What Makes for a Great Headline?

There’s a lot of good advice available about how to write headlines. I’ve spilled some ink on the subject myself in past ETR messages, in AWAI’s copywriting course, and in our Mail Box Millionaire program. Sometimes, though, a great headline will defy any explanation. Take this one that I clipped from Gary North’s Reality Check e-zine: “Asian Bartenders in an American Tavern” This was actually the subject line of the issue. Talk about intriguing! How could you resist a teaser like that?

What’s interesting about it, from a classic advertising point of view, is what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t:

* promise the reader fame, fortune, weight loss, etc.

* make some sort of beneficial claim

* state a startling fact that has an implicit benefit

* make a profit-making prediction

So what does it do? Why is it so compelling? It creates an interesting picture — almost cinematically. The mind’s eye looks upon some sort of American gin mill, half-filled with people sitting at tables and around the bar. Behind the bar are two or three Asian men or women. Why are they all Asian? Why are they working at this ultra-American place?

You have no idea what you are going to discover as the movie in your head rolls out, but you are pretty sure it will be clever. You are about to be treated to some sort of masterful bit of storytelling — maybe by Quentin Tarantino or David Lynch. You don’t know where the plot is heading, but you’re pretty sure it will be interesting.

This is great writing and great writing often defies the rules.

Does that mean you should abandon the rules? Not on your life. Rules are there to help us rise from incompetence to competence and then to mastery. Until you are a master writer like Gary North, stick with the basics.

If you get as good as Gary, you can try convention-defying tricks. But even then, you can’t go wrong by sticking with the rules.

The primary purpose of any headline is to grab your reader’s attention. But that’s not all a headline should do. It should also . . .

* Select your reader as a target prospect by saying something meaningful to him. In other words, effective headlines have a positive and a negative effect. They attract your target reader and let the rest of the world know the message is not for them.

* Stir your reader’s curiosity.

It can also . . .

* Make a promise.

* Introduce a compelling idea.

* Make an offer.

* Challenge the reader.

Easier said than done. And that’s why I want to share a secret with you today — a secret we teach students in AWAI’s copywriting course that makes their headlines among the most successful in the world. We call it the secret of the “Four U’s.”

The Four U’s describe the four critical characteristics that every effective headline should have:

1. Urgency. The headline should give your reader a reason to desire the benefit sooner rather than later.

2. Usefulness. The headline should communicate something of value to your reader.

3. Uniqueness. The headline should suggest that what it’s offering is in some way different from everything else of its type. All claims should be uniquely associated with the product or service that you’re selling.

4. Ultra-Specificity. Vagueness should be avoided at all costs. Your reader must know what specific benefits are in store for him.

The secret of the Four U’s is deceptively simple. But if your headline has all four of them, you will hook your prospect’s interest, entice him with a benefit, establish your credibility, and urge him to read the rest of your sales pitch.

[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.]