How to Write an Effective Ad: Part 1, the Headline
Updated: Jul 30, 2019
Gary Witt, Ph.D. Marketing Psychology
Advertising is a way to "speak" to your buyers, to stimulate their Hot Button motivations, then promise to satisfy them with your product or service. Each day you are competing with thousands of other advertising messages for people's attention. Unless your customers wake up thinking, "I've got to buy a widget today," they probably will not seek out your message in the clutter. In fact, they'll probably try to ignore it, along with most of other ads.
The first step in any static ad (print, electronic, outdoor) is to figure out (a) what you want to tell customers, (b) what customers want to hear, and (c) an approach or theme for your ad. See other articles in this collection for more on those topics.
If you aren't skilled at creative advertising, you will probably be better served with a straightforward approach. Even this approach will demand creativity and a good deal of thought to select the best words, graphics and photos to get your ideas across.
After you have decided on your theme or approach, and what information will be included, begin by devising your headline. (Note, this is not the first thing a viewer will see, but it sets the whole direction of your ad, so we do it first.)
The role of the picture – the first thing your buyers will look at – is to STOP them by grabbing attention, then suggesting a value meaningful to them. If you want a long-term romantic relationship, then this ad will grab your attention. The picture leads their eyes to the headline, which reinforces the promise in the picture, just as this ad does.
Your headline should try to specifically stimulate some motivation (a strong need, want, fear, or desire) in the reader, then offer to satisfy it. Obviously the exact words will depend on your product. But here are some tips to help you decide how to select those words for your headline:
(1) Ask a question. Headlines in the form of questions make us think a bit about the subject. "Need money?" "Are Your Teeth Clean?" The reader's unspoken answer will often encourage him/her to seek more information in the text of your ad.
(2) Use the words "How To" in your headline. People love to learn how to do new things. We especially like to fix our social shortcomings. Dale Carnegie knew that when he titled his book, "How to Win Friends and Influence People." Another twist is to add a "fear" appeal: "How to Avoid Prostate Cancer." Stimulate a fear response -- then offer to make it go away.
(3) Make a promise. "Lose 10 Pounds in a Week!" These headlines stimulate a desire for information, available by reading the ad. Famed adman David Ogilvy said, "The headlines which work the best are those which promise the reader a benefit."
(4) Report some interesting news. Advertising research suggests that headlines containing news are remembered over 20% better than those without news. "Red is the Color of Summer." "Scientists Find Cause of Insomnia." Make your headline interesting to readers, and star your product. “Research Discovers Safest Tire.”
(5) Offer "Inside" information. People love to know secrets. Offering to let the reader in on a secret is a powerful lure. "Warren Buffett's Secret Stock Picking Rules." "How the Pros Buy A New Car." These headlines will pull an interested audience right into the body of your ad. Nearly every industry has some little-known information which could interest the right set of readers.
(6) Give a Test. People want to learn more about themselves and what they know. "Test Your Investing IQ." "Check your Danger Signs for Stroke." Offer a simple, short true/false or multiple choice quiz. People tend to like these ads because they are perceived to be of higher value. That is, readers believe they've gotten something of value -- information about themselves -- in exchange for the time they've given to your ad. Be sure to put your product's name and message in a prominent place. Otherwise, readers may take the test, appreciate the information, but never remember what company provided it.
(7) Use the word "You" or "Your." We want to read ads which are relevant to our personal needs and desires. "Your Financial Future Can be Rosy." Headlines which stimulate a fear by using this technique can also be powerful. "Your Tires May Threaten Your Life!" "Saving Your Job, Before It's Too Late."
Using "You" encourages readers to see themselves in that situation, enjoying that benefit, or facing that problem and needing some help. For example, "You Can Stop an IRS Audit -- Here's How" is a headline that will grab many people's attention.
These are only a few of many headline techniques you can use to grab your readers' attention. Use them to stimulate your advertising imagination. Be creative, but use common sense. Try to put yourself in your customer's place, reading the ad through his/her eyes. And always try out several of your ideas on other people before selecting one to go into print. You'll not only gain an outside perspective, but it could also save you some embarrassment.
Here's a final tip. The one word guaranteed to stop more readers in their tracks than any other is -- "Free!" You'll even read an ad that says "Free Poop!"