The 5/40 Secret to Headline Success

Today, we’re going to take a break from hearing from our Bootcamp presenters. Instead, I’m going to give you my personal strategy for writing effective headlines.

This strategy is not for you only if you’re going to Bootcamp. It’s one you can use anytime to help bolster headline effectiveness. And if you are going to Bootcamp and the Job Fair, it’ll work great for Job Fair specs.

100 headlines? Really?

Many Circle of Success members have told me they’ve heard that they should write 100 headlines before picking the one that best suits their promo.

It’s true your headline accounts for about 20-25% of your letter’s success. And because of that, you should spend at least that amount of time developing your final headline. But actually sitting down and writing 100 potential ones is a daunting task. One I’m afraid discourages many copywriters from trying to write more than one.

The thinking goes something like this: “I know I should write 100 headlines. But I just don’t have the time. And I couldn’t think of that many anyway. Oh well. I’ll just do one and hope it’s good enough.”

Kind of a “headline burnout” before even getting started. So, to prevent headline burnout, here’s what I recommend.

Don’t worry about writing 100 headlines. Instead, start with 5 and work toward generating around 40 by the time you’re ready to submit your copy to a client. Here’s how I do it …

The 5 headline pre-write

I develop 5 to 10 headlines before I write any copy. Writing headlines before you write the copy really helps you focus on the Big Idea and core benefits. These are my “working headlines.”

Then, during the period of time I’m involved with the actual body copy (though not necessarily writing it), I come up with headlines without trying to think about them.

This is how most creative ideas come about. They pop up when you’re not looking directly for them. You just have to be ready for them when they arrive.

Typically, these thoughts come to me as I’m showering, starting to fall asleep, working on crossword puzzles, driving, or doing something not directly related to writing copy.

Pushing through the barrier

By the time the first draft of the body copy is finished, I’ll have around 20 possible headlines written out on lined yellow paper.

I handwrite all these ideas because that’s how my creative energies work best. You may be different. But if you’re 40 years old or older, your creativity is probably tied to the physical act of writing.

I take this list of potential headlines I developed while writing the body copy and number each one. When I get to the end, I add the next number at the end of the list. This signals my brain that I have to do more.

Then I start adding as many as I can in one sitting, always adding the next number at the end of the list. Again, a subconscious signal to keep going.

Some of my headlines may vary by no more than a preposition or some other "insignificant" word. But even though they might seem it, these words really are never insignificant.

During this process, I also include variations in formatting. For example, I might decide the deck copy (the sub-headline under the main headline) might work better as an “eyebrow” (the headline on top of the main headline, usually in a smaller font size). Or maybe it can be tweaked to be the main headline. Everything is up for grabs.

When I’m stuck — when my brain just cannot come up with one more new or variant idea — I leave the list. I work on another part of the promotion, perhaps strengthening sidebars or the like. Or go out to coffee. Or workout.

When my creativity has been recharged, I get back to my list of headlines.

Following this technique — and coming back several times after the well seems dry — I’m able to come up with at least 40 possible headlines. Often even more. The trick is to tell yourself you don’t have to get them all at once.

Once I have this list of 40-plus headline ideas, I let it rest for a while. After two or three days (more if I have that luxury), I go back and start pulling out the ones I like the best.

A springboard for headline ideas …

Where can you get your ideas for your first headlines?

When I’m researching the product, I highlight or write down key ideas and benefits. Benefits are the best place to derive headlines. When looking at benefits, be sure to go beyond the superficial ones. Delve into the deeper benefits that will truly impact your prospect’s life.

I also look at the USP (Unique Sales Proposition). What one, two, or three things about your product make it different from your competitors’ offering?

I'll also look at other promos for headline ideas — ideas, not words. These promos don't necessarily even have to be for the same product. Examine them to see how the copywriter structured the headline. How did he focus on benefits? What sort of Big Idea did he use?

Never feel like you’re writing in a vacuum. Other promos can be great stepping-stones for new headline ideas.

One final word of advice: Always carry a small notebook and pen with you to jot down ideas.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: August 20, 2012

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