an impression on the client (prospect) and we certainly want that impression to be positive. That's just good business.

    Rick B-Nor-Cal

  3. Thank you for expounding on each of the ingredients of a Pro Headline. It stirs the creativity in me that I thought had left.

    Mr Find

  4. I like how this program is breaking up each element and then really detailing what each element needs. Very helpful!


  5. Thank you for this very visual article. It allows you to see how the mind of great copywriter's work. The details of what it takes to develope great headlines, etc. . .

    Marcellus Greene

  6. Wonderful insight into a baffling question: what makes a great headline. You know it when you see it, but how did they get there? Aha, the receptionist metaphor is also useful.


  7. I agree with all previous comments. I was struggling with "how do I decide which direction to take the headline?" This article was exactly what I needed. Thanks so much!

    Carla A

  8. The article is so compelling...it injects freshness to the headline writing...that is much need of the winning promotion.

    Thank You So Much!


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