Spend More Time On Headlines And Less On Everything Else

“Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”Thomas Edison

David Ogilvy, one of the legends of modern advertising, was a big believer in headlines. He understood that nailing the head is the secret to making the whole ad work.

Ogilvy practiced what he preached. Of his many successful headlines, the best known (“At 60 mph, the only thing you hear in the new Rolls Royce is the ticking of the dashboard clock …”) took 104 drafts to write.

Gene Schwartz, another legendary copywriter, once told me that he sometimes spent a full week on his first 50 words: the headline and the first paragraph of copy.

Most of the best-known promotions in modern copywriting history are recognizable by their headlines. You may have seen or heard of these prizewinners:

  • “Trout Spoken Here.” (Fly Fisherman)
  • “The Officers and Board of Trustees Cordially Invite You to Enjoy the Benefits of MEMBERSHIP in the National Geographic Society”
  • “What never – ever to eat on an airplane!” (Bottom Line Personal)
  • “A Rare Opportunity to Turn $5,000 into $3.52 Million” (Senmontier Strategy) 
  • “How many of these common gardening mistakes are causing you to work harder than you really have to?” (Rodale Press)

I’ve said that the headline and what immediately follows it (the lead) constitute 80% of the direct-response game. This concept is integral to the American Writers & Artists Institute (AWAI) approach to teaching copywriting. In fact, one full lesson of their course is devoted to writing headlines and another one is devoted to the lead.

In a recent edition of his e-letter, “Copywriter’s Roundtable,” editor and copywriter John Forde collected the following comments on this subject from Hall of Fame copywriters:

Victor Schwab — the adman who came up with the best-selling phrase “How to Win Friends and Influence People” — said it well: “Some of the most tremendous flops among advertisements contain body matter filled with convincing copy. But it just wasn¹t capsulated into a good headline. And so the excellent copy didn¹t even get a reading.”

John Caples — the legend behind “They laughed when I sat down to play the piano …” — may have said it even better: “I spend hours on headlines — days if necessary. And when I get a good headline, I know that my task is nearly finished. Writing the copy can usually be done in a short time, if necessary. And that advertisement will be a good one ­- that is, if the headline is really a ‘stopper.'”

As Forde says, “If it’s worth that much time to get a headline right when you’re David Ogilvy, it’s worth that much time to you.”

I’m bringing this up today because I’m willing to bet the last headline you wrote or approved is not as good as it could be. It’s so easy to settle for good when writing headlines. But with some extra time and some good hard brainstorming, you can change good to great. And great can double your response rates.

So go back and review the last six headlines your business put out to the market. Ask yourself if they could have been better. Find out how much effort was put into creating them. Get copies of all 104 drafts!

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]