How To Write Effective Headlines Part 2 [Copywriting Mini Guides]

This week we’re looking at headlines, but not any old type of headlines, I’m talking about the meta level behind them (read Part 1 here).

To get to that, we need to start by asking a fundamental question: what is a headline? (you can find out more about the concepts of metaphysics and philosophy that drive great copywriting in my upcoming book – COPY, out in a couple of weeks – announcement soon).

Google describes a headline as a ‘heading at the top of a page’. Fine. So what’s a heading then? That is apparently a ‘title’. So what’s a title? Turns out that’s the name of something.

Copywriters don’t see it that way of course. To see a headline as simply the name of what follows is deemed (by the good and the great among us at least) to be about as boring as it’s possible to be.

Newspaper editors (that is: editors-in-chief, headline writers, and copy editors) have definite opinions on this (and when it comes to headline creation they’re the best in the business).

They see and understand the distinction between a so-called red-top newspaper and the serious press. Red-tops sell on scandal, attribution, and gossip, whereas the latter sell on facts (or used to back in the good old days).

Why does this distinction matter? Because they understand their audience. If the London Times ran this headline “Britain’s Fattest Woman Ate Fridge And Died” it would have to be April Fools’ Day (that headline first appeared in the Daily Star in 2014).

Headlines like that are what the red-tops crave of course. Their audiences love and expect it.

If you take the Internet Marketing Industry (IMI), no self-respecting IMI copywriter would ever dare submit a headline as boring as: “Canadian Book-Buying Habits Haven’t Changed Much in the Last Year” (from Forbes 2020) – they’d never get another IMI gig again.

But let’s take a different industry. Book publishing. We always judge a book by its cover (especially in air terminals). Book titles matter. A great title can sell a million.

Take “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”. It’s ranked #9347 on Amazon (Feb 2021). Compare that to the highly rated classic “Penguin Guide to Punctuation” which is ranked #55434. Eats, Shoots and Leaves has 10x the number of reviews and a 5x higher ranking, so it’s not surprising that the result is an exponential increase in its rate of sales.

Yet Eats, Shoots and Leaves came out 6 years after the Penguin guide. In other words, it wasn’t even first to market (and there have been a gazillion books going back centuries before either of those were even thought of).

The point is, there’s a lot more to headlines than most people have any idea about, and that matters because our credentials as copywriters depends on the cash we generate for our clients.

So how can we use this knowledge to our advantage? Click here for part 3.


headlines, meta

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